Introduced a year ago at the 2013 New York International Auto Show, BMW’s 328d proved a satisfying long-legged runner to take back to the 2014 NYIAS this month.
Powered by the company’s first four-cylinder diesel brought to the U.S. – an engine that’s seen duty in Europe for several years now – the 328d is rather unique as Audi and Mercedes don’t presently have same-class diesel competitors.
Since its introduction last fall, enthusiasts have discussed the value proposition of the car known in Europe as a 320d, priced here $5,850 more than the 320i, $1,300 more than the 328i, and which returns 9-10 mpg more respectively.
The short story is this: It’s every bit a BMW 3-Series, and the market has spoken by elevating it to a distant third-best U.S. sales ranking – in the admittedly small U.S. diesel sales arena – behind two lower priced perennial favorites from Volkswagen.
The 328d replaces the now discontinued, far-more stout but thirstier 335d imported from 2006-2011. BMW’s goal is to deliver a 3-series which outscores the Volkswagen Jetta TDI in mpg, while significantly increasing the fun-to-drive quotient – at least over the VW, if not necessarily the former tire-shredding stable mate.
Speaking of stable mates, BMW also makes available the 328d in an xDrive all-wheel-drive and xDrive Sportwagen, both of which are rated 2 mpg less on the combined cycle.
To get hybrid-like fuel efficiency numbers, BMW had to withdraw the 425 pound-foot 3.0-liter six from the former U.S. market 3-series diesel.
Instead, the 328d gets a far more sensible 2.0-liter with single twin-scroll turbo. This inline-four delivers a still-respectable 180 horsepower and 280 pounds-feet of torque through an 8-speed ZF automatic transmission powering the rear wheels.
The all-aluminum engine relies on tricks like direct injection and electronically controlled variable exhaust geometry and boosted power is sufficient for 0-60 in about 7.2 seconds.
This is quicker than a Volkswagen Passatt or Jetta, and it also beats them slightly in the government’s mpg estimates with 32 city, 45 highway, and 37 combined (see chart below).
Aiding things somewhat is stop-start technology that operates assuming the engine is warmed – and it can be defeated with the push of a button if desired.
Urea injection into the exhaust stream is also part of the formula which helps reduce NOX emissions. A blue-capped fill port is right next to the fuel fill hidden by the same right-side mounted door.
Estimated refill intervals for the AdBlue diesel exhaust fluid is about as often as an oil change and warnings alert the driver when it’s getting low – a good thing, as the car will not start if the urea runs out, per EPA rules.
Otherwise a 3-Series
Aesthetically, the 328d fits right in with the gasoline-powered 320i and 328i because the only thing distinguishing it is badging.
If that BMW “roundel” logo strategically placed around the vehicle to complement its flowing lines is part of the appeal, the fact that the oil burner may be a bit pokier than other 3-Series variants will not be revealed by any outward indications.
And to liven things up further, our car came equipped with options, led off by the $3,500 M-Sport kit. This includes 18-inch wheels, M-sport steering wheel, adaptive sport suspension, sport seats, aluminum hexagon interior trim, anthracite (black) headliner, and aerodynamic kit – actually adding to the aforementioned curb appeal.
This $45,075 MSRP (including $925 destination) example also came with the $500 sport automatic transmission, and $1,000 dynamic handling package with variable sport steering.
The sport steering wheel is equipped with paddle shifters for redundancy in how you may manually shift the automatic – although a true manual transmission is not available.
Controls on and near the wheel keep hands on the wheel while hopefully eyes are on the road and hands are fiddling with the phone, infotainment, or setting the cruise control, for instance.
Quality of materials, albeit not lacking in plastic, is good. It’s nice plastic, with plenty of the soft-touch variety, and some glossy surfaces on the center stack. Nothing looks or feels cheap.
The 8-way multi-adjustable seats with manual thigh-support extension along with electrically width-adjustable side bolsters makes these seats supportive while all-day comfortable, and adaptable to a range of body sizes.
Once situated, there are plenty of other controls within easy access. A controller positioned to the right and aft of the shifter lets you scroll through infotainment menus. This vehicle had no navigation computer or backup camera however.
Suspension controls are also easy to manage. A button to the left of the shifter lets you select settings which are displayed in the infotainment screen. These are fuel-saving Eco Pro, which is supposed to offer 20-percent improvement in economy, Sport, and Comfort.
