I am approaching the left-hander fast. Very fast. With the gearbox straining to get the maximum out of the engine over the crest, I instantly tip-shift down a gear on the steptronic, let my left hand grab the steering, dialling in a couple of degrees short of a half turn. I can feel the revs rise up as I enter the corner, the heavy steering and the tread blocks on the Bridgestones convey the minutest of road undulations along the edge. The car quickly completes the turn, with no drama from the rear-wheel drive system and accelerates out and before I can pull it up to the next turn, bang, it hits the 4500 rpm redline and I am up into third, back from where I’d started just a corner back.
I could swear that if this were the new BMW M3, it would have let the tail out, left a trail of saliva down my chin and even stayed stuck in second gear without upshifting by itself. Of course, the M3 has a bog-standard manual with none of the electronic intelligence of the automatic that lay beside me, and yet, it would have left a nice big hole in my bank balance, on account of fuel bills. Thankfully, I was driving the BMW 320d, the diesel that sells in hundreds of thousands each year to help BMW spend on developing the new M3. Or keep my bank balance intact. Somewhat.So with no M3 on test (for now) and lot of money in my wallet, we thought it’d be a good idea to treat ourselves to some strawberries. Yes, four years after BSM’s epic wine and Alphonso runs, we thought of reviving a tradition yet again. We called it the strawberry run, beckoning us to drive the BMW from Mumbai to Mahabaleshwar, via Poladpur and back via Wai and Pune. The route was chosen primarily for the depth and breadth of the type of winding roads. From NH-17’s two-laned highway straight up the 40 km stretch on tight twisties, down the fast sweeping bends and the dual carriageway of the Pune-Satara road to the six-laned expressway and back into Mumbai’s bumper to bumper traffic. It is one of the best driving roads in the country – beyond doubt – and exactly the kind of road to test BMW’s claim of ‘the ultimate driving machine’. It may be an oilburner, but what the heck.
It is amazing how just a hundred kilometres from a city that cannot get over its fetish for concrete, we have a mountain range that one can spend the entire day gawking at. With the first lashing of rains, the western ghats turn from a muddy brown to a riotous green. But that day we were interested in red. Red is also the colour of the line that ends the aspirations of the engine a little quicker than one would like. The 1995cc inline-four, rumbling just a couple of inches ahead of me, sounds perfectly isolated once inside the cabin, though on the outside it is fairly loud. They have added counter balancing shafts like in any four-cylinder engine, to reduce vibrations, but maybe the plastic wings and aluminium bonnet don’t help its cause. This second generation diesel engine has enough technology to keep Einstein entertained. It features VNT, no different from the variable geometry turbine you find on other diesels, except that BMW had to name it differently from ‘the rest of the pack’. VNT of course matches the benefits of a small and large turbocharger on a single turbine, and this, coupled with the high pressure common rail system, helps the engine produce 156 bhp at 4000 rpm, while peak twisting force is rated at 33.7 kgm, finding its way to scramble through the driveline at 2750 rpm.
Like its high revving petrol concept, BMW have tried something similar here too. For one, the specific output works out to 78 bhp per litre, a figure somewhat high for a diesel engine. The peak torque too arrives at a much higher figure, if you bothered noticing. Though what you can’t is the relatively flat torque curve that makes it driveable over a wide rev range. For India, BMW have opted for the six-speed automatic across the 3 Series range. The gearbox is the same for all the three engine models, but with different ratios to suit driving requirements. Here too, BMW have worked well to offer gear ratios that are more in the vein of a gasoline engine, with closely stacked lower two ratios and evenly spread out higher ones. Munich has not entirely killed driving pleasure, and have provided steptronic to allow you some fun.
And to put it succinctly, fun is what we were having. Driving up to Mahabaleshwar, the road swirls right around the mountain face, the tyres constantly fighting to maintain contact with the road surface and reduce roll at the same time. The 51:49 weight balance means you don’t need to worry about a nose heavy front-end. Also, the engine is located further back in the bonnet, just to get the perfect driving balance. It eerily feels like some engineers at Garching, BMW Motorsport’s skunkworks, added a bit of their magic at the front, and BMW’s insurance claims division decided to attend to the rear. When you put the car through the corner, the steering feels a mite heavy but transmits so much feel that it goes all the way up from the tyres to the steering, up your spine and twiddles your larynx. It makes the current Mercedes-Benz C-Class feel like it were turning through marshmallows. The front coil over spring setup, with a double joint axle bar, helps control body roll and so does the stiff monocoque. It’s the rear setup that’s gone a bit wrong. For a rear-wheel drive car, especially a BMW, it does no drama. So carry in as much speed as you want to, even switch off the DTC, and hit the apex of the corner, and it will do nothing stupid. None whatsoever. This is not the E30 or E36 generation that would let its tail slide out, but instead gently goes around the corner like it were a straight line. BMW has watered it down to keep drivers sensible and sales charts rising. In the process, they’ve watered down the very concept of a fun rear-wheel drive sedan.
