These are everyday luxury sedans – albeit relatively compact ones. So, the question is, can you actually take them onto a racetrack should the opportunity present itself – or are they merely sports sedans in name?
Well, let’s start with the newest of the lot – the BMW. The 3 Series also has the most to lose. It’s probably the best selling entry-level luxury car in the world, and has crafted its reputation over the past few decades purely on its ability to reward its driver. So, when initial reports of this 6th generation 3 Series came out, there were murmurs that BMW had softened the car a tad too much – and, in doing so, strayed from its heritage.
This car is a clean sheet design, and a stunning one at that. The front end is aggressive, with a sharp snout, and a glint in its eye as the two headlights squint to meet the kidney grille in the middle. So, it certainly still looks the part – no question. On the inside, the new Three is more spacious and more comfortable. In India, buyers can choose between the 320d and 328i. And the 320d, which is what we have here, can be had in both Sport and Luxury trim. The Luxury trim of our test car meant that we got all the fineries, such as a leather and wood trimmed interior. In fact, the wood on the dashboard even had an intricate inlay, which was a nice touch. On the whole, though, the cabin is a definite step up from the previous generation.
But that does beg the question – has BMW erred too far in the direction of comfort and luxury with the new Three? Well, there was only one way to find out – and that was to actually go out onto a racetrack and set a lap time. So, we ventured out on track – after waiting for the early morning rain to subside that is. You see, when we reached the BIC early that morning, the track was soaking wet, and the heavens were still very much open. Thankfully, though, by the time we were ready to set some lap times, the sun had been out and worked its magic – so we had a dry track. As I drove out of the pit lane, then, I set the Dynamic Drive Control on the BMW to Sport, which had an instant effect on the responsiveness of the chassis and engine. I also slid the gear lever into manual and disengaged the traction control – the chassis balance in a BMW is such that you can afford to take a few liberties!
The engine is a 2.0 litre diesel mill that’s not too dissimilar from the previous generation BMW 320d. Except that now it gets solenoid injectors that supply fuel at a pressure of 2,000 bar, and it’s mated to an 8-speed gearbox instead of 6. And while the solenoid injectors are quite noisy at idle, the new eight speed gearbox is nothing short of sublime. Its 181 horsepower propels this car to 100km/h in a fairly scant 7.6 seconds. This new car is also 40 kilos lighter – despite being larger – than the previous generation, which is sure to benefit on-track performance. It also has 380Nm of torque from as low as 1,750rpm, which means that you’re never short of grunt and responsiveness. It does, however, run out of steam a little bit at the top end. It has a 5,400rpm redline, but I was actually changing gears just past the 5,000rpm mark to ensure that the urgency of the power delivery didn’t taper off.
The 320d doesn’t come with paddles on the steering – that’s the exclusive preserve (along with a very useful Head-Up display) of the 328i – so I had to change gears using the fly-by-wire gear lever. In this case, you actually push up to change down, and pull down to change up. And while that may appear counter-intuitive at first, you quickly get used to it – especially on a track, since it’s a lot like a sequential box in a racing car. The logic here being that you downshift under braking, which is when the weight of the car transfers to the front – making it easier for you to push, rather than pull the gear lever. And with the speed at which this 8-speed gearbox swaps cogs, you do actually feel like you’ve got a sequential manual from a racing car.
The electromechanical steering was another concern before driving the car, but those fears were allayed as well. In fact, the steering is so good that I wouldn’t have been able to tell that this wasn’t a traditional hydraulic power-assisted rack unless I had read the spec sheet. And better yet, it’s lighter than the – at times, overly heavy – steering of the previous gen. The 320d aims for the apex of corners with great athleticism, and the chassis is so well balanced that you can actually turn-in on the brakes. Trail-brake while going into a corner with a little too much speed, however, and the rear end will come around on you – that is, of course, only if you’ve turned off the traction control. But, even then, the chassis is so easy to control that the 320d is a real joy to drive around the track. Here’s a car that’s not only more spacious and more comfortable, but also one that drives just the way a 3 Series should. So, do the others have a chance?
Well, the Mercedes shows up with some pretty impressive battle armour in the form of three crucial letters – an A, an M, and a G. AMG is to Mercedes what ‘M’ is to BMW – a thinly veiled motorsport division that also creates monsters for the street. In this case, however, the engine in the C250 CDI has very little to do with Affalterbach, Germany, where AMG’s monstrous engines are hand built – each one by its own engineer. The term ‘AMG Performance Edition’ in our C Class means that you get a very attractive body kit, nice set of 17-inch AMG-esque alloys, and hip hugging seats with AMG floor mats. But, does any of that translate to speed on the track?
