Currently reading: The best car in the (real) world
The new BMW 320d scored five stars in our road test. How does it compare to other real-world heroes?

So the new BMW 3-series (specifically, the 320d Sport) is the Autocar road testers’ idea of a five-star car.

Five stars is a very big deal around here. It’s the highest accolade our we-drive-everything testers can bestow on a car, and they are extremely careful not to spray it about. The last five-star verdict went to the Ferrari 458 Italia in 2010. Which suggests a comparison featuring the new BMW 320d Sport and three similarly priced rivals might be a bit of an anti-climax. How can a car with a near-perfect score fail to administer a brisk coup de grâce to anything else at the price?

Well, easily, we believe. It’s a matter of priorities and emphases. The 320d may be the best and most economical diesel sports saloon going, but who’s to say the £30,000 buyer might not turn up a faster, roomier, better-equipped proposition that’s more appealing on the eye and better value for money? No reason at all, we reckon. So as a means of showing just how diverse is the selection available to the buyer of practical cars with £30,000 to spend we assembled some proven favourites to give the 320d Sport the toughest possible test.

Image meets reality

Premium cars are always vulnerable on price, because a hefty component of the bottom line is ‘image’, a mixture of heritage, reputation and expectation – not metal, rubber and glass. So how could we give the BMW a hard time on that score?

How about matching it with a top-end, £25,000 Volkswagen Golf GTD? It’s a more mainstream car, with a near-identical power-to-weight ratio, whose quality standards are just as good. Its £5000 lower price would also theoretically allow its buyer to invest in extra kit. Its 40cm shorter overall length should give it an agility advantage, too.

For those with a serious metal-for-the-money fetish, we added another mainstreamer of proven ability and character: the Skoda Superb 2.0 TDI Elegance estate. It costs £26,015 before gadgets, because big Skodas are even less ‘premium’ than VWs, they include much more hardware. Our Superb has a paddle-shift gearbox – plus the highest-output 168bhp diesel and an elegant suite of leather upholstery, colour touchscreen sat-nav, tyre pressure monitors and glass roof. Despite being 20cm longer than the 3-series and 40cm longer than the Golf, it weighs less than 10kg more than the 320d, so its performance figures (137mph flat out, 8.9sec for the 0-60mph) aren’t far behind the rest of the cars tested here.

One of the most sought-after cars of the moment, a new Range Rover Evoque, is here because it’s good competition for the BMW on the grounds of desirability. Its eye-popping styling and high seating make it completely different from a four-door saloon. Our budget allowed us a £27,955 two-wheel-drive eD4 Pure version, with the lower-power 148bhp, 2.2-litre diesel as standard and a five-speed gearbox. Still, this much-praised machine would surely rival the 3-series for luxury, impact, eye appeal and desirability.

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Last, for those seeking a bit more car at the BMW’s premium – and taking account that the 3-series has grown by a surprising 93mm – we added a Mercedes E-class, specifically a E220 CDI BlueEfficiency SE auto, a car of equal power to the BMW. At £32,515, it doesn’t quite conform to our sub-£30k criteria, but could do if you opted for a lower-power 134bhp E200 model, or denied yourself the excellent seven-speed auto, or opted for a standard SE, or any combination of these. Then you’d have a vastly roomy, quality-built limo with a reputation (arguably) even ahead of BMW’s.

We departed London on a crisp and sunny winter morning, heading for one of our favourite haunts on the Marlborough Downs. Here was the world’s best rear-drive, four-door sports saloon matched against a compact limo, a top-class diesel hatchback, a vast but capable estate and a star-car SUV, all of them around £30,000. From my initial vantage point in the 320d I had absolutely no idea how things were going pan out by the time we’d done 80 miles on motorways, grappled with rutted and pock-marked B-roads, forged country lanes barely a car’s width wide, attacked a selection of corners and brought it back home by dawdling through town.

