MOTORING / Auto biography: The BMW 5-Series Diesel in 0-60 seconds

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WHAT'S the point of being a person of substance and means if you drive a car that sounds as if it's meant to be dragging a mower

behind it? To put it another way, can upmarket car makers sell diesels to upmarket customers without including a retriever, two pairs of wellies, four-wheel drive and a set of monogrammed shovels?

The less high-flown general public has become so receptive to

diesels that the machines swept up 20 per cent of new car registrations last year. The more rarified executive car market has been harder to crack, particularly in Britain. But if there's such a thing as a state-of- the-art diesel car in 1994, a machine with vigorous performance, almost no diesel rattle, great handling and charisma, then it's the new BMW fitted with the company's 6-cylinder 143bhp turbodiesel engine.

The effect of the design change is remarkable. The power and torque increase over the regular oil-burning model makes it the most powerful diesel in the world for its engine capacity. This is achieved by fitting a gadget known as an intercooler, through which the fuel charge passes on its way into the cylinders. Turbocharged engines heat the fuel charge as they thump it into the combustion chambers - and the hotter it gets, the less the power gain is. Intercooling maintains something like the most efficient operating temperature for the fuel, hence the unfamiliar diesel surge.

This car comes close to fooling people that it isn't a diesel at all. All BMW engines emit a cultured snarl as the revs build up, but this one has a slightly different timbre. You need only make the throttle foot a little heavier to stop the revs falling away on acceleration, and the sound at idle is only a shade more tinny. A catalytic exhaust helps filter out the soot that is every diesel's environmental black mark.

Everything else is as good as the BMW 5-Series usually is - beautiful fluid gearchange, superb balance and handling (thanks to weight distribution and chassis design that still leads the field). Though the greater mass of the 5- Series slightly slows the performance of this fine engine, it still makes it to 60mph inside 11 seconds - which is good enough for most law-abiding citizens.

Apart from rear legroom - a traditional BMW drawback, even in a big cruiser like this - the cabin design remains a model of cool

efficiency. The instruments are of aircraft-like clarity; the prevailing sense is of a driving area moulded around the person in charge of the car; and the grouping of switches invites effortless control. The ride is set to let the car flow over motorway undulations, and though it's firmer than some in this class on urban trips, the handling prowess isn't at the expense of comfort. As good a diesel as you could find - but at a price, of course.

GOING PLACES: Superb 2.5-litre, 6-cylinder, 143bhp turbodiesel engine; dramatic torque figures of 192ft lbs at 2,200 revs per minute; 0-60mph in 11 secs, 50-70mph overtaking speed in fourth a little over 10 secs. Usual enthusiast-friendly features such as greased-lightning gear change and sporty ratios.

STAYING ALIVE: BMW handling makes the car feel like a wheeled extension of your body frame - flat cornering, uncanny balance, well-weighted steering; side-impact beams, very rigid bodyshell, high construction standards generally; anti-lock brakes, pre-tensioned, height-adjustable front seatbelts; driver's airbag.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Adjustable steering column, front seat height and tilt adjustment; separate driver/passenger heating controls; front and rear armrest (SE model); rechargeable glovebox torch; leather steering wheel.

BANGS PER BUCK: Electric door mirrors; electric front/rear windows; central locking with deadlock; engine immobiliser; alloy wheels, electric sliding roof (SE models); fuel economy 40mpg

average. Price: pounds 24,595.

STAR QUALITY: BMW 5-series ride and handling standards; ultra- sophisticated high-performance turbodiesel engine.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Rear legroom, high price.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Mercedes Benz E250 diesel ( pounds 24,200) - very close runner to 5-series, more refined, a little less agile, diesel engine slower; Audi 100 TDi ( pounds 21,400) - more spacious, refined, only a whisker behind on performance, handling blander; Rover 825 TD ( pounds 21,895) - dated design, classier interior, fast, not so sprightly.