BMW 320d

Can BMW live up to its old slogan with the new 3-series?

Price: From £27,080 (on sale February)
Engine: 1,995cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbodiesel 184bhp
Transmission: Six-speed gearbox (eight- speed auto optional), rear-wheel drive
Performance: 146mph, 0-62 in 7.5sec, 61.4mpg official average, CO2 120g/km

BMW's 3-series has often featured in the UK's top 10 bestselling cars list over the past decade, despite the car-maker long having been perceived as an upmarket brand. "The ultimate driving machine" – that's how BMW used to sloganise itself. Maybe people bought into that at face value, without actually knowing such an "ultimate" if it bit them on the nose. But the truth is that most recent BMWs, the marvellous M5 excepted, have been disappointingly ordinary to drive.

There was little wrong with the most recent 3-series, however, a car launched in 2005. Now, almost too soon it seems, it's time for a new 3-series. How could the outgoing one reasonably be improved, except to make it look more interesting? Will it be just another case of technology swamping the car that lies beneath?

Well, here it is, revealed to the world's motoring press in 320d and 328i forms, although greater and lesser engines will follow. In isolation the new 3 doesn't look massively different from the previous one, apart from a more bulbous bonnet and some sharper detailing between the headlamps and front grille, but it's a little larger, a little roomier and a little lighter.

Inside it returns to the "driver-centred" cabin once an essential part of the BMW vibe, with the centre console and dashboard shaped to direct functions in the driver's direction. The fit and finish are impeccable, and the central information screen has the look of a horizontally compressed iPad. Various equipment and trim combinations are rationalised as Modern (with instrument faces and key colour-co-ordinated with the interior trim), Sport and Luxury, with ES, SE and M Sport also offered as before.

BMW aficionados will be intrigued by the reappearance of the 328i name, because it once signified a 2.8-litre, straight-six engine and a promise of smooth, sonorous, powerful pace. Rear-wheel drive and six cylinders; that was the BMW dynamic motif. Time, however, moves on and if you want six cylinders in your 3-series you'll have to buy a 335i, which actually has a 3.0-litre engine plus turbochargers. Today's 328i is numerically nothing of the kind, having instead 2.0 litres and four cylinders. It also has a turbocharger and a plethora of modern design niceties, which together enable it to release an extraordinary 245bhp and a solid wall of pulling ability while returning just 147g/km CO2 on the official tests. With those figures you can forgive its four-cylinder sound.

This 328i is the keen driver's choice of the new range as so far sampled, but it's the 320d which is really BMW's star here.

The outgoing 320d was close to being the perfect saloon, for its pace, frugality and refinement. In these respects, the new one is similar. I tried both the 328i and 320d with the optional eight-speed automatic gearbox, which has almost too many ratios to make the paddleshift manual mode worth using but works well as the automatic it is intended to be, bar occasional surges in the 328i.

So far, so fine – but the real treat is the way the new 3-series, in either guise, steers with rock-solid precision and possesses the easy, natural, fluent balance that always used to be a BMW's blessing. These are crisp, agile cars, but they also ride smoothly and quietly even in the firmest setting of the optional active dampers. They represent a return to BMW's form, properly "premium" in more than just superficialities. And, praise any deity who may be interested, they still have a conventional handbrake. Other car-makers please take note.

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