Behind the wheel

One thing I quickly learned was that I’d developed a dislike for the BMW’s fascia – the bit of a car you spend most time looking at. Apart from lacking brightwork in favour of dull, foil-like accents, the BMW is hamstrung by a simplified iDrive system that, good idea that it is, doesn’t deliver ease of use. Chuck in a lack of logic to its architecture and you get a car whose most important cabin components (excellent sports seats aside) are poor.

The Mercedes also has some quixotic controls, not least its traditional single column stalk for all major functions. Its better use of brightwork, more logical dash and sharp styling give it an advantage over the BMW at £30,000. The drawback is an old-mannish quality Mercedes has always fought. The Skoda’s interior and cabin design is best described as ‘honest’. It sets no new standards and impresses no critics, but it is simple to understand and works very well.

The big winner here is the Evoque. Its combination of high seating, excellent visibility, high and wide centre console and intuitive instrument layout makes you wonder why others find designing such things so hard. For all its emphasis on front comfort and fascia design, the Evoque is quite roomy in the rear.

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We pause for a moment to evaluate exterior styling, a near-impossible task with such a motley bunch. The Golf, nice though it is, is merely a Golf. The Superb is one of those laudable cars you rarely notice. The Benz is well dressed, but its size makes it stodgy. So the eye appeal contest is between the low-and-potent 3-series and the ‘slammed SUV’ look of the Evoque. The latter wins.

Comfort and speed

At the dawn of time, the badge ‘320d’ was the ultimate in sensible shoes, a car you chose because (a) it had been chosen for you by some heartless fleet manager, (b) you couldn’t afford better or (c) you just didn’t care much about driving. Today’s 320d is perhaps the best example going of how car makers have lifted their game. It is a 146mph car that can accelerate from 0-60mph in a GTI-crushing 7.5sec, yet return 61.4mpg on the government’s flawed but universal combined cycle and cover at least 550 miles on one tank of fuel. Next time you’re looking for an example to show just how much the world’s car makers have achieved in 10 years, choose this.

Throw in a beautifully balanced chassis that you control through one of God’s greatest steering systems from a near-perfect low and central driving position, and you have a truly terrific car. Shame about the interior, although at least that extra 93mm of length gives slightly improved rear room. Ride comfort is superb, too. The Sport set-up gives you a day-to-day choice of a compliant Comfort setting (occasionally slightly too bouncy) and a still-compliant Sport setting that controls the body perfectly. It’s the only one here with variable ride at this price.

Yet the others are good against the BMW. The Benz feels as fast, but isn’t quite, which is understandable because it’s bigger and roomier. It is still a swift machine on give-and-take roads, not least because the seven-speed auto (a Merc ‘must’) makes its performance accessible at all speeds. It can also turn 50mpg with the right kind of treatment – quite an achievement for such a big car. It rides beautifully, as befits a limo. Its steering is faithful and entirely uncorrupted, although it feels ponderous against the BMW (Mercedes owners seem to like it that way). Its only real Achilles heel is a somewhat tractorish engine, whose vibrations are noticeable through floor and pedals.

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The Superb is the revelation, as these fine machines always seem to be on test. It is pretty big, and feels it, but there’s plenty of accessible performance and the six-speed DSG gearbox, which is our transmission of choice, delivers driving ease and smoothness. You can hustle a Superb wagon along, if you must, but it’s more for brisk, relaxed cruising with happy passengers on board and a huge amount of luggage in the back. In that condition, it still rides flat because the wheelbase is long, and the suspension is compliant because Czech roads are (occasionally) as bad as ours. Cornering grip is there if you need it, and the steering reaches the VW Group’s high standard, but this is an essentially conventional car.

Even against the BMW, the Golf GTD is great fun. It’s a diesel GTI, and VW knows plenty about making a success of that genre. Agility is this car’s thing against the rest, plus the fail-safe simplicity of front-wheel drive – especially since it’s accompanied by the ride sophistication of a sporty Golf, and all the quality. It’s a bit of a surprise, though, to see that it’s a bit slower than the BMW, and barely faster than the Benz. Given that VW is supposed to be positioned in Ford territory, it’s difficult to see quite where all the money has gone. Our test car cost £27,640 without many options. Seems a lot for a Golf diesel.

