The Germans make solid luxury cars devoid of quirks (gutentag BMW 3 Series).
The Italians prefer sensual looks mixed with a bit of sporty spice (buon giorno
Alfa 156). And the French? Well, they continue making cars that defy any attempt
at categorisation (bonjour to the moustachioed Renault Laguna).
Executive turbodiesel cars have become big business in South Africa. The attraction
of good economy, ever-improving performance and, surprisingly perhaps, the very
“in” image of diesel, have become too much to resist.
Regular readers will no doubt be aware of our thoughts on local turbodiesel
reliability. Soon after our June “Turbodiesel Time Bomb” issue hit
the streets, BMW issued a press release stating that its 320d turbodiesel reliability
issues had been sorted out.
Our concerns regarding the general public’s driving and servicing styles
remain, but we won’t argue that a turbodiesel exec is a very attractive
option… We tried to get our hands on a manual 320d for this test, but BMW
had only an automatic on offer. Keeping that in mind, it still is the obvious
rival for Alfa Romeo’s new 156 2,4 JTD and Renault’s oddball Laguna
Time has been kind to both the ageing Alfa 156 and BMW 3 Series. The 156 remains
arguably the best looking car in its class, even if a facelifted model is on
its way (see Update). And the 3 Series has just returned from a session at the
Bangle plastic surgery institute, where it received attractive new headlights
and other, smaller detail changes. Our test unit was smartened up by the addition
of BMW’s optional Sport Pack (R13 100), which includes, among other things,
chunky 17-inch alloys, sports suspension and an M aero-dynamic kit. The Laguna
is the one here that has the comments – both positive and negative – flying.
Most people like the rear end, and the profile, but the grille, with its awkward-looking
grey “moustache”, is another story. One tester suggested the Laguna
be sent for a “shave” immediately… which, according to our European
spies, is about to happen. The Laguna is the only hatchback here,
has the longest wheelbase, and is the widest and the highest. No surprise then
that it’s got the biggest cabin. Legroom, front and rear, is better than
in the BMW, but the German has the most generous rear headroom of the three.
The Alfa trails its two rivals in the space race, although its boot is slightly
bigger than the BMW’s. The Alfa and BMW both lose out against the Renault
when it comes to utility space, because their rear seatbacks cannot be folded
The Alfa has the sportiest facia design, with two deeply hooded dials and three
smaller ones angled aggressively towards the driver on the silver-trimmed hangdown
section. The seats are finished in leather, the steering wheel sporty and the
driving position just a little bit “Italianate”. At its launch back
in late 1997, the 156 marked a big step forward in Alfa interior quality, but
our test unit had one or two glitches – the chrome strip at the bottom of the
hangdown section had come loose (and ended the test in the cubby), and the driver’s
door sometimes refused to shut because the latch got stuck.
A few drops of oil quickly solved that problem, but while we’re on the
topic of frustrations, the 156’s ventilation system still doesn’t
do what its job description says at all, and the radio/CD front loader’s
buttons are fiddly to operate… a good thing, then that it comes with remote
controls on the steering wheel, as do its two rivals. Stepping into the 3 Series
from the 156 is like being teleported from a sports bar into a library. The
atmosphere is restrained, luxurious and soothing. Instrumentation is typically
previous-generation BMW, which means it “wraps” around the driver
in cockpit style.
No fiddly iDrive here, just plenty of buttons that are clearly marked and easy
to operate. The Laguna was the most rattle/creak/squeak free of the trio. Its
facia design is the most modern, though not necessarily the most attractive,
with a hint of minimalism about it. The sweeping facia design features a (sometimes
hard to close) fold-up lid that covers the radio, small hidey-holes everywhere,
and a drinks holder. And then there is the electronic card “key”.
It doesn’t save time, and is also easier to lose so it’s a bit of
a gimmick, then.
BMW’s 2,0-litre, direct injection turbodiesel engine has been a hot topic of
conversation for quite some time now, but not always for the right reasons.
At the launch of the facelifted 3 Series earlier this year, BMW conceded that
the vehicle had been experiencing reliability problems. It was revealed that
extensive tests in South Africa and Germany had eventually traced the problems
to a chain of circumstances occurring within milli-seconds and in which air
pressure and altitude played critical roles, rather than temperatures.
BMW further said that driving style and clutch use could also have been factors.
But BMW is confident that the problems have been solved. Various small changes
were made to the engine, including a new “blackdot” turbocharger and
new computer software. BMW now quotes output figures of 110 kW at 4 000 and
330 N.m of torque at 2 000 r/min. Our test unit came with a five-speed Steptronic
gearbox, which frustrated some testers with slow changes. For sportier types,
a six-speed manual is available at R13 000 less.
Alfa Romeo’s answer is a 2,4-litre, five cylinder direct injection turbo-charged
engine that delivers 110 kW at 4 000 r/min and 305 N.m of torque at 1 800. Power
goes to the front wheels via a five-speed manual gearbox. It’s a smooth-shifting
‘box, but some testers wanted a slightly shorter throw. The 156 is the
best sounding of the three – the diesel clatter giving way at revs to a sporty
throb. The Laguna has the smallest engine, a 1,9-litre common-rail unit with
peak outputs of 88 kW at 4 000 r/min and 270 N.m at 2 000. To maximise the inherently
economical engine’s abilities even further, it comes equipped with a six-speed
manual gearbox, driving the front wheels.
