Back in the 1980s, the BMW 3 Series was the car of choice for up-and-coming types in the City. A 325i was as de rigueur as red braces and a Filofax; if your trades hadn’t quite earned you the hot six-cylinder one, you could have a 316i and take the badges off (a trick so popular, BMW has long offered it as an official factory option).
Today, the BMW 3 Series is everywhere. It sells more each year than the Ford Mondeo, which means it’s even more ubiquitous in the City. Still, it’s remained an appealing prospect all these years because it somehow retains an air of exclusivity.
To make sure sales are healthy, BMW has just booked the 3 Series in for a facelift three years after the launch of the current model (and neatly timed to coincide with company car replacement cycles). There are changes but, boy, are they subtle. Chances are, you’ll struggle to tell the difference, and, like me, will need a BMW salesman to point out the tweaked grille, new headlights and front bumper and smoother rear lights.
You will notice how much posher it is inside, though. Pre-facelift, the 3 Series’ interiors jarred; its plasticky look and sub-par detailing dented the premium experience. It wasn’t right, so BMW’s responded with higher quality materials that just make it feel more special. Chrome bits on the electric window switches make a big difference, you know.
Of course, we’re a lot more sensible now than we were in the 80s. The car everyone wants isn’t the 325i, but the 320d. When you’re taxed on CO2 emissions, you want them as low as possible and the CO2 star of the 3 Series range is the 320d EfficientDynamics. This version used to be a bit hairshirt, with limitations on things Brit buyers like such as big alloy wheels and sport kit stuff.
Thankfully, BMW’s facelift has fixed that: just as you could get an old 325i with a sport kit, you can now get a 320d ED Sport. This has 17-inch alloys, a sport steering wheel and heated leather seats – and you can now upgrade to 18-inch or 19-inch wheels, which will delight the sort of people who debadge their cars. It’s halfway to an M3, you know.
I tried it out on a long drive, mimicking someone who works in central London but can’t afford to live there (so that’s most of us). Only my commute was a bit longer than your average as it was all the way from Bilbao, Spain. Would I be sick of it by the end of the journey, longing for the end of CO2-based legislation so we could afford to get back into the fizzy turbo petrol engines BMW also sells?
Well, sorry, diesel-haters, but no. It was as impressive after 1,200 miles as it was back in sleepy Bilbao when I was first impressed by the engine’s smoothness, the optional eight-speed auto’s seamlessness and the drivetrain’s punch.
It might officially do over 70mpg, but this 2.0-litre diesel also produces 163hp. That’s good for 0-62mph in 7.9 seconds. That fabled 325i? 170hp, 0-62mph in 7.5 seconds. And you’d be lucky to get a third of the fuel mileage officially claimed by the 320d ED. How’s that for progress?
This 320d also handles wonderfully – even more so in Sport mode. After hearing customers’ grumbles, BMW’s tuned it to be more dynamic than before (but, cleverly, without ruining the ride). If you like driving, then driving Sport remains a key reason for choosing this model over almost anything else in its class; only the Jaguar XE challenges its supremacy here.
In the 80s, the 3 Series appealed because its image was edgy and a bit wide boy. Today, it’s the epitome of corporate compliance and, in a world that’s all about personal brand management, will make you feel good about yourself without moving others to hate you. It’s a city perk you can enjoy without sticking two fingers up at the world.
Just as London has matured since Big Bang so, too, has the 3 Series that the LSE’s October 1986 revolution first popularised. It may have moved from bull to bear in that time, but there are still few safer investments in the city.
BMW 320D ED SPORT: THE FACTS
0-62 MPH SPEED: 7.9 secs
CO2 G/KM: 140 mph
MPG COMBINED: 70.6 mpg