On the road, the Evoque follows a phenomenon that has grown familiar for Range Rovers over the years. They tend to be driven with an imperiousness suggesting they’re faster than they actually are. The eD4 had the least power, weighed most and had the largest frontal area. It was always going to be slowest. But it has a lovely, panoramic driving position and it rides beautifully (although we’d have knocked off a bit of surface noise by choosing 18in wheels, not the test car’s 19s). The mid-range torque matches that of the others, the ultra-high-geared (just 2.3 turns lock to lock) steering is perfectly weighted and accurate, and the manual gearbox has short throws and narrow gaps across the gate. The Evoque is very wide, and initially you feel odd in a vehicle like this without four-wheel drive (which adds 150kg), but it’s great fun to be in and has the virtue of being very different.

And the winner is…

Boiled down, this is a contest between the Evoque and the BMW 320d. For me, the Golf and Superb are cheaper cars; you can buy desirable versions of both for less money. The Mercedes is a fine car, but it simply lacks glamour and driver appeal in this company. From there, it’s blind prejudice. There’s excitement attached to being in, let alone owning, a Range Rover Evoque. But the keen driver will always choose the BMW 320d. It isn’t merely the latest generation of a much-loved model, but the ultimate expression of automotive progress. Until recently, it was not possible to associate such performance and desirability with such practicality. Now it is.

Steve Cropley

Steve Cropley Autocar
Title: Editor-in-chief

Steve Cropley is the oldest of Autocar’s editorial team, or the most experienced if you want to be polite about it. He joined over 30 years ago, and has driven many cars and interviewed many people in half a century in the business. 

Cropley, who regards himself as the magazine’s “long stop”, has seen many changes since Autocar was a print-only affair, but claims that in such a fast moving environment he has little appetite for looking back. 

He has been surprised and delighted by the generous reception afforded the My Week In Cars podcast he makes with long suffering colleague Matt Prior, and calls it the most enjoyable part of his working week.

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SteveB 5 November 2012

I should add...

I should add that the clanking, rattling 320d (even with nearly every worthwhile option fitted was discounted down to £28k - not £38k(LOL!) as someone mentioned earlier)  - probably because the roads are clogged up with these rep-mobiles, whilst the Golf 160 was just £25k (only 3k cheaper). It's much harder to get a discount on a Golf (although that may be possible now, as new model is due), and there's good reason for that! What amazes me, is how Steve Cropley can describe the Golf as mainstream against the 3 series, when the 3 series is undoutably one of the most mainstream cars on the road today! I've also heard loads of people say that the 3 series is becoming uglier by the day and the interior is beginning to look cheap - not hard to disagree.  To sum up, check out used car prices - 320Ds go for just £14k after just 2 years (speaks volumes). It's a reasonable car, no doubt, but it's nearly always chosen by sad, deluded "Hyacinth Buckets", "Sun glasses make me look cool/Arms on windows...." LOL! 

SteveB 5 November 2012

Re: The best car in the (real) world

Everyone knows that a quality 5 seater hatch is the best car in "the real world". I've driven both the 3 series and Golf, and the Golf wins hands down by any measure.  I compared a fully spec'd 320 with a TSI160 and the Golf's higher quality interior, better gadgets, smoother and much faster ride together with superb practicality was a no brainer.  It just felt a much nicer, more complete package than the BMW when spending my own hard earned money.  Steve Cropley's ridiculas comment where he unbeliveably rules the Golf out on the basis of "For me, the Golf and Superb are cheaper cars; you can buy desirable versions of both for less money" (what sense does that make in relation to this article) just shows that he's only interested in the badge, and not the best car in the real world! 

Safari 22 March 2012

Re: The best car in the (real) world

I am not sure that Autocar are actually living in the real world. In their world maybe everyone would be driving a BMW 3 series - and I don't doubt this is an excellent car. But I find it hard to believe that in the real world the 3 series would be in most peoples budget - there will be some that have the money and some that get it as a Company Car but probably most will gone into debt to buy it...