Perhaps I should have called this post ‘a parable in headlights’. I am a BMW fan, which isn’t to say I don’t like other makes; the lower vehicle is my daily car, and serves me well in a versatile manner for everything from grocery shopping to ferrying the wife around to the occasional spot of sideways driving along my favorite piece of road on Sunday morning. It also has a remarkable engine that puts out somewhere in the region of 210bhp and 450Nm after a little ECU tweaking – oh, whilst managing a consistent 35mpg in our abysmal traffic. (I’ve seen it go as high as 58mpg for long distance cruising, and it’ll do 0-62mph in about seven seconds). I’d say this is much like the car equivalent of the D700: you can do pretty much anything with it, and it does a very competent job and doesn’t get in your way. Even the standard non-M sport base 320i petrol version is a nice drive, and the only difference between the two is body roll, power and suspension stiffness. Otherwise, they handle much the same – think of one as moving along at five-tenths, and the other as eight-tenths.
The new model – codename F30 for BMW geeks – is a bit of a different beast. I test drove two versions – the normal, base, bog-standard 320d with no frills or options; and the ‘sport’ package 328i with (optional) adaptive suspension, active steering and BMW’s new masterpiece turbocharged 2-litre petrol that puts out about 250bhp and 350Nm. The 328i was one of the most nimble, responsive cars I’ve ever driven. It was just so easy to drive; I felt confident straight away and able to push the car to perhaps 90% of its limits (or at least the limits to which I feel comfortable driving on public roads). Even the new electric power steering system, whilst oddly and irregularly weighted at low speeds – the sensation of the rack ratio changing while maneuvering at 5mph feels like the front wheels are losing traction, but you’re most certainly not – becomes perfectly weighted and direct (if a little less communicative than I’m used to) at speed. The paddle shifters, combined with the new 8-speed ZF gearbox, make firing off a gear change fast and easy. And that engine…oh boy. It’s got power and torque everywhere in the rev range, and just feels more eager to rev than the 2 litre turbo diesel I’m driving now, even though the car I drove only had 40km on the odometer. The only thing I didn’t like about the car (apart from the increased price tag, nearly 10%!) was the odd-feeling steering at low speeds. Would I buy this? Hell yes, if I could find some spare organs I didn’t need, or perhaps a hidden hoard of diamonds under my floorboards.
The base 320d (F30) on the other hand, was utterly horrid. I hated it. I didn’t feel confident in the car at all; the suspension wallowed and rolled; the steering was equally odd at low speeds, but strangely disconnected and uncommunicative at high speeds; even the interior materials felt a step down from the other car – even though they were supposedly built at the same plant. Even though the engine was a supposedly updated version of the one in my car, it felt tight and underpowered, lacking the midrange punch between 1800 and 2800rpm that I’m used to. Would I buy this one? No.
I felt that this odd duality gave the new 3 series a similar personality to the D800: a specific tool, which if configured (optioned?) correctly, would do a peerless job; but was also capable of being entirely inappropriate in some situations compared to the old model.
Conclusion: newer isn’t always better, often the refinements mean that what you’re going to use it with (i.e. the engine and options, in this case) is almost equally as important as how you’re going to use it. As a consumer, don’t always get fooled into thinking that you need to change something. Just because a new model is out doesn’t in any way reduce the capability of the existing model you own: yes, it might be better for some things, but if those things aren’t important to you, then why spend more money? You’d be surprised at the number of emails I’ve been getting in the last few days asking ‘D800 or D700?’ when clearly the person using the camera has no need for large file sizes, but every need for speed or higher ISO. Know what you need your tools to do first before you buy them. MT