The BMW 320D: Who said diesel is a waste of fossils now?

What is it? This is, or was, the third generation of BMW’s uber-successful small saloons. Built from 1998 to just around 2007, it is the prettiest of the lot (older versions are beautiful. This one is pretty. Later models are best left untalked about in terms of looks). It has also been described as a step backwards in driver engagement from its predecessor, the E36, but this description comes from other motoring journalists who are not me.

Is it practical? This depends on what you want to do with it. My Car Clinic pseudo-consultancy is riddled with queries about the ability of low-slung saloon cars to wander off the paved path, a train of thought I have tried to quell with mixed success. Well, the 3 Series will NOT go off-road. In fact do not drive it on anything other than tarmac, just to be safe.

The E46 is a low-slung saloon car, a bit more low-slung than most, so where a Corolla NZE may pass through, an E46 may not necessarily follow suit. I experienced this first hand. Speed bumps are a nightmare to traverse, as are potholes, especially when you are four-deep in the passenger cell and the bump rises more than three inches off the ground.

However, the BMW is practical in several other ways. It will seat four in relative comfort (make the tall people sit at the front), stretch to five and the “relative” description becomes even more relative. The boot is sizeable enough for ordinary luggage (luggage, again, is relative; some people have livestock as “luggage”. I am not talking to these people), the interior is roomy enough for long trips and the seats comfortable enough for the inmates of the car to arrive at their distant destination while still friends.

The generous glass-house gives a good view out of the car, but the mirrors are a little small. Blame this on my recent engagement with cars with elephant ears for side mirrors: Range Rovers and Hyundai Santa Fes, to be exact. Parking is not hard, nor is un-parking. Parking sensors ensure that you will not be bumping into small children as you reverse… I think.

Some say German cars are not economical. Does this apply here? This is about as economical a car as you would ever hope to have, primarily because it runs on diesel, or what the English call “derv”.

You can achieve 30kpl if you work for a car magazine, 25 kpl if you are an expert driver, 20 kpl if you are a funeral attendant, 15 kpl for most ordinary car users and 10 kpl for the primarily senseless. Anything less than 10 kpl and your driving style could be described as “antisocial”. This is a round figure, a long-term average, not instantaneous economy. Expect 10-12 kpl in the city or more and 16-18 kpl on the highway…or more. This is not a joke, diesel is the future… I think.

Some say good used German cars are hard to find. Does this apply here? E46s are numerous in almost all iterations except for the M3. Walk into almost any dealer forecourt and you are likely to encounter an E46 on sale. Preferred colours are silver, black, navy blue, and white, but mostly silver and black. Other colours are red and dark green.

I am not big on colours, so let me just stop there.

Finding one to buy is easy, but what about GETTING one? Well, I have seen these cars offered in various price ranges. A friend and I were offered a 2003 silver KBH-reg automatic 320i for Sh600,000. The black car that feeds from the black pump is a 2005 KBT-reg manual 320d going for Sh1.7 million. A huge disparity, yes, and maybe not entirely worth it.

The owner will kill me for saying this, seeing how the car is still on sale and all, but a Sh 1.1 million price markup for two years’ difference in age is a lot. I will admit the silver car takes a lot of freedom with the phrase “good German car” (it may or may not have been 100 per cent a good car), and the black KBT is a much better vehicle overall (with lower mileage to boot), but come on, it costs three times as much as the other. Really?

A good ball-park figure for a seven-year-old E46 in near-pristine condition is about Sh1.3 million. Yeah, I said it. Do not get robbed.

Some say German cars are expensive to run. Does this apply here? Yes and no. Spares will cost an arm and a leg. And an eye. And one of your children. But this is only if you need many of them (spares, not children or body parts), and you mostly will not, unless you are one of the “antisocial” drivers I mentioned above.

Try not to mess up the exhaust. Try not to mess up the injectors. Try not to mess up the ECU. And as much as possible try not to mess up the catalytic converter (the cat is the source of many problems in a car engine). These will burn a huge hole in your pocket, and subsequently your family structure too, when your wife and still-unsold children desert you, citing “fiscal irresponsibility” on your part.

Some say — actually BMW themselves say — the 3 Series is a driver’s car. Is it true? True, in fact I would vote the E46 320d as one of the best cars I have ever driven. The E46 I had had a longitudinally mounted four-cylinder single-turbo diesel engine displacing two litres and feeding power to the rear axle through a six-speed manual transmission. The diesel engine may sound like the fly in the ointment for an otherwise perfect setup, but instead it turned out to be the highlight of the show, courtesy of that solitary blower.

You get into the car. The driving position is a little tricky; not entirely the car’s fault, but mostly because of my simian proportions. I have long hands and short legs. The tiller, on the other hand (pun intended), only adjusts for height; but not reach and rake. Fiddle with the seat positions. One position has me seated high up and almost hugging the wheel — imagine yourself getting a studio photo taken while holding your diploma in front of you… or just look at the nearest woman driver next to you in traffic. In other words, too close to the wheel.

