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.
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.