A mean achievement for BMW

We should be thankful everyday - and most of us are - that we live in a free society where we can make the vast majority of decisions for ourselves, says Richard M Hammond.

We should be thankful everyday - and most of us are - that we live in a free society where we can make the vast majority of decisions for ourselves, says Richard M Hammond.

When it comes to transportation, as in many walks of life, we don't do badly for options. Granted, trains are overcrowded and bus routes are not perfect, but as a nation we're fortunate enough that most people can afford some kind of car in which to make a journey.

Those with a more handsome degree of spending power are truly spoiled for choice. Big cars, small cars, roofless cars, four-wheel drive cars, powerful petrol cars or frugal diesel cars are all available, offering varying degrees of comfort, performance and ability.

Choice is a wonderful thing. If you want a huge petrol engine and the performance that comes with it - and you're willing to pay the financial penalty - then you're free to do so. Likewise, if you'd prefer to pay a premium for a highly-economical vehicle that will increase your returns on an increasingly precious commodity, then that's a personal decision, too.

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Yet the arrival of cars such as BMW's 316d continue to raise the provocative question; if it's possible to buy a vehicle this rounded that refuses to return less than mid-40s mpg and routinely offers mid-50s mpg combined in real-world conditions, why do we buy anything else at all?

The car industry is now a long way past the stage when an 'eco' model had to mean wind-up windows, a diesel with five o'clock shadow and gearing from a Space Shuttle, but the manner in which the 316d relentlessly delivers its fuel economy still comes as a surprise.

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Stop-start helps. It is one of the few concessions that the model makes to conventional driving for the sake of fuel consumption, but it's one that is a pleasure to live with, rather than a chore. The parameters for activity mean the system can come across as a little temperamental - picking and choosing when it wants to activate - but once the engine and interior are up to temperature it can be relied upon the stop the engine and quickly re-engage it when it's time for the off.

It's one of the more refined systems in combination with a diesel engine, although it can't match a petrol powered unit for smoothness on start-up.

Despite the 316 badge, the engine is a 2.0-litre unit. Developing a humble 116bhp, it relies on a smooth and proficient torque delivery to make reasonably rapid progress. Sixth gear in the manual transmission is something of an overdrive for motorway use and brings the revs right down at motorway speed but the rest of the ratios do not feel inconveniently long, allowing the 316d to be driven with ease around town.

A similar lack of fettling has allowed the 316d to retain the standard 3 Series ride and handling characteristics. Smaller wheels with low-rolling resistance tyres are slightly detrimental to grip levels and cornering ability, but not to an extent that will concern many drivers. The rear-drive chassis remains as responsive and feels agile and precise for a sizeable car. The ride is firm but highly efficient at ironing out road imperfections. Rear passengers will be extremely comfortable, even if the rear loses out in terms of space to some key German rivals.

Available in a single ES trim level, the 316d is not adorned with a full quota of BMW kit, but the equipment present is well chosen. Air-con, a multi-function steering wheel and leather touches make long journeys that bit more comfortable. The lack of additional kit also serves to highlight the excellent core design of the 3 Series interior; reserved but beautifully crafted.

Hopefully, we're a long way off having our choice of transport enforced from on high, but should that time come, the 316d would make a fine choice.

BMW 316d ES

price: �23,980 on the road.

Engine: 2.0-litre, 16bhp four-cylinder turbo diesel

Transmission: Six-speed manual, driving the rear wheels.

Performance: 0-62mph 10.9 seconds; top speed 123mph

CO2 emissions: 118g/km.

Economy: 62.8mpg combined

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