In Germany, BMW and diesel engines go together like bratwurst and lederhosen. Probably their biggest selling single car of the past decade is the 320d, the darling of both fleet car and private buyers, due to the perfect tradeoff between power and fuel consumption. It’s also cheap to buy and fun enough for the 3 Series coupe when it humiliates hot hatches between the lights all day long.
Even in Europe, there used to be a misconception that diesel engines are smelly, dirty and slow, but the opposite is actually true nowadays. On average, diesels make about 20% less exhaust gasses than the equivalent petrol engine simply because they use fuel in a more efficient way. New breeds of diesel engines introduced five or six years ago made petrol power look a bit shabby and stupid, but only on the right side of the Atlantic.
As fuel costs in America also started to soar, BMW naturally thought it was time to try shifting some diesels. Yet just like the people who first invent something only to die in poverty, the gift of foresight did not reward the Bavarians.
Two years have passed and the 2014 BMW 328d has made its debut at the New York International Auto Show earlier this week. The car is actually a rebadged European 320d, since its 2-liter TwinPower Turbo engine makes 180 horsepower and 280 lb-ft (380 Nm) of torque. We think it will cost a bit under $40,000 and is expected to achieve 45 mpg highway, better than some hybrids.
I have no doubt this 4-cylinder diesel will sell in America, now that Audi, Volkswagen and Chevrolet are all on board with their own diesel cars. I am, however, concerned about what America will think of it, what they will use the 328d for and if it will make them happy.
First, there’s the power to consider. 180 horsepower is what you can expect from a cheap 2-liter Hyundai. America has always been obsesses with power, which is why it has so many tanks and aircraft carriers, but just like its weapons of war, power is overrated. Cars prefer another, less understood figure which is actually a lot more important: torque, an expression of force expressed over a distance, it’s the stuff you need to overtake a semi truck, and the 328d has more than you’d expect. In fact, it can probably pull boats, though that would look really stupid.
Secondly, there’s the economy. The way I see it, hybrids have one big problem in America. Around town, the electric mode is engaged and you consume no petrol at all. However, on a highway you end up with the same economy as a conventional car because you need the extra power to keep you speed up. There’s also the added weight of the batteries, the extra wiring and the motor to move, so there isn’t really a benefit. Diesel on the other hand has none of these drawbacks… at least as far as I can see.
And because the 328d is economical, you have to make fewer trips to the gas station, you pay less for fuel and you can take much longer journeys with fewer worries. Sure, the thrills are being traded off to achieve this, but look at it from another angle. Kids buy laptops with powerful graphic cars to play games on. Men buy laptops that give them 8 hours of battery autonomy. Time to grow up!
Since we’re on the subject of hybrids, let’s go into the twilight zone and compare the Prius to the 328d. Right now, the Plug-in can cost as much as $40,000, as much as the 328d will, and gets 50 mpg combined… supposedly. Prius buyers will of course defend their cars, they have to, but even they will admit the plastics feel like they’re made from recycled Pepsi bottles.
You’d need an engineering degree to tell the 328i and 328d apart if you take the badges off. Both have the same body, wheels, interiors and architecture. Twins brothers from different mothers these two!
So to answer my question, what can America do with a relatively powerful, economical, in some ways quite beautiful BMW 3 Series? Everything!