KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 24 — When I was a kid, my family and I used to head down to the big bad city of Kuala Lumpur from our home in Alor Star, quite often for holidays and such.
Coming from a small town up north, Kuala Lumpur was like Disneyland — it was big, colourful and thriving with excitement.
But the one thing I absolutely detested about the city was its taxis.
In the days before Proton saw the light of day, and the Saga still wore its original Mitsubishi badge, the taxi fleet in Kuala Lumpur was comprised mainly of the ubiquitous Opel Gemini, painted black with a signature yellow roof.
Air-conditioning was a rarity in these cars and the seats were almost always upholstered in brown vinyl. Fashion icons, these things certainly weren’t.
They were usually beat up, stank of neglect and belched copious amounts of soot when accelerating, all thanks to the rattly diesel engines under the hood of these cars.
I could not, for the life of me, imagine a worse way of getting from point A to B in the city. Walking was far more pleasant. And I had nothing but pity for the man forced to spend a full day behind the wheel of that horrid excuse for a car.
My image of diesel-powered cars, like most Malaysians, I suspect, is firmly rooted in the Opel Gemini. Slow, smelly, smoky things that wasn’t something one would drove by choice.
But the 20-odd years since my last ride in the Opel has given Dr Diesel’s Frankenstein time to mature and nothing drove home that fact more than when I had the chance to take the wheel of an ex-colleague’s new prized possession.
It was a silver E60 BMW 520d, purchased used (or pre-loved, as they call it these days) from a dealer in the backwoods of Cheras.
As his day job required a fair bit of travelling outside of the city, he was rather hoping that the promise of 60-plus miles to the gallon of diesel would drive down his transportation cost.
Especially taken in light of the cost of premium unleaded, remaining above RM2.50 per litre for the longest of time.
Having picked up the car from the dealership, he swung by for lunch and let me have a go at the car to see what I thought of it, since he knew I wasn’t the biggest fan of the fuel.
First impressions: After slamming the door shut, and hitting the “engine start” button, I was impressed by the noise – or lack of it. Where I was expecting a loud rattly idle, I was greeted by a sound not unlike my own petrol-powered 525i.
Sure, there was a bit more vibration through the steering and gear lever, but that was about it. From the inside, at least, one would find it hard to tell that this car had a bus engine up front.
I slipped the car into drive and was surprised at the amount of shove this car had. A small engine pulling a large saloon body is never a recipe for performance, but the 520d’s little four-pot did its best to hide the fact it was punching WAY above its weight.
My mind KNEW it was only a 2.0-litre under the bonnet, but the seat of the pants felt like there was a great big V8 pulling the big Beemer forward.
That’s the beauty of having an abundance of torque at your disposal — something Campro-powered Gen2 drivers would be hard-pressed to experience. It makes any car feel more powerful than it really is.
So while the 320d only has 177bhp at its disposal (a modern petrol of the same capacity would make upwards of 200bhp), it has no less than 350Nm of torque from just above tick-over. That’s stump-pulling stuff.
To put that torque output into perspective, a 2.5-litre Camry makes do with 231Nm, whilst a Nissan Teana 250XV, with its stonking V6, makes do with only 228Nm.
What this means to you and me is that this is a 2.0-litre car that feels like it has a 3.0-litre engine under the hood.
Acceleration from any speed is borderline monumental. A small flex of the right toe and, no matter what gear the transmission is in, the car just takes a short breath, lifts its skirt and flies down the road.
I would have never had guessed this car had anything in common with the Opel Gemini. It’s not the smoothest of powerplants, this.
But to be honest, no four-cylinder is. There’s an inherent buzziness to the layout that no amount of engineering trickery, German or otherwise, can totally get rid of. So I won’t hold this against the little diesel from Munich.
I was impressed, to be honest. Very, very impressed with the car. Enough to even, for a moment, think about going down the diesel path for my next car.
The F30 320d is after all, the cheapest way into 3-series ownership these days, and it makes for a very tasty drive, especially when decked out in Sport trim.
But just as that thought settled in my head, I opened the door to get out and I was rudely reminded of why, despite the promise of great economy and lower Co2 emissions, I’m still firmly rooted on the petrol side of the BMW model range.
The car sounded like a bloody tractor from the outside. *Cue Opel Gemini memories*
The car was rattling away lustily at idle, and when my buddy drove off into the sunset, with his accelerator mashed to the floor to show off the Beemer’s acceleration, his car’s progress was punctuated by thick black clouds of soot from the tailpipe as the ZF gearbox made its way through its six gears.
Call me shallow, but I do really prefer that my quarter million ringgit luxury saloon make progress without an accompanying smokescreen.
Diesel power for my next car? I for one certainly think not.