8 Jul 2018

How The Hell Can A 10 Year Old BMW 320d Be Better Than A New VW Golf R?

My recent car history has been quite interesting. For a few years I spent and lost far too much money on a succession of box ticking cars starting with a V6 Audi TT, a Lotus Elise and a Porsche 996 911. They all cost me money, the 911 especially so when the engine exploded in a cloud of steam - literally. 22 litres of coolant being dumped out of a hole in the engine tends to do that.

So then I decided to be sensible and bought a 2007 BMW 330i and it was good and I thoroughly enjoyed driving it. I even drove 857 miles in one day in it.

But then the engine developed an intermittent fault where it would briefly drop power at low revs which was annoying. So I thought I'd buy a new car because they don't go wrong. I reckoned that I could just afford the payments for a new VW Golf R, so I ordered one.

God it was good. 306bhp from a 2-litre turbocharged engine it would do 0-62mph in 4.6 seconds and it did it in a clinical, precise manner. No histrionics just blam blam blam through its ultra-slick 7 speed dual clutch automated manual gearbox. Passengers new to the car would let out a little shriek as I put my foot down and let the car catapult us forward.

And it was great to drive too. 1505kg and four wheel drive, you could chuck it round corners and put your foot down immediately post apex and it would pick up the pace without a hint of understeer, oversteer or wheelspin. I once drove it all round Europe over the course of a week and it was brilliant on the motorway, on the amazing roads to be found in the Alps and Pyrenees and cruising the Riviera.

Driving the Golf R down the Stelvio pass is something I'll always remember.

But then after a year's ownership and 15,000 miles for reasons beyond my control (a tax bill) I had to sell the Golf. I logged into the VW finance website and got a settlement figure immediately. It was a reasonable sum so I cleaned the car thoroughly, wrote an advert and posted it on Autotrader at 10pm one Saturday.

The first call came in at 7.30am Sunday. The second at 8am. I ignored both. I answered the third at 8.15am. He was from Birmingham and wanted to come and buy the car that day. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought. He said he would call back. Another call at 8.30am. He was from Cardiff and he wanted to buy the car that day. Oh, I thought.

Long story short I received 20 emails and 30 phone calls that morning. I had several offers and at 2pm two young chaps arrived and smoked half a packet of cigarettes in my driveway whilst they inspected the car. They wouldn't go in the house because they were scared of my incredibly friendly border collie.

One of them test drove the car (after showing me his trader's insurance certificate) absolutely terribly and then turned to me and said, "Most people get scared when I drive them cos I drive fast, but it's OK I'm a great driver." He had been doing 15mph around the village then put his foot down on the dead straight A-road which leads out of the village and went up to 88mph. We didn't travel in time but I did know he was going to buy the car so I kept shtum.

At one point he let go of the wheel and it turned slightly left. He told me the steering was broken and that he would have to knock some money off the price. I explained to him that roads have something called camber so that the rain can drain away...

After all sorts of daft tactics they bought the car from me for the price I had asked and drove it away. I settled the finance with VW and that was that.

16 hours after placing the ad, and expecting it to take several weeks to sell, I was carless.

I hadn't even thought about how I was going to pay for a new car. I had no budget, no finance.  Hmmm.

So I surfed the adverts on eBay and Autotrader. After a lot of research I decided that I wanted either a Mk5 Golf GTI or a BMW 3-series. My budget would be up to £3k but I'd rather pay less.

After scouring dozens of ads for each I realised that I could only really get a scruffy GTI for the money. Some had been modified, some had missing histories, some had dents and dings, some had rust.

There was a real variety of 3-series. There were a lot of E46s in varying specs and conditions, but an E46 feels quite old nowadays. I preferred an E90, and a 330i if possible. But 330s in both i and d form were few and far between, and generally a bit too tatty.

On the Monday morning I saw an ad for an E90 320d for sale from a dealer just two miles from home. It was incredibly cheap for a 2008. It had only two owners, a clean MOT history, full service history and new tyres all round but had racked up an incredible 198,400 miles in its ten years.

I went to see it at lunch and saw it had a few minor car park dings and the wheels had been kerbed and some lacquer on the bonnet was peeling but the interior was great and it was generally solid. The dealer had taken it as a trade in for a much newer 525d and just wanted rid so I made him a daft offer. We negotiated a little but not much and I bought it for £2300.