Comfort and features
These are three very diverse cabins, and neither can be classified as uncomfortable. The Alfa, with the least
space, starts with a disadvantage, but has perhaps the most comfortable and supportive
front seats. They are also the easiest to adjust. But room for rear passenger
feet is restricted, making entry/exit problematic. Alfa has been generous with
equipment on the JTD – radio/front loading CD player, climate control (woefully
ineffective), remote controls on steering wheel, central locking, electric windows,
power steering, electric and heated side mirrors, height and reach-adjustable
steering wheel and Alfa’s “winter pack”, which includes rain, odour
and early mist sensors.
The JTD also has dual front, side and window airbags.
The 320d, except for the Alfa’s winter pack, matches the JTD’s equipment
level. As we’ve mentioned before, comfort is boosted by the BMW’s
noticeably larger cabin. Perhaps surprisingly, the BMW offers even more rear
headroom than the taller Renault. The BMW is not perfect, though – most testers
found its front seats slightly problematic to adjust to perfection, and they
don’t support quite as well as those on the Alfa.
The Renault, with its wide, flat seats, clearly has seating comfort high on
the agenda. But the design doesn’t work as well around corners, where side
support becomes important. The Laguna, at R239 995, is not the cheapest car
here, but in typical Renault fashion, standard spec is impressive and includes
everything the BMW has to offer, while adding no less than three 12V outlets,
roller blinds for the rear side and rear window, and folding rear seats. In
EuroNCAP crash tests, the Laguna performed the best.
Performance and braking
The 320d recorded a 213 km/h top speed and a zero-to-100 km/h time of 9,86 seconds,
putting it on top of the performance sheet. Compared with the manual Alfa, however,
it is not quite as responsive. Then again, a manual 320d may change that picture.
The 156 JTD is not much slower than the BMW – top speed is 208 km/h and the benchmark
sprint is despatched in 9,9 seconds. The Alfa was the fastest over a kilometre.
In general driving terms, the Alfa’s flexibility impressed hugely, the engine
keen to respond to throttle inputs and turbo lag never really being an issue.
The significantly less powerful Laguna recorded an 11,09-second sprint time
and a 205 km/h top speed. More than fast enough, most would agree, especially
considering its excellent economy. The Laguna is a very relaxed car to drive
– the best cruiser, we would say. The BMW also performed best in our simulated
100 km/h-to-zero emergency braking test, recording a stopping average of 2,9
seconds. The 320d’s ABS is backed up by CBC (cornering brake control).
Second best was the Alfa (3,13 seconds), but the disparity between its best
(2,75 seconds) and worst times (3,47) revealed some inconsistency. The 156’s
braking system comprises ABS backed up by EBD (electronic brake force-distribution).
The same inconsistency was evident with the Renault (with brake assist and EBV
rear proportioning brake assist), which recorded a 3,19 second average.
The Laguna, with its relaxed sixth gear and smaller engine, wins the economy battle,
recording an impressive 8,07 litres/100 km fuel index figure. This translates
to 12,39 km/litre and a tank (70 litres) range of 867 km. With a fuel index figure
of 8,27 litres/100 km, the BMW 320d takes second place. Its 63-litre tank gives
it a range of around 760 km (12,09 km/litre).
The 156 JTD recorded a 9,29 litres/100 km figure, perhaps slightly higher than
expected, but still acceptable, considering the performance. A full 63-litre
tank should keep you moving for about 680 km (10,76 km/litre).
Ride and handling
The Laguna is not marketed as a sports saloon. Its MacPherson strut front and
H-form torsion beam rear suspension has been tuned for an exceptionally fluent
ride, an objective it achieves admirably. But the comfort hasn’t come at the
expense of confident cornering ability. Although not on the same level as its
two sharp rivals, the Laguna can be hustled when needed. It’s just not as much
fun, because the steering is slower and feedback through both the steering wheel
and suspension is muted. The Laguna isolates the driver more from what’s going
on, resulting in a cocooning effect that some will find highly relaxing and
other, more sporting types, boring.
The Alfa is the direct opposite. Steering is razor sharp and feedback nfiltered.
It’s a car that keeps the driver involved and informed… part of
the action. But this “interaction” sometimes camouflages ride quality
and understeer characteristics that ultimately mean the 156 will not be fastest
car over a challenging stretch of road. The 156’s suspension system comprises
a double wishbone, double trailing arm front and MacPherson strut, reaction
arm rear set-up. It can lose composure on bumpy surfaces, but ride quality is
In terms of handling, understeer sets in at the limit, but because the steering
is so fast in its reactions, the effect is masked. It’s still an entertaining
car to drive, though, because the feedback and steering feel is constantly of
a high level, even at slow speeds. The Beemer is dynamically the best balanced.
Its central arm rear suspension is legendary, and rightly so, because it gives
the rear-drive BMW superb twisty-road talents.
The DSC III stability system can be partially or fully disabled, allowing drivers
of all levels of skill access to the car’s superb abilities. Our test car came
with optional 17-inch wheels that spoilt ride quality to some extent, but our
experience with a standard 16-inch shod 3 Series is that the BMW has an excellent
compromise between comfortable ride and sporting dynamics.
Value for money
At almost R240 000, the Laguna faces the toughest challenge. It’s a solid car,
with a high equipment level, but a manual BMW 320d costs only R10 000 more…
The 320d has BMW’s usual 5 year/100 000 Motorplan, while the Renault’s is limited
to 3 years/75 000 and the Alfa’s to 3 years/60 000.
Service intervals are set at 10 000 km on the Renault, while driving style
will influence the frequency of services on the BMW (calculated by the on-board
computer). At R230 000, the Alfa 156 JTD is well priced. Some people will also
be attracted by the unusually long 20 000 km service intervals… perhaps
too long for South African conditions. The 156 has a good resale history, while
the 320d suffered under reports of unreliability. With its problems now apparently
sorted out, residuals should improve.