Tuesday 1 February 2011

Driven #18:- 335d SE

The turbocharged, go-faster Volvo 850T-5 caused something of a stir on its release in the early nineties. For a start, it was a Volvo, and Volvo were more associated with ever-so-sensible brick shaped cars best suited for carrying elderly people and antiques. Then there was the power, the modernity, the fact that the car represented totally new ground for the staid old firm. Then, in ’94, Volvo took the 850 racing in the British Touring Car Championship. And, as if looking to take the piss totally, the combatant they fielded was an estate car.

Nowadays, fast estate cars are nothing new. Everybody latched onto the idea during the nineties and, er, zero-ties. Today the Germans have fast estate cars coming out of their ears, BMW with the M5, Mercedes with the E63 and Audi with the RS6, but most of them wear their hearts on their sleeve. They are all festooned with extra grilles, shouty badges, look-at-me wheels and they all emit thunderous exhaust notes when provoked.

However, there are still factory sleepers out there. This is one of the best.

What you see before you is a BMW 3-Series Touring. It’s an SE model, the “ordinary” one. Stylistically it makes no allusion towards dynamism, it forgoes all the deep chin spoilers and side-skirts of its M-Sport badged brethren. These “I drive a right sporty car, me” models are the scourge of the outside lane of our motorways. In Le Mans Blue they’re a constant, threatening presence in our rear view mirror, their gormless, middle-management pilots desperate to reach their next sales conference early enough to get a seat near the water cooler. M-Sports are almost always 320d’s too, displaying the look of performance while still meeting fleet-managers approval for low CO2 output and the attendant tax advantages.

The SE is above all that nonsense. The look is of bland, unpretentious quality. It makes no particular statement other than what you read into the badge. The fact that it’s a Touring, the station wagon variant, adds to the sense of maturity that it exudes. This particular example, in Sparkling Graphite metallic makes no more rear-view announcements than a cooking 318i, except for the chrome grille that signifies six cylinders. Even the wheels are nothing special, they were only a few hundred quid upgrade for the basic 3-Series SE, and standard equipment on this particular car. Only when you suddenly get overtaken, blisteringly quickly, do you see the twin chrome exhaust outlets and realise just what you’ve been passed by.

When I first lived with a 335d a few years back, I ran one for a week or so as a company vehicle. That particular machine, a saloon in Titanium Silver, had been an ordering error. It had gone into build without any optional upgrades whatsoever and looked to all intents and purposes like a 318i but with different exhausts. This made it an absolutely spectacular q-ship, an unnervingly stealthy overtaking weapon, and one that deliciously melted into the background when it needed to.

The car you see before you has a similar appeal. Being an estate car, and in a restrained colour nobody quite expects the twin-turbocharged diesel thrust it can deliver. Two hundred and eighty six horsepower, five hundred and sixty Newton metres of torque, with none of the histrionics of the highly strung petrol fuelled machinery you usually expect this sort of performance from.

Nought to sixty takes 6.1 seconds. That’s pretty impressive for any car, let alone a sober looking diesel fuelled estate car. But that’s only part of the story, the real majesty of this car is what happens when you put your foot down at motorway outside lane cruising speeds. It takes a very special car indeed to keep up with the 335d as slingshots towards the horizon. From any increment, whether in gear or in kickdown, if you’re flexible with how rigidly you stick to traffic regulations, this car makes journeys very short indeed.

It’s a fabulously stress-free experience. Overtaking is incredibly safe, there’s never any doubt if you have enough time for a manoeuvre and, when you do go for it, the obligatory steptronic gearbox responds obediently and without hesitation. Point and shoot. The ride, too, is excellent. While the 3-series still receives short shrift for its run-flat tyres, on this application the ride is pliant at anything less than a low-speed crawl, and far better than that of the M-Sport models with their zero-compromise leanings.

The great irony, though, is that the 335d is actually more fun without the M-Sport leanings. Sure, the sportier package has more grip, a sharper turn-in, less roll, generally everything you’d want in a sporting car. But the SE provides more entertainment because you more readily sense that you’re reaching the limits. In fact, with torrents of torque available directly to the rear tyres, the limits are breached as and when you want. It makes everything so easy. This car is a mobile drift academy, roundabouts become your playground; but you better get friendly with your local tyre-fitter.

Inside it’s the usual 3-Series story. The E90's was never the most loved of BMW dashboards, it can all seem a little stark and plain looking, but I reckon it’s time for a little re-evaluation. Yes, it’s plain in execution, but the ergonomics are first rate and the materials first class. This particular example displays BMW's not universally loved I-Drive controller which some people still fail to get along with, but which I infinitely prefer to fingerprint spattered touch-screen interfaces, it's far more tactile than those can ever be. Things would be far better if I-Drive wasn't optimised for left-hand-drive markets, I'm right-handed, and wouldn't dream of trying to work my computer mouse with my left hand. I-Drive gives me no choice.

There are some genuine master-strokes, though. Perhaps as an acknowledgement to the failings of I-Drive, the Infotainment system has eight programmable direct-access keys, these can be assigned to a favourite radio station, Sat-Nav address or frequently used phone number. Brilliantly, a capacitative sensor recognises your finger as you touch the button and displays the command you're about to call upon before you press it in the conventional manner. You get the impression that BMW have put a lot of thought into things, and also have access to some very clever technology indeed. Good cupholders in the front, too.

It's an intoxicating package all round, this one. Subtlety to the point of near-invisibility on the outside, quiet efficiency inside yet with apocalyptic firepower on tap from the engineroom. Being an estate car, it's even practical to boot.

You know what they say about the quiet ones...

(Please note - an updated version of this story has since been published on www.hooniverse.com)