More measured and assured than an Alfa Romeo Giulia; flatter-, lighter- and tauter-feeling than a Jaguar XE; and a lot more naturally athletic, poised and immediate to drive than any other compact executive saloon you might compare it with. So begins the edited highlights on exactly how the 320d feels to drive versus the competition, and how it goes down a typical UK road.

The car has fairly pacey steering, particularly in M Sport trim (where a variable-ratio rack is fitted as standard), but there’s usefully meaty weight to the rim that gathers with the increasing steering ratio, and a gradual increase in steering pace off-centre rather than a sudden one. All that allows you to quickly develop an intuitive sense of control over the front axle, and to begin enjoying what you’re doing at the wheel of this car almost instantly.

Matt Saunders Autocar

Matt Saunders

Road test editor
I wouldn’t run from run-flats, and, while I can see a case for adaptive damping, I like the honesty and simplicity of BMW’s passive M Sport springs – and the associated ride wouldn’t put me off.

Motorway stability is excellent, handling precision is uncommonly good and lateral grip levels are generally high – but not so high that they can’t be probed or even overreached at the rear axle with the car’s cleverly tuned electronic stability controls disengaged. Thus, the rear-driven handling charisma we would expect of a BMW 3 Series shows up for inspection. Being plainly firmer-sprung and more laterally stiff than any other car of its kind, the car turns in very crisply indeed and retains first-order chassis balance and steering authority even under plenty of lateral load. The chassis rotates really keenly underneath you, then, while the engine produces just enough performance to begin to over-rotate the driven axle in the lower gears and brings the car’s handling, vividly but benignly, to life.

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Don’t worry for a second that modern electronic driving nannies or ever-increasing tyre sizes have drained the fun out of what’s arguably the most important BMW of them all, then. Here, it’s thoroughly present and correct – and as convincing a selling point as ever.

With its remarkable level body control and agile, compelling handling, the 320d takes to Millbrook’s Alpine Hill Route with an enthusiasm rare among executive saloons.

The keenness with which it deals with the course’s tighter turns is all but unmatched among cars of its kind. The steering manages to be direct but not surprisingly so, making the turn-in phase settled but also making it easy to clip every apex and keep very close tabs on the placement of the front axle.

The four-cylinder engine remains quite couth even when working really hard. It only just develops enough power to begin to throttle-steer the 320d in tighter turns and the lower intermediate gears, but can certainly begin to neutralise the car’s attitude even in quicker ones, and always makes for engaging limit handling.

COMFORT AND ISOLATION

There’s a little bit of compromise to report of the 320d here. On lowered, stiffened M Sport suspension and run-flat tyres, the car’s ride is certainly insistent – and, at times, a bit animated. It doesn’t often fidget for long or become too vertically excited, even over motorway expansion joints; and only the sharpest of lumps and edges elicit a noticeable level of coarseness from it. But it’s notably short of being the equal of a Jaguar XE or a well-equipped Mercedes C-Class for rolling comfort.

The ride is quiet and settled on average motorway and A-road surfaces, and allows you to relax on a long-distance cruise readily. With acoustic double-glazed glass as standard, wind noise isolation is impressive too. Discreet but effective lane keeping, active cruise control and speed limit assist systems come as part of BMW’s Driving Assistant Professional option. It’s worth having if you’re a high-mileage driver, particularly since you can turn the sensitivity levels of those systems up and down to suit your personal taste.

Take to a choppier B-road, though, and while the car remains poised and controlled at all times, it does so at a slight cost. The 3 Series deals with bumps a bit impatiently and, when the surface gets really challenging, doesn’t always feel totally calm or reassuring in the way it keeps its tyres in contact with the Tarmac.

If you want greater rolling comfort from your 320d, however, adaptive dampers are available – and they do make for a more absorptive ride on rougher roads, according to wider testing. Alternatively, an SE-spec car without run-flat tyres and on BMW’s standard suspension would be another route to a more relaxed ride. Both are good reasons not to be too hard on a suspension tune that’s intended to suit sporting tastes, and does that outstandingly well.

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