THE bell has sounded to start round two of the Australian middleweight luxury-car title fight between the BMW 3 Series and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, with the return to the ring of BMW’s mass-selling petrol-powered 320i and arrival of a new base diesel variant, the 318d.
This entry model duo expands the Bavarian company’s top-selling sedan range to five, alongside the mid-range 328i and 320d, and the six-cylinder 335i flagship, which kicked off the sixth-generation in local showrooms in February.
The line-up – codenamed F30 – will grow further with the arrival later this year of BMW’s first 3 Series hybrid, the ActiveHybrid 3, and then the Touring wagon range in the first quarter of 2013.
Then, the yet-to-be-revealed 3 Series Coupe and Cabrio will debut in local showrooms in the final quarter of next year, capped by the flagship M3 super-coupe in 2014.
In recent times, Mercedes-Benz’s well-established C-Class has held sway on the sales charts, but things just became a bit tougher with the return to local showrooms of the best-selling 320i.
This time, the most affordable petrol 3 Series is not only encased in the all-new body but also armed with BMW’s sweet-spinning twin-scroll turbo four-cylinder N20 petrol engine that pips the equivalent four-cylinder Mercedes C200 on performance, fuel economy and price.
Listed at $57,600 (plus on-road costs), the new 135kW/270Nm 320i has 17 per cent more power and 35 per cent extra torque over the superseded, normally aspirated 115kW/200Nm 320i, while turning in a class-leading fuel economy figure of 6.0 litres per 100km on the combined cycle – a 21 per cent improvement over the previous model.
From top: BMW 318d and 320i.
This compares with 6.8L/100km for the Mercedes C200 BlueEfficiency and 7.1L/100km for the Audi A4 2.0 TFSI.
BMW says the 320i will also show its rivals a clean pair of heels in performance, accelerating from zero to 100km in 7.6 seconds, compared with 8.2 seconds for both the Benz and the Audi.
The new 2.0-litre TwinPower turbo direct-injected four-cylinder engine gracing the 320i is the same powerplant as the one under the bonnet of the 328i, which, confusingly, also has a 2.0-litre engine capacity.
The major difference is in the tuning, including extra puff from the single twin-scroll turbocharger that ramps the power up from 135kW in the 320i to 180kW in the 328i. Torque also gets a lift, from 270Nm to 350Nm.
Like the 328i, the 320i gets BMW’s acclaimed eight-speed automatic transmission with steering-wheel mounted shift paddles. A six-speed manual is a no-cost option.
The driving experience can be switched between four modes – Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport and Sport+ – that adjust functions such as the steering power assistance, gearshift timing and ESC according to driver preference.
However, unlike some similar systems in more expensive European cars, the system does not adjust the suspension damping.
Like all 3 Series models, the 320i gets electric power steering and idle-stop, which contribute to fuel consumption savings.
The $64,600 328i – which has been a sell-out success since launch four months ago – also gets a swag of extra features for the $7000 premium over the 320i.
These include sat-nav, premium audio system, leather and walnut interior trim, among others.
For its part, the 320i makes do with Sensatec “man-made leather” and satin metallic trim.
Keyless entry and start, dual-zone climate-control, a dash-mounted 6.5-inch colour LCD screen with BMW’s iDrive controller, electric-adjustable front seats with memory, front and rear parking sensors, 17-inch alloy wheels and Bluetooth are all standard fare on the 320i.
The other new arrival in the 3 Series line up, the 318d, becomes the price gateway to the range at $56,400.
Again, the 2.0-litre diesel in the 318d is basically the same as the unit in the $60,900 320d, but detuned for fewer kilowatts and less torque.
While the 320d bangs out 135kW of power and 380Nm of torque, the cheaper car manages with 105kW and 320Nm.
The 318d’s claimed fuel efficiency is a stunning 4.5L/100km – the same as the 320d and a significant margin better than the official results produced by the Mercedes C200 CDI BlueEfficiency (5.4L/100km) and Audi’s manual-only Audi A4 2.0 TDIe (4.8L/100km).
Likewise, CO2 emissions are also a best-in-class 118 grams per kilometre, ousting the Audi’s 124g/km at the top of the heap.
The eight-speed auto transmission is included on the 318d, but loses the shift paddles, while the 318d also rides on smaller 16-inch alloy wheels.
It also loses the Sport+ function in the driving modes, while parking sensors are confined to the rear. The steering wheel is encased in leather, but it is a step down on the sports tiller in the 320d.
In the modern BMW fashion, all 3 Series models can be upgraded with a choice of trim and equipment packages – called ‘lines’ in BMW-speak.
These are dubbed Modern, Sport and Luxury, and range in price from $1000 to $4900, depending on the model.
An adaptive suspension system is also available, not only adding electronically controlled damping but lowering the car by 10mm