Haring across Wales in the ST and seeing how easily it keeps up with the pokier members of our happy band is instructive, not to mention highly entertaining. If you did the same journey back in 1981 in the first fast Fiesta, the original XR2, you’d see that in character, if very little else, not much has changed. There’s an infectious cheerfulness about this car, a willingness to be wrung out, hurled, flung and booted from place to place.
More than any other here, it’s a car you drive on its throttle pedal because none is more inclined to adjust its attitude according to its opening. And, to us, that’s pretty much the definition of fun. Get the car into the corner by keeping off the gas, let the back go loose if that’s what it wants to do, because the moment you’re at the apex and on the power, it all falls beautifully back in line and you rocket away, grinning like a loon.
And that’s pretty much the reason the BMW 320d has come from nowhere to make the top five of this list. When we performed this exercise last year and despite excluding all cars costing more than £50k, its predecessor didn’t even make the top 10.
There’s plenty I’d choose to criticise about the 320d: on sport suspension, the ride quality sits on the challenging side of comfortable, the engine no longer has that bizarre willingness to rev of previous four-cylinder BMW diesels (blame WLTP, I suspect), and if I was going to be convinced by BMW’s curious new instrument layout, it would have happened by now.
But all that is overshadowed, especially in a feature such as this, by the one thing it has gained. Or, I should say, regained. Being old enough to remember successive generations of early 3 Series, their position as weapon au choix among those in need of a compact saloon but who liked to drive was nothing less than inviolable. Okay, I’m not so ancient as to have been doing this job when the E21- generation 3 Series was on the market, but the E30, E36 and E46 ruled that particular roost with impregnable authority. But the more recent E90 and F30, while more rounded products, were also less distinct and cars concerned with all their occupants, not just the driver. Now with the G20, though, the balance has swung decisively back the other way.
It’s the car’s handling that does it, the way it wolfs down a great road with such authority and precision that you might be tempted to look over your shoulder to check this really is a four-door family car, and not some hunkered-down sports coupé. The result is a 3 Series with a character we’ve not seen for nigh on 15 years and it’s great to have it back. It may not look it, but it is in many ways the most surprising car here.