The other seat position has me sunk back much lower and towards the middle of the car, so seeing over the dashboard becomes an issue. A lot of fiddling and adjusting gets me a compromise.

Fire up the stove. There is the typical diesel clatter, though nicely muted, so it is more of a thrum. If you are parked next to a wall, then the thrum will be echoed back to you and so… hello Massey-Ferguson. But it is not that bad. Get into gear.

Things to watch for if you have never been in a BMW before. Reverse is next to first, but to engage it, you have to force the gear lever farther left along the x-axis, then it slides forward almost by itself. It is not that difficult, but once done, there is a nagging fear that you may have gone into reverse again every time you select first, but of course you have not.

The pedals do not carry the best arrangement either. The accelerator is where it should be, the clutch pedal is where the brake pedal should be and the brake pedal is where the brake pedal should be. Where we normally have the clutch pedal lies a foot rest. That makes for an interesting driving position, where you sit skewed sideways. Think of a woman in a short skirt seated on stage in front of male high school students, and you get the idea. Knees together and legs tilted slightly to one side.

Clutch in. The weighting seems just right, if a little on the heavy side. Declutch and notice the narrowness of the biting point. It takes a bit of practice to launch this car without a) rolling backwards b) surging/ jerking forwards or Lord help me, c) stalling. But every car needs practice to master, and after two or three standing starts, the clutch action becomes intuitive.

Move off, and it all starts to come together beautifully. First gear is strictly for launch purposes. Rather than giving it the beans in first, spool up the motor to about 1800 rpm and snatch second. A short shift, yes, but it works best that way. The engine has enough torque to pull from 1200 rpm smoothly: it is a diesel after all. Feel the pull. Watch the needle climb to 1800 rpm. The pull becomes a shove. Go past 2000 rpm and the turbo kicks in. The shove becomes a surge, ever-increasing in force as the revs climb and boost pressure builds up. The acceleration is almost manic by now.

At 4500 rpm, slide into third. This being a diesel, there is no need to red-line the engine; if anything, hitting the firewall drops you out of the torque band and the surge disappears, making for ungainly progress. The process repeats itself in third, fourth, and fifth, at which point you realise that you are way over the speed limit and need to ease off. Grin like an idiot. Interesting… Almost 150 km/h and you still have one more gear to go. This is one fast diesel car.

The six-speed manual box works perfectly. You will always be stirring the lever if you want to get the best out of the diesel engine. I rarely used sixth gear, it being ideal for normal, economical cruising (2,000 rpm in sixth means you are above 100 km/h), but the other five came in handy enough for me.

You need to keep the revs simmering above 2000 rpm. Not boiling, just simmering. Downshift as soon as they dip below 1800. That way the turbo stays active and torque is available in amounts not seen this side of a rally car. You can downshift even earlier (at 2500 rpm) if you are deft at heel-and-toe. Rev matching is easy, courtesy of the plank-shaped throttle pedal and the juxtaposed brake pedal (just be careful with the clutch, that is all), and the clutch engagement/disengagement is optimised well enough to avoid jerking or surging when doing snap shifts up or down.

Get it right and absolutely nobody can hold a candle to you on the road. Methinks this could be a tad quicker than the 320i if piloted well. It will out-drag the petrol version, I am sure. The only problem is turbo lag. Get caught out by lag and it can get quite embarrassing when foot-down antics yield nothing more than a groan from under the bonnet and little movement.

The handling is sublime. The suspension is nicely balanced: Taut enough for some hard second- and third-gear charging through tight S-curves with minimal body roll and no understeer, but still pliant enough to be described as “comfortable” in ordinary every day use. The chunky high profile tyres have some sidewall flex, but by the time you notice this, your driving will be “antisocial”. The good thing is that those tyres allow a wide range of driving conditions with little compromise.

The rear drive chassis allows some sideways action, as does the surfeit of torque when the turbo is puffing hard, but I did not try. Cornering is easy; one can clip an apex, take a wide line, or just simply sweep through the middle of the turn like an inept novice, depending on the instructions you feed into the helm. The car tracks straight and true, there is no wandering from the front end, nor stepping out at the back. This can very easily change if you turn the DSC off. I did not try that either.

After 400 km of mostly hard driving, my only gripe was my left knee, which was getting a little uncomfortable owing to the awkward driving positino but then again, I must have changed gear 1,000 times or more. Blame the numerous speed bumps. And the fact that I was doing some “antisocial” driving through twisty roads while wringing the little Beemer’s neck. I loved every moment of it.

Last, but not least, but MOST important: would I buy one? Hell yeah, I would.

There are certain factors that would lean against such a move: the price (negotiable), the very low ground clearance (I would never put a BMW on spacers or over-size rims), the cost of maintenance (this should not be a worry — work harder and start saving, and take good care of the car), and the fact that it runs on diesel. Our diesel might not be the best, but while some engines refuse to run on it, I think the 320d can manage to eke at least some substantial mileage with regular system flushing before complete failure. By that time our diesel should be of world standard… I hope.

The reason I would buy this car is, well, it is good. It is very good to drive. And to me, that is what matters. Period. Diesel is the future.

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