One of the first "customer" F30's in the UK, and still a relatively rare sight on the roads, although for how much longer, I can't help but wonder.
I had a 2009 E90 318d, which I liked a great deal, so the newcomer had quite a lot to live up to. In most ways, the F30 moves the game on. It is in a different league inside, with the same high quality materials, but a much more modern feel. The austere, dated dash of the E90 wasn't the most pleasant thing to behold, but the F30 gives you lots more curves and textures, and now comes with standard iDrive on all bar the base ES models. There is also appreciably more rear legroom and shoulder room than the E90, with the dimensional increases making themselves felt mostly for rear seat passengers. This is no bad thing, as the cramped rear seating was one of the most irritating things about the E90.
This F30 was specced with no options other than metallic paint, but still the standard kit list is generous. Bluetooth, cruise, dual zone climate, four electric windows, electric mirrors, parking sensors, auto lights, auto wipers and keyless operation. The extra kit, and the more modern interior make it a much more "special" place to be than the E90, which always to me felt spartan and slightly dated inside.
An interesting new feature on the F30 is the provision of a choice of driving modes to select depending on your mood. The default "Eco Pro" mode is optimised for economy, and softens the throttle response, brings up a gearshift indicator on the central information panel, with helpful blue text when you're in the optimum gear, as well as turning down the air-conditioning and turning on the regenerative braking system, all accompanied if you choose, by a graphic display in the iDrive screen, to show you what it's up to at a given moment.
The economy figures posted on the computer in this mode can be staggering. I rarely see less than an indicated 65 mpg over a trip, with low 70's possible if I'm careful. The 318d in the same conditions, driven in the same way, used to struggle to get much more than 48 mpg. That said, the indicated figures for the F30 can be taken with a huge pinch of salt, more of which later.
Switch to "Sport" mode, and the throttle response sharpens up, the steering weights up, and the car feels much more like a traditional BMW. The middle setting, "Comfort", is a compromise between the two. I tend to switch between Sport and Eco Pro, bypassing Comfort completely, but everyone will be different.
The engine is incredibly gutsy and responsive in Sport mode. At 161PS, it loses about 20PS to the non-eco 320d, but produces the same torque, so the actual shove off the line and for "on demand" acceleration is identical. 0-60 is quoted at 8 seconds dead, but like most diesels, it feels quicker than it is. Unfortunately, the engine is also surprisingly gruff and vocal, with refinement well off the pace of the common rail units from the likes of VW and the French manufacturers, even down to starting and stopping with quite a shudder through the car. It does go well though.
The gearbox is an improvement over the rather agricultural E90, with a lighter, sweeter action around the gate, and a lovely mechanical feel to the shift. Fifth was a little stiff when the car was brand new, but after the first 800 miles or so, it was fine. The clutch is also lighter and more progressive than the E90's.
One of my concerns was that the economy optimised gearing on this ED model would wreck the driving experience, but it's not the case. 6th is tall (100 mph is 2500 RPM), but there's enough low down grunt from that engine to pull it convincingly from 50 mph upwards, meaning you don't need to change down to overtake or pull up long hills on motorways. The other ratios are sensibly spaced, and there's no issue keeping the engine on the boil between changes. Like most modern diesels though, it won't "lug" from tickover, and doesn't take much provocation to stall. Familiarity overcomes this within a day or two though, and it is not an issue.
So, a quicker, better equipped, classier, better finished, and more spacious car than the one it replaced, without a doubt. But you notice I haven't mentioned the BMW ace yet. How does it go round corners?
The honest answer is, dynamically it's just a little bit disappointing. The E90, even as a humble 318d ES, was a beautiful handling car. It turned in instantly, could be balanced on the throttle, and the steering had near perfect weighting and feel. The F30 is, for want of a better word, duller. It rides better, no question about it, but the steering is your typical modern electrically assisted numbness (Sport just makes it heavy and numb instead of light and numb), and the response to a hard turn in is lazier, and more understeery. It just doesn't flow like the old car did, and generally feels softer and slower in its responses. By the standards of many cars, it's still a good handling car, but it's no longer great in my opinion. I note that many of the test cars in the mags had the expensive adaptive suspension fitted, and the cynic in me can't help but wonder if BMW realised that the standard suspension simply doesn't cut the mustard dynamically.
My final gripe relates to fuel economy, not so much outright, but the incredible disparity between indicated and actual values. Over three tankfuls, the system indicated 57 mpg, 63 mpg and 64 mpg. What I got respectively was 50 mpg, 56 mpg and 57 mpg. These are still impressive figures for a big 161 bhp saloon car, but they are not what the computer says, and they certainly aren't in the same ballpark as BMW's claimed 68 mpg on the combined cycle. The engine is still tight, and the 318d never gave its best economy until about 10,000 miles, so I will monitor it. But anyone test driving one and falling for the computer's lies, is going to be very disappointed by the reality.
On the whole though, despite the negatives, I really like this car. It makes you feel special in a way the E90 never really did, and its engine makes up for any shortcomings in refinement with plenty of grunt, and very impressive throttle response in Sport mode. But the car isn't the unqualified model of perfection that the motoring press would have you believe. It's very, very good, but not perfect. Still, based on performance so far, it will be a pleasure to live with over the next three years, as long it doesn't suffer from early build gremlins.