From one year old Golf R to a leggy 10 year old 320d in just one day. But needs must.

The 320d produces 174bhp and 258lb/ft of torque, does 0-60mph in 7.6 seconds and weighs 1430kg.

It is rear wheel drive as opposed to the Golf's four wheel drive and it is a manual rather than DSG.

I've owned the BMW for two weeks and driven it 300 miles and have been taken aback at how good it is. In some areas it is better than the Golf - a car that is worth ten times as much.

The BMW's driving position is better than the Golf's. You sit low in the BM and stretch your legs out. The E90's seats adjust almost too much. It takes forever to find the right position but when you do it feels perfect. In the Golf you're always comprised by a hatchback's shallower pedal box. In the 320d everything feels exactly where it should be but in the Golf you understand the car is designed to fit anyone of any size which suits most people most of the time but no-one all of the time.

Mind you the tech in the Golf is far superior. It has a touch screen with a satnav and digital radio and bluetooth and trip computers and all sorts of gubbins - half of which you don't use or need. It also has adaptive cruise control. The BMW doesn't have a screen at all so you need to plug in a satnav, and then you realise that a £150 TomTom is far superior to the factory VW satnav and that Google Maps on your phone is far superior to both of those.

The BMW also has the ability to play music from your phone, you just need to plug in an aux cable. And it does have cruise control, just not adaptive. And I love adaptive cruise and will miss it.

The 320's interior is ten years old but it is nicer than the Golf's. The materials used are better and the design and execution is superior, as it would be - the 3-series has always been pitched as a premium car. But it's surprising that even a ten year old car, given a thorough clean, can have a better interior than a current model.

In a straight line the R beats the 320d in every way but one. It is faster in every metric. The BM simply does not have the wow factor. It is merely quick as opposed to insanely fast. But the Golf has a much firmer suspension and a more brittle ride. Where the Golf crashes into speed bumps and hits pot holes with such a bang you are amazed the alloys don't crack the BMW soaks these things up without breaking sweat.

At nearly 200,000 miles you'd imagine the BMW would be soggy but it has new shocks at the rear and feels better than I imagined it would.

On a motorway cruise both cars are equal. Where the Golf has adaptive cruise the BMW uses 50% less fuel. Both have similar levels of noise, both have a comfortable ride and both have enough power  to cruise at decent speed.

But turn off the motorway and drive on good roads and the BMW edges ahead. Where the Golf is fast and precise like an F1 car the BMW makes you feel like Peter Brock, moving and sliding over the mountain section of the Bathurst circuit in his touring car.

The Golf feels digital where the BMW feels analogue. The 3-series' fat steering wheel and low slung seat deliver feedback the Golf can only dream of. You can feel it slip and slide just millimetres and fractions of degrees and adjust accordingly. This arguably creates a greater serotonin rush than the Golf's pure speed.

The Golf's DSG gearbox is an awesome piece of automotive engineering but the BMW's fairly average, short throw, manual gearbox delivers a better and more involved experience.

You can throw both cars around. The Golf feels precise and unflustered. It is like Ivan Drago in Rocky IV - it is unyielding in the way it always delivers and never flinches. Meanwhile the 320d, lighter by almost 100kg, with a better front to rear weight distribution, rear wheel drive and hydraulic power steering uses its advantages to greater effect. The rear feels mobile and adjustable - though I do think it would feel too light when pushed hard on track - and the front goes where you ask and when it does slip you adjust accordingly with tangible reward.

The Golf just delivers, expertly. I enjoyed it without reservation. It was great looking and felt great to be in and to drive. The tech was interesting and mostly useful and the doors made a lovely noise when you shut them.

If you avoid speed bumps, potholes and poorly surfaced roads and want to drive at 15mph around town and 90mph on A-roads then the Golf is easily the better car but for most other conditions the BMW is actually the more involving car to drive.

I loved the Golf but in the BMW I have rediscovered the soul of driving, and I hadn't even realised it had gone.

If I could have another Golf R I would but for now I am not at all unhappy with my old, high mileage, diesel BMW.

By Matt Hubbard