Front leg, shoulder, and headroom are all acceptable for an average range of humans. Rear room also is decent, if not capacious, even behind the front seat scooted back for a 34-inch inseam driver.
Comfort is best for four, but a fifth person can sit in the middle back row.
Trunk space is also fine for most average duties. A fold-down rear seat feature would have been nice however.
A Driver’s [Green] Car
The graceful but relatively efficient 328d should fit right into the tug-of-war happening now in the court of public opinion between traditional car aficionados and alternative energy enthusiasts.
Talk by agitated mainstream automotive press writers of sporty-but-still-frugal cars that “we want to drive” has been juxtaposed against cars (like the Prius) that “we should drive.”
If a “green car” is only viewed as medicine that must be choked down because it’s good for the environment and better for us all, then the 328d is a sugar-coated treat even for those who otherwise are without such care.
In real-world driving, the 328d returns a Camry Hybrid-like lower to high 30 mpg, even with some fast starts to test acceleration. Chill out, and the oil burner crests up to the 40s and beyond 45 mpg as advertised for the highway, which we found driving from Pennsylvania to New York and back.
And, as an extra added bonus, it is a 3-Series sedan – one of the better regarded drivers’ cars that’s been evolved for decades now.
This one has energy saving electric power steering which enthusiasts are less keen about. And it comes with stop-start which is better than previous iterations and not clunky when restarting (and it can be deactivated), but the 328d overall is a balanced set of attributes.
Said balance is between the traditional criteria by which “drivers’ cars” are measured: acceleration, cornering, and braking.
The torquey engine’s output is pureed through eight ratios to keep the car in an already fat powerband. It’s not breathtakingly fast – really only as quick as a Camry Hybrid – but sweep it down a curvy road and you soon realize this is more than an appliance meant to get from point A to B.
Keeping it in D aids mileage, but the paddle shifters are effective for controlled up or down shifts. Peak indicated rpm of 5,400 is lower than you’d expect on a gas-powered version, but it willingly revs up and down with a suitably burly soundtrack.
A bit less power – and engine refinement you’d get with one of the super-smooth inline sixes BMW has built a reputation with – is the tradeoff for an otherwise enjoyable Autobahn-worthy car with 500-600 miles between fill ups.
To its credit, BMW has done what it can to cut noise, vibration, and harshness, and the diesel engine is on par with one of the gasoline four cylinders the Bavarian company is also using to drive up its average fuel economy scores.
At idle, characteristic diesel engine noise can be heard, but it is not obtrusive to our ears – almost a novelty, really – and once underway, the sound levels taper off to almost imperceptible.
Adding to its road manners are low-profile sport tires, well-sorted suspension, and powerful four-wheel vented disc brakes.
This is not to say it’s an M4, but truth be told, so many cars are so competent, they are more so than their drivers and encourage extra-legal – if not also aggressive – driving, depending on the character behind the wheel. So, how much performance do you really need or want? Only you can answer that.
One nitpick we’ll observe is the short-sidewall tires striking post-winter potholes yielded some nasty bottoming out of the suspension.
Two or three times, even dodging the bumps for the most part, we used up the full range of front or rear suspension travel and experienced a rude jolt that you’d not get with a more cushy ride. This may not be a design flaw, but just part of the territory for a car tipped toward higher performance, so be advised.
As an entry level luxury purchase, it goes without saying there are cheaper ways to get around. The question is do you want a relatively fine German sport sedan that also gets relatively great mileage?
If so, the 328d is a cut above a Jetta TDI, albeit at a price. But it’s all relative. Compared to BMW’s other attempt at a green 3-Series, the six-cylinder and quicker ActiveHybrid3, it costs less, and gets better mileage.
And to get a diesel sedan from Audi, you’ll need to skip to another price point for the A6 TDI, and from Mercedes, look to the E250 Blutec which matches the 328d’s mpg, but for another $13,000 on the sticker.
In all, we’d say there’s probably good reason why BMW’s 328d sold about the same number of units through March as the Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid and the Lexus RX 450 h hybrid, and led all other diesels except the VW Passat and Jetta.
Like any diesel car sold here in the land of over-priced diesel, the pros and cons need to be carefully weighed between price versus performance and value perceived, but we like this one.
It’s the cheapest way into a top-tier German sedan with a diesel engine, it offers an extra dimension to the 3-Series’ balance of attributes – fuel economy – and we’d recommend not ruling this one out without first taking a closer look.