REVIEW | Why the BMW 320d is all the sports sedan you’ll ever need

The more things change, the more they stay the same. While the motoring landscape is evolving, with electrified offerings, increasing digitisation and autonomy, there are some recipes that remain somewhat unaltered.

Take the BMW 3-Series for instance. A classic, three-box design, relatively compact dimensions and rear-wheel drive: the new G20 retains those hallmarks, like the original. And buyers can also still have six-cylinder power.

Moreover, the range continues to feature diesel power, a tradition dating back to the second-generation E30. South Africa’s first exposure to a diesel 3-Series was with the E36 and its 325 TDS derivative. Those were early days and the momentum of the 3-Series diesel story really got into stride with the E46, served with 320d and later, 330d guise. The former was the South African Car of the Year for 2001.

More than two decades later, the 320d continues to be a part of the line-up. Except, the technology is significantly more refined than it was then.

Last year BMW released the life-cycle improvement version of the G20 3-Series. Tweaks include a subtle restyle for the front and rear, as well as a more progressive cabin, with a curved screen display replacing the traditional instrument cluster and tablet-like infotainment screen of old.

Buyers will also notice the deletion of an upright gear selector, replaced by a dainty rocker switch instead, which requires only the effort of a thumb.

The rest is 3-Series business as usual: from that familiar, snug seating position to the driver-centric angle of the fascia and plugged-in handling characteristic, one is reminded just why the model remains held in such esteem as the benchmark sports saloon.

Adding to the sportiness credence was the fitment of the ever-popular M Sport package to our test unit. It seems that in our market more customers opt for it than not when buying a 3-Series — or any BMW for that matter.

Behind the wheel, the vastness of the curved screen display does take a few minutes to get accustomed to. The portion directly in front of the driver is 12.3 inches, while the central display is 14.9 inches. The main screen is touch-operated, but the traditional rotary controller is still a fixture. With the LCI, BMW has made navigation and three-zone climate control standard across the range.

Like the X1 sDrive18d we reported on last week, the 320d uses the same 1,995cc, turbocharged-diesel engine with four cylinders. It is in a more potent state of tune, however, producing 140kW and 400Nm. This torque figure is on par with the 330i and just 100Nm less than what the six-cylinder M340i xDrive serves.

The 320d has a claimed 0-100km/h sprint time of seven seconds flat, making it quicker than the 318i (8.6 seconds) and the 320i (7.4 seconds). It certainly feels strong in real world conditions, with thrust that is more than sufficient when brisk freeway merging is required.

And there’s enough kick to nudge the tail out in wet weather conditions, with the sportiest driving mode engaged and the stability control dialled to a more relaxed setting. Among its peers, namely the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and aged Audi A4, the 3-Series is undoubtedly the most engaging to pilot. But not at the expense of all-round refinement and comfort.

The suspension damping is nothing short of excellent, while noise insulation is faultless. Hustling through waterlogged roads in the 6am darkness on the way to the office, the calm, quiet cabin environment felt akin to the tranquillity levels offered by a 5- or 7-Series.

And what about economy? Well, truth be told, we had already tested the fuel-sipping tendencies of this engine with our X1 report. Driven mostly in Sport mode, with the stop-start system turned off, the 320d returned figures around the 8l/100km region. Drive it in Eco Pro mode and there is little doubt you will be able to eke 1,000km out of a full tank.

On my last day with the vehicle, driving more sedately, my average was 6.9l/100km over a 70km run from Roodepoort to Marlboro, then to Midrand, before trekking back to our Parktown office.

Claimed fuel consumption is 4.9l/100km. Basic pricing kicks off at R910,000 for the Sport Line, while the M Sport asks R960,000.

For most consumers, the middle-ground between performance and economy represented by the 320d will be all the sedan they ever need.

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