So the new BMW 3-series (specifically, the 320d Sport) is the Autocar road testers’ idea of a five-star car.
Five stars is a very big deal around here. It’s the highest accolade our we-drive-everything testers can bestow on a car, and they are extremely careful not to spray it about. The last five-star verdict went to the Ferrari 458 Italia in 2010. Which suggests a comparison featuring the new BMW 320d Sport and three similarly priced rivals might be a bit of an anti-climax. How can a car with a near-perfect score fail to administer a brisk coup de grâce to anything else at the price?
Well, easily, we believe. It’s a matter of priorities and emphases. The 320d may be the best and most economical diesel sports saloon going, but who’s to say the £30,000 buyer might not turn up a faster, roomier, better-equipped proposition that’s more appealing on the eye and better value for money? No reason at all, we reckon. So as a means of showing just how diverse is the selection available to the buyer of practical cars with £30,000 to spend we assembled some proven favourites to give the 320d Sport the toughest possible test.
Image meets reality
Premium cars are always vulnerable on price, because a hefty component of the bottom line is ‘image’, a mixture of heritage, reputation and expectation – not metal, rubber and glass. So how could we give the BMW a hard time on that score?
How about matching it with a top-end, £25,000 Volkswagen Golf GTD? It’s a more mainstream car, with a near-identical power-to-weight ratio, whose quality standards are just as good. Its £5000 lower price would also theoretically allow its buyer to invest in extra kit. Its 40cm shorter overall length should give it an agility advantage, too.
For those with a serious metal-for-the-money fetish, we added another mainstreamer of proven ability and character: the Skoda Superb 2.0 TDI Elegance estate. It costs £26,015 before gadgets, because big Skodas are even less ‘premium’ than VWs, they include much more hardware. Our Superb has a paddle-shift gearbox – plus the highest-output 168bhp diesel and an elegant suite of leather upholstery, colour touchscreen sat-nav, tyre pressure monitors and glass roof. Despite being 20cm longer than the 3-series and 40cm longer than the Golf, it weighs less than 10kg more than the 320d, so its performance figures (137mph flat out, 8.9sec for the 0-60mph) aren’t far behind the rest of the cars tested here.
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One of the most sought-after cars of the moment, a new Range Rover Evoque, is here because it’s good competition for the BMW on the grounds of desirability. Its eye-popping styling and high seating make it completely different from a four-door saloon. Our budget allowed us a £27,955 two-wheel-drive eD4 Pure version, with the lower-power 148bhp, 2.2-litre diesel as standard and a five-speed gearbox. Still, this much-praised machine would surely rival the 3-series for luxury, impact, eye appeal and desirability.
Last, for those seeking a bit more car at the BMW’s premium – and taking account that the 3-series has grown by a surprising 93mm – we added a Mercedes E-class, specifically a E220 CDI BlueEfficiency SE auto, a car of equal power to the BMW. At £32,515, it doesn’t quite conform to our sub-£30k criteria, but could do if you opted for a lower-power 134bhp E200 model, or denied yourself the excellent seven-speed auto, or opted for a standard SE, or any combination of these. Then you’d have a vastly roomy, quality-built limo with a reputation (arguably) even ahead of BMW’s.
We departed London on a crisp and sunny winter morning, heading for one of our favourite haunts on the Marlborough Downs. Here was the world’s best rear-drive, four-door sports saloon matched against a compact limo, a top-class diesel hatchback, a vast but capable estate and a star-car SUV, all of them around £30,000. From my initial vantage point in the 320d I had absolutely no idea how things were going pan out by the time we’d done 80 miles on motorways, grappled with rutted and pock-marked B-roads, forged country lanes barely a car’s width wide, attacked a selection of corners and brought it back home by dawdling through town.
Behind the wheel
One thing I quickly learned was that I’d developed a dislike for the BMW’s fascia – the bit of a car you spend most time looking at. Apart from lacking brightwork in favour of dull, foil-like accents, the BMW is hamstrung by a simplified iDrive system that, good idea that it is, doesn’t deliver ease of use. Chuck in a lack of logic to its architecture and you get a car whose most important cabin components (excellent sports seats aside) are poor.
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The Mercedes also has some quixotic controls, not least its traditional single column stalk for all major functions. Its better use of brightwork, more logical dash and sharp styling give it an advantage over the BMW at £30,000. The drawback is an old-mannish quality Mercedes has always fought. The Skoda’s interior and cabin design is best described as ‘honest’. It sets no new standards and impresses no critics, but it is simple to understand and works very well.
The big winner here is the Evoque. Its combination of high seating, excellent visibility, high and wide centre console and intuitive instrument layout makes you wonder why others find designing such things so hard. For all its emphasis on front comfort and fascia design, the Evoque is quite roomy in the rear.
We pause for a moment to evaluate exterior styling, a near-impossible task with such a motley bunch. The Golf, nice though it is, is merely a Golf. The Superb is one of those laudable cars you rarely notice. The Benz is well dressed, but its size makes it stodgy. So the eye appeal contest is between the low-and-potent 3-series and the ‘slammed SUV’ look of the Evoque. The latter wins.