Noisy, smelly, slow and definitely no fun to drive. Say what you will about diesels, you've probably got it all wrong—at least if you're talking about the latest generation of oil-burners, such as the BMW 335d, which I had the good fortune to spend a couple days in, slicing through some of the most treacherous Alpine passes guarding the Austrian-Italian border.
Charging up the steep Brenner Pass, the 3.0-liter BMW shows off the major breakthroughs that have diesels accounting for half of all car sales in Europe, even if Americans fixate on the problems that plagued the engine type in versions from the '70s and early '80s. The car never seems winded, thanks to a variable twin turbocharger that generates a satisfying 265 horsepower and a downright impressive 425 pound-feet of stump-pulling torque. And if not for the subtle chugging you occasionally hear at idle, most motorists would never even know this is an oil-burner. (The 0-to-60 time of 6.0 seconds also matches up favorably to that of a more familiar, gasoline-powered Bimmer.)
As we crest the snow-covered peak, the sedan lives up to its Bavarian lineage, skating effortlessly around blind switchbacks that would be terrifying in just about any other vehicle. The one-inch wider track of the 2009 model clearly enhances the already impressive handling of the benchmark 3 Series.
Even on a more sedate drive, you'll find plenty to appreciate about the '09 335d, starting with the next-generation iDrive system. The original iDrive seemed great—on paper—letting you control a range of vehicular functions, such as navigation and audio, with one dial. In practice, it was seriously flawed. The radically redesigned iDrive is markedly better. Meanwhile, the diesel boasts plenty of other creature comforts, including a slick sound system with a 30-gigabyte hard drive and both USB and iPhone/iPod inputs.
BMW has been in the diesel business since 1983, but while its archrival, Mercedes-Benz, briefly made the high-mileage technology a U.S. mainstay, in the late 1970s and '80s, the 335d marks the Bavarian marque's first such entry into the States. Unlike earlier models, the 335d comes with a diesel capable of meeting the toughest emission standards in the world, so it will be available in all 50 states. That requires the use of urea as an additive to the exhaust system to capture emissions. Your mechanic will automatically add it at every oil change.
In real-world applications, expect as much as a 30 percent bump in fuel economy, which more than offsets the added cost of diesel. On paper, a hybrid can do that, without paying that premium, but with the 335d, you'll increase mileage on the highway, as well as in the city, where hybrids work—and you'll be driving a BMW.