All is not lost, though. The engine is still a piece of work, like I mentioned earlier. Ideally, we would have done our test runs in D mode and not bothered going steptronic, but since we do two set of runs, we found that the manual mode resulted in much faster times. Sixty kph arrives in 4.87 seconds, then continue pinning the throttle down and 100 kph is despatched in just 10.09. Don’t let off the accelerator and you will find that the car stays glued to the road-surface, your comfort level going up and 220 kph on the speedo. The difference between the Beemer and the Mercedes-Benz C220 CDI is marginal in pure acceleration and top speed terms, but there is a perceptible variation between the way the two cars accelerate. Through the gears, the 320d feels and is faster, thrashing the 80-120 kph run in just 7.21 seconds, some 0.8 seconds faster than even the stonker of a six-cylinder 325i we drove a couple of months back.
Putter around town in D and the 320d doesn’t feel balky. But try pinning the throttle down on an open stretch and it takes a while to go two gears down before it starts to build up serious steam. It’s here that the 7G-Tronic on the Mercs have the upper edge. But slip the gearbox into manual and try out the same, and the transformation is quick. It still doesn’t replace the traditional manual gearbox, but it nearly gets there. Like the Mercs, it upshifts in manual mode if you don’t shift at the redline. But if you did try to shift yourself after a slight delay, the gearbox would only move a gear up and not two, as is the case in the 7G-Tronic, which makes driving in manual mode even more fun. The high-revving concept with more power higher up means there is some lag when you drive at slower speeds, though once you are past 2k revs, there’s a lot to look forward to. It isn’t that the power delivery isn’t linear, but there is a tad less sprinkling of torque at the city driving kind of revs, a place where the outgoing C220 CDI excels.
We still had some 20 km to go and stopped right next to the waterfall you see in the lead picture. This allowed Pablo to get click-happy and Bijoy to quietly slip himself behind the steering wheel while I was not looking. Like any other road-tester, I kicked around the tyres and gave the body a once over. It drew my attention to what the car really stood for. Chris Bangle and his ilk at Designwerks were facing the heat over their now famous (or infamous) flame surfacing design concept. The 5 and 7 Series received most of the flak, and too much messing around with the subtlety of the 3 Series lineup would have meant an ack-ack attack on the profit books and bye-bye BMW to yet another venture capitalist. It’s still not anywhere close to the muscular perfection (and a personal favourite), the last generation E46, yet you won’t mistake it for anything other than a 3. There is still that long bonnet, short boot, the slightly flared wheel arches and a well defined brush stroke of a crease line running from the headlamp casing to the fuel filler. I’m still to get a handle, though, on what they were thinking when they designed those tail-lamps.
‘Let’s move on’ screamed Pablo over the gush of water on the rock face, as if the yearning for strawberries was driving him to go up the hill faster on his two limbs than on four tyres. So I grabbed the rear seat, all to myself, and to really taste what the BMW interior feels like. While behind the wheel, there were some traits of the typical ‘angled towards driver’ dashboard, but it seems that it isn’t as much as it used to be with the older Munichwagens. The steering too is a size bigger than the one on the 325i, making it difficult to get the right driving position, though the front seats are wonderful. The materials, especially the burr walnut wood finish on the centre console and dashboard median, bring a smile to your face. What I also liked are the way the rear seats are contoured to provide just the right amount of underthigh and back support, though the lack of height adjustable seatbelts at the front and a sunroof is telling. More so, since the car costs Rs 29.4 lakh, ex-showroom Mumbai.
Sitting behind also made me realise that the dampers are a bit too hard for Indian roads, so maybe blaming the run-flats might not be entirely correct. From what company officials have told us, the slightly hard ride has more to do with the selection of the rough road package than tyres alone. The raising of the ground clearance, without making any compromises on the driving experience, has led to this drop in ride comfort. Damping is not bad at crawl speeds or even over high speed bumps. It is there, somewhere between the two extremes, that it gets a bit dicey, but not so bad that you can’t live with it.What I couldn’t live without is the feeling of guilt when we turned into Mapro Farms and realised that our 260 km drive in search of the finest strawberry was in vain. The picture on your right says it all. We were a couple of months early. Or too late. No one told us (read: should have Googled) that it was a winter fruit. Goddamnit. Farcical exercise or not, one thing was for sure, the BMW 320d as an executive sedan is a fantastic proposition, even if it is priced a bit too high. If you have to buy a diesel sedan in that segment now, this is the one to go for. And make sure you fire your driver before you buy one, otherwise you would miss out on a whole lot of fun. As for me, we need to plan our ‘actual’ strawberry run six months down the line... with the same car. But with the new Mercedes Benz C220 CDI for company.