A BMW F32 Road Tested
Looking at a very general coupe through the lens of an enthusiast.
Pushing hard through a tightening corner, the world is moving backwards at an alarming rate. I'm still trail braking but the front of the car doesn't argue with my increasing steering input. The left wheels have fully loaded up and I can feel the rumble of the rear tyres giving up the last of their grip as the car's weight stays firmly over the front wheels. Sheep on the outside no doubt wonder what the screeching sound of the tyres is. I can't help but think that if I was in a harder sprung car on this particular road surface that resembles a teenager's face more than public property, it would be, if anything, at a disadvantage relative to the softer set up of this car.
I'm on an empty country road somewhere in Scotland on a sunny Sunday in an Estoril blue BMW. It's not an M-car (as much as I might wish it is at times) and it's not petrol powered either. In fact, it's not even one of their fast diesels. It's a 420d; BMW's entry level 4 Series alongside its petrol powered 420i brother before the F32 was recently discontinued in favour of the newer, uglier G22. Both the 420d and 420i have 2.0 litre, four cylinder engines that sit an impressive way behind the front axle. Despite this, it's not impossible to induce understeer in this car. If you're too aggressive with steering inputs at speed the front end may slide, which is an odd characteristics in a rear wheel drive car. That was slightly dialled out in 2017 though when the F32 received an increase in front camber, a different spring rate as well the addition of beefier anti-roll bars. Then again, this isn't a an edgy high performance car, 181hp and a >1,550kg wet weight with 255mm rear tyres mean that while it isn't slow as per say, the grip to power ratio won't accommodate turning on the throttle in anything other than the most adverse weather conditions.
All this, as well as a steering rack that's quite linear makes this an accessible car to drive quickly. Other models higher up in the range with larger, heavier engines that have more power and if you bring adjustable dampers into the mix, stiffer suspension that's more responsive to smaller inputs, may be faster and arguably more rewarding to drive but they don't offer the security that this car does on the edge. You don't need to be a great driver to get the most out of this car, just a good one. That makes this an ideal option for someone in the position I was in when I bought it - that being a fairly inexperienced driver who needed a car that ticked all the obvious every-day boxes but also wanted something I could use to improve my driving ability with. In it I've learned how to predict oversteer and correct it when it happens, as well as gain a better understanding of weight transfer. It's a sweet spot car that's dynamically capable without being fast.
On the subject of speed, the 2.0 engine does feel very underpowered but it is surprisingly expressive to drive for a diesel four pot. On the contrary, that's a bit like being told you're the best person in your team at playing football, when your team actually plays cricket. Straight line performance is only redeemed by the eight speed ZF gearbox. The box itself is very reliable [even in much more powerful cars] and has been used widely across the market. I'd argue that BMW's mapping however, makes this the best combination of gearbox and map we've seen for any torque converter box at the time of this being a new car in 2013. In any driving mode it feels just right for what the driver wants. 'Comfort' changes are very smooth and unlike in rivals, the car doesn't sit in a gear that's too high when cruising, so you won't find the engine lugging itself down when a hill approaches. The sportier settings are responsive and changes are fast, even if they're still noticeably slower than DCT and DSG boxes.
Once again, this isn't some sports car aimed only at the enthusiast, as I keep reminding myself. This is a do-everything kind of car that'll see a majority of buyers who don't care for dynamic capabilities but rather want the kudos that comes with a BMW coupe. Consultants and solicitors. Those kind of people - nice people but, rarely car enthusiasts. One area this is particularly apparent in is the brakes. They're God awful. Yes, I know there was a larger set of 'M' brakes available on the options sheet when this car was new but they're not much better. BMW have always been known for making good cars with bad brakes but this feels like somewhat of an exaggeration of that theory in practice. Step on the brakes from speed once and they'll perform like any other set but do it again and your heart will fall clean out of your posterior without so much as brushing against the sides on its way. They'll feel spongy, at the end of their tether. That's not something a vast majority of owners will notice as I'm not describing the kind of driving they'll be doing though the enthusiastic driver will tell a different tale, perhaps from the comfort of their very own hospital bed.
Moving to a slightly more general tone, in terms everyday living with this car the Professional Media infotainment system is absolutely worth the praise it receives. The iDrive turntable is more accurate to use when driving than a touch screen would be, and it contains a lot of information that is laid out in a way that's easy to grasp so it doesn't take your attention from the road. There's a wealth of features you never thought you needed before and now, can't live without. The ability download music onto the system and store it there is the one I use most. Sticking with the interior, the seats are very well bolstered though if you're fat, you'll most likely find the bolsters uncomfortable. If you don't opt the electronically adjustable seats then you'll be able to get nice and low in the car but forfeit lumbar support, which is missed during longer periods spent in the car.
Continuing on the interior, the steering wheel is a funny one. In any car it is thee component the driver spends the most time connected to. So then it's all the more confusing as to why they've made it pointlessly thick. It doesn't sit comfortably in your hands and I can't help thinking that if it were thinner then I'd be feeling more of the road through it. I also wouldn't be as conscious of the electric power steering unit as much as I otherwise am. As a result, you do notice that this car would benefit from more steering feedback, a characteristic that should never be a second thought in a car such as this and is another criticism that received attention in that 2017 update. If you've driven any modern BMW then none of this will be news to you. From the enthusiastic driver's perspective, the dynamic gap that once existed between the brand and its rivals has been reeled in by some margin over the past fifteen year or so.
This isn't an easy car to draw a straight forward conclusion to, mainly because of the identity crisis that it faces. On one hand there's a great chassis under there that was developed by some of the world's best motor engineers with looks to match. On the other, the 420d doesn't deliver the driving experience you'd expect from a car that looks like this but that's not to say that a majority of those who buy this car will care. You could say that makes it a bit like an Apple watch in the sense that people who wouldn't usually care about watches buy one as a vanity object, but it does still have its practical uses.