Well, this is the most powerful car of our trio. The 2.2 litre turbo-diesel puts out 201bhp and a massive 500Nm of torque. And the first thing you notice when pulling out of the pit-lane is that it has a nice, slightly throaty, growl when putting the power down. Now, there are a couple of things that you can do to give the C250 an AMG-like driving experience. Firstly, the Merc (unlike the BMW and Volvo) has paddles behind the steering that allow you to change gears manually – for which you have to press a button marked ‘M’ by the gear lever. Then you hit Sport on the center console, and turn off the traction control through the on-board computer accessed via the three-spoke multi-function steering wheel. This steering wheel, by the way, is an absolute gem – as it appears to have been plucked directly out of a C63 AMG.
And once you’re out on track, you’re immediately struck by two things – one is how responsive this engine is at any rpm, and the other is how flat this Mercedes is through the corners. The engine is so refined, and it has a powerband that’s so wide that it simply doesn’t matter what gear or rev range you’re in, it just pulls. The steering isn’t as communicative as the BMW, but the C250 does exactly as instructed and turns into corners completely flat without a hint of body roll – and that’s quite surprising for a Merc that’s not a pukka AMG. What lets it down, though, is the seven-speed transmission, which is far too unresponsive when compared with the 320d.
That apart, this is not your grandfathers Mercedes by any stretch. It’s actually a really good sports sedan. It looks good, and attracts a lot of attention. It has a really high quality interior that has some interesting party tricks, such as a double-sunroof, electrically adjustable steering column, and that beautiful steering wheel. And, most surprisingly, the C250 CDI has a chassis that feels rather at home on a racetrack. It gets some help in this department by some very grippy tires in the form of Continentals latest ContiSportContact5’s in a staggered setup – 225/45 R17’s in front and 245/40 R17’s at the rear. The end result is enough grip and grunt to pull you out of any corner. The AMG tag is certainly not in vein here. Other than the gearbox, this is a great car – it can pull up its skirt and run with the best of them, including the new 3 Series.
So, on to the Volvo then. The S60 (like the Merc) gets a lot of attention on the road – if not more so – just by virtue of the fact that it’s a beautiful shape, in a loud colour, and one that you don’t see very often on our roads. And that’s a shame, because the S60 really does impress. It’s got a great chassis, very good ride, and the most comfortable drivers chair in the automotive world. If there was one car that I would have for a blast across the country in, it would be the S60 – just by virtue of the fact that it’s so immensely comfortable. Of course, Volvo is known to build some of the safest cars in the world as well. But comfortable and safe on a track-car don’t make – so, how does it fare at the BIC?
Well, the S60 was always going to be at a slight disadvantage against its German rivals. It’s front wheel drive for a start, and has a 2.0 litre five-cylinder turbo diesel that produces 163bhp and 400Nm of torque, which is mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission that gets it to 100km/h in a relatively relaxed 9.2 seconds. As I head out on track, I’m searching for settings to adjust, but there isn’t much that I can do in the Volvo. There’s no Sport button, and I can’t turn the traction control off. You can, however, change gears manually via the gear lever – but it’s the other way around as compared to the BMW.
Nevertheless, the engine provides a pretty decent amount of grunt as you gun it – the 400Nm of torque introducing itself nicely. Then you come to a corner, and there is body roll but you also find bags of grip and pretty good drive coming out of the bends. Hey, this isn’t half bad! Then, however, you try and downshift manually before the next corner, and it all starts to unravel as the gear lever doesn’t really respond to your inputs – it up-shifts when you ask it to, but it’s decidedly reluctant to down-shift when requested.
And while the engine has decent grunt till 4000rpm, it runs out of steam thereafter – so you do have to short-shift. The up-side is that the S60 is actually pretty good on the brakes, and it changes direction nicely – so, the key here is to carry as much speed into, and through, the corners as possible to take advantage of the inherent skill of the chassis. It will, however, understeer if you push it too much at the corner entry. And powering out of the corners is delayed because you’re held back by the electronic safety net that doesn’t allow even the slightest wheelspin.
The end result is a lap time of 2:45.8 for the Volvo versus 2:42.1 in the Mercedes and 2:41.9 in the BMW. In fairness, the Mercedes got a lot of track time prior to setting a lap time – so, conceivably it could have gone quicker than the 320d and caused a major upset. Nevertheless, what this test has proven is that all three machines are well worthy of the tag ‘sports sedan.’ The Beemer and Merc are quite at home on the track – the BMW thanks to the inherent capability of its brand new chassis and a great new gearbox, and the Mercedes thanks to a little help from three, seemingly, randomly selected letters. The Volvo, on the other hand, is best kept on the street – but, not necessarily to a fault. I just wish we would see more of them.