An excellent kind of predictability

BMW 320d Sport
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel
Transmission: six-speed manual
Power: 184 PS
Torque: 380 Nm
Fuel consumption (combined cycle): 61.4 mpg
CO2 emissions: 120 g/km
Top speed: 146 mph
Acceleration (0-62 mph): 7.5 seconds
Price: £29,080

The new BMW 3-Series represents a predictable development of its predecessor. Every aspect of the car's performance has been edged forward a bit and there are few surprises. But the low-key, gradual approach was the right one. It is difficult to think of any area in which the previous model, first introduced in 2005, felt dated or needed to fear comparisons with its rivals, a remarkable achievement given the rapid pace of improvement in today's motor industry.

BMW is in this fortunate position because the 2005 car made such a radical break with previous 3s. The company's then chief designer, Chris Bangle, was pushing through a radical update to the BMW look, and the deep sculpted curves and creases he introduced, often described as 'flame surfacing' didn't go down too well with some buyers to start off with. The fuss later died down and the 2005 3-Series sold very well, so the 2012 car's design represents for the most part a gentle evolution of that of its predecessor, at least from the A-pillar back. It's the frontal section that gets the biggest changes, with the bonnet getting a visual stretch as well as new, friendly-looking headlamps with unusual 'tear duct' extensions linking them directly to the traditional BMW kidney-shaped grille.

The new 3's interior will also be pretty familiar to anyone who spent any time in the old model – or in any other recent BMW for that matter. The emphasis is on understated efficiency, leavened in the case of my test car by flashes of red trim associated with the Sport package. The most important and welcome change is that the cabin feels just a bit roomier than before. This is partly the result of a two-inch stretch in the wheelbase, and, subjectively at least, I thought this 3-Series was the first one not to feel slightly pinched for space in comparison with its biggest rival, the Mercedes C-Class.

Most new 3s will have four-cylinder engines rather than the straight-sixes that used to be considered the mark of a 'proper' BMW. That means the modern cars have a bit less character, but nobody who buys one is going to complain about their outright performance. During the last model cycle, BMW devoted most of its attention to its diesel engines, which were developed under the company's EfficientDynamics programme to achieve outstanding CO2 and fuel consumption figures. This time the effort has mainly been on the petrol side, with the 328i getting a two-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine which replaces the 3.0-litre six fitted to the last-generation model that carried the same badge. Performance, fuel economy and emissions are all improved.

I drove the 320d, likely to be one of the most popular choices in the new range, especially for company car users. The two-litre diesel now produces over 180 horsepower, which provides very strong real-world performance indeed. Mid-range acceleration, helped by 320Nm of torque, is especially impressive, and once you get the 320d moving along at a decent speed you rarely need to shift out of the long, relaxed sixth gear. Over the course of almost 2,000 miles, according to the 320d's on-board computer, I achieved an outstanding 57 MPG; I drove normally for about two-thirds of that distance, while for the remaining third I drove gently, following the fuel-saving advice of the car's systems. One slightly surprise; on start-up and under hard acceleration, the 320d can feel and sound a lot more raucous than some cheaper diesels, although at all other times, noise levels and vibration are extremely well suppressed. In dynamic terms, the new 3 is superb, with smooth, fluent, sharp steering and very high levels of grip and body control.

So that's the new BMW 3-Series. Predictable, perhaps, but predictably excellent, too.

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