BMWs get under your skin. The more of them you drive, the more you start to want one, or at least that’s what happened to me. After driving countless BMW press cars in my over ten years as an automotive journalist, I finally decided to pull the trigger about five years ago and get one of my own.
My plan was to look for an F30, something with a 2-liter engine and a manual gearbox. However, after scouring the local used market in my area (I live in Bucharest, Romania), I realized that I liked the older E90s more, and I shifted my search to find one of those. Most of the cars available in the country were 2-liter diesel cars, with the occasional gasoline model and 3-liter.
Why a 320d?
I wasn’t looking for a car with too many options, since it would be more expensive and as it aged it just meant there was more to break. After seeing a few E90 that didn’t meet my requirements, I eventually found the car that I still own today. It’s a 2010 320d Efficient Dynamics, with the slightly detuned N47 2-liter diesel hooked up to a six-speed manual gearbox. I chose this particular E90 because it was the best maintained out of all the ones that I saw, with no prior accident history, repainted body panels, or any major events in its past.
It has a few optional extras, but it’s not particularly well-specced. It has xenon lights with cool LED turn signals (I really wanted this because I think it transforms the front of the E90), dual-zone climate control, the sport steering wheel, cruise control, and a few others that are less noteworthy. I didn’t leave it stock, though, and I made some modifications that transformed it from a regular 320d into a car that devours corners like few other sedans can.
Looking For Lightest E90
One of the reasons I chose a basic 3 Series was to keep its weight down. I wanted the most nimble E90 possible, and while the 320i is lighter since the engine is placed mostly behind the front axle, this doesn’t negatively affect handling in a way that I could observe. Besides, the N46 gasoline engine that you get in the E90 320i feels sluggish compared to the torquey and surprisingly rapid N47 diesel that equips my 320d, and to my ear, the N46 doesn’t sound amazing either.
While it may come as a shock to you in North America, we love our small-displacement diesel BMWs in Europe. For many Europeans, myself included, a 2-liter diesel engine provides the best balance between fuel efficiency, performance, and falling into a lower tax bracket that keeps the government from robbing you every year. In Romania, for instance, the annual tax for a 3-liter is over five times higher than it is for a 2-liter, so unless you’re made of money, it’s best to be sensible. Insuring the 3-liter and fueling it is also more expensive, and it all adds up.
Is the N47 as bad as they say?
Europeans are well aware of the N47 diesel engine’s timing issues, where the chain can snap through excessive wear, which can compromise the engine. Doing the timing was a priority immediately after I got the car, and this was the only major mechanical operation done to it (the engine needs to come out of the vehicle for the timing to be replaced).
With the timing done, I was left to enjoy the car’s strong surge of torque without fear that it could break at any time.
After five years with my 320d, I can now say the N47 is actually one of the car’s highlights for me. The average fuel consumption never goes over 8 l/100km (29.4 US mpg), and on long journeys, if I drive it with a restrained right foot, the average will drop to 5 l/100km (47 US mpg), or even a bit lower if the trip isn’t only done at highway speeds.
Plenty of Performance
But it provides punchy performance too. The claimed 0 to 100 km/h (62 mph) time of a little over eight seconds sounds slow, but from behind the wheel, it easily feels like a seven-second car thanks to its very high torque. Given that my car is the Efficient Dynamics model, the power output is just 163 horsepower (instead of 177 or 184 horsepower), but torque gets a slight boost over the regular model, and it rises to 380 Nm (280 pound-feet), which is delivered flat between 1,750 and 2,750 rpm.
Power does die off almost immediately after 4,000 rpm, but since there’s so much torque and elasticity, you actually don’t need to shift gears that much in normal driving to maintain your speed. Even going up hills in a higher gear, if the rpm needle is anywhere near 2,000 rpm, it will power up surprisingly effortlessly. The fact that it makes such good use of the engine’s available resources also comes courtesy of its relatively low weight of 1,488 kg (3,280 lbs) with all the fluids in and about half a tank of fuel.
What mods does it have?
What I like to do most in a BMW is show it a few corners. My 320d was pretty good in stock form, especially since the Efficient Dynamics model actually comes with lower suspension, but after driving many much spicier BMWs, I knew that with a few mods, it would be even better.
The stock springs were swapped out for a set of black Eibach lowering springs, and the car got new Bilstein B6 sport dampers. The front and rear anti-roll bars were also upgraded, and this had an immediate effect on the car’s body control through corners. The stock 16-inch aero wheels also needed to go since their high sidewall detracted from the car’s corner-carving capability, and I replaced them with a set of 17-inch Borbet XRTs shod in ultra high performance tires (currently Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric 6).
Helping the car put its power down better, the bushings for the differential were replaced with the original ones for the M3, which are stiffer and help make the car feel more controlled on the limit.
With my car’s improved cornering capability, its base seats were no longer up to the task of holding you in place on a twisty road, so I replaced them with a set of sports seats that I picked up from a salvage yard. These not only have more lateral support, but they also have more range of adjustment, and I found them to be way more comfortable on a longer journey than what the car originally had.
Another thing I felt needed improving on the car was the six-speed manual’s shifter feel. Unless your BMW is a full M model, its manual shifter feel is pretty bad, especially if the linkage is a bit tired and worn. I replaced the factory shifter with an aftermarket short shifter kit, as well as the selector rod, which is now of the dual shear variety. With the addition of a JDM-style solid steel shift knob, it doesn’t feel like a BMW shifter, and that’s a good thing.
Black E90s like mine are very common where I live, so I wanted my car to have some unique visual touches so that I didn’t confuse it with someone else’s in the supermarket parking lot. I gave it M-style mirror caps with the winglet, and I also had the stock xenon lights painted all black on the inside to match the rest of the car. Yes, I know the mirror caps might be a bit too much on such a slow BMW, but they’ve been on the car for so long now that it would look weird to me without them.
Why do I love it?
My E90’s odometer is now quickly approaching 300,000 km (186,000 miles). Just over half that is how much I’ve driven it, and it’s only let me down once when I had to call a flatbed. But it was only a cooling hose that had burst, letting all the coolant spill onto the road, which was a quick fix, and I was back on my way.
That aside, this is the most dependable car I’ve owned. I’ve driven it from Bucharest to the south of England and back when I attended the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2022. That was a nearly 10,000-kilometer (6,200-mile) round trip, and the car never skipped a beat. I even drove it flat out on German autobahns, maintaining its top speed of 230 km/h (143 mph) for mile after mile, and it was still rock-solid.
I’ve driven this car to Greece several times and all the way to Montenegro once too, as well as various distant locations around Romania. On all these trips, if I happened upon a twisty stretch of road, it would instantly remind me why I’m so reluctant to sell my slow, aging diesel BMW.
Best Looking 3 Series, IMO
It also looks really good. I think the E90 might be the best looking 3 Series ever, especially the LCI. It looks both modern and somewhat classy and understated and it doesn’t need the M pack to look good. Joji Nagashima did a fantastic job designing it in the Chris Bangle era and it’s aging gracefully. It may be a bit cliché, but I still turn around to look at the car as I lock it and walk away, even after so many years of ownership during which I’ve driven dozens of new, faster, and much fancier cars.