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Car reviews - BMW - 3 Series - 320i sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Dynamics, styling, comfort, quality
Room for improvement
Price, no spare wheel, expensive options, likely ubiquity

22 Jul 2005

IN the old days settling for a four-cylinder BMW 3 Series sedan meant settling for the runt of an otherwise pedigree litter.

It was like fine dining with your tongue wrapped in cling-plastic or using binoculars to watch the latest blockbuster movie.

‘Powered’ by a 1.8 (or 1.9-litre in the earlier E46 edition) single-cam eight-valve four-cylinder engine producing under 90kW, you’d get the dynamic and design mojo of a BMW but without any of the proper motivation.

A steep price with little in the way of standard equipment meant you’d also feel as well as look like a bit of a mug.

And it wasn’t just BMW either. Normally aspirated base four-pot Mercedes and Audis were just as guilty.

Happily, after the E46 facelift of late 2001, the 318i scored the sweet yet punchy new 105kW 2.0-litre Valvetronic twin-cam multi-valve unit, complete with variable valve timing for optimum performance and efficiency.

But that 318i badge was still no badge of honour, underselling the size of its package to the general public. And being a BMW, public image is no small thing to many punters.

That’s all in the past now though with the fifth-generation version that – outstandingly – is larger and considerably stronger yet lighter and more economical.

Codenamed E90, it arrived here in May in three sedan variants – the 110kW four-cylinder 320i and two all-new Valvetronic in-line six-cylinder variations, the 160kW 325i and 190kW 330i.

Like every previous Three, it’s the base model that sells best. And you know what? It could also be the base model that actually is the best.

To begin with, the 110kW 1995cc unit – mounted between the axles so it’s actually a front-mid-engined machine for balance’s sake – is one of the better fours about.

It revs smoothly, sounds sweet and has a set of lungs deeper than Dido’s so it can effortless access its 200Nm of torque from the lower ranges right up to (and beyond) the 6500rpm limit.

So dropping it down a gear (via a light though slightly notchy six-speed manual gearbox) means that the 320i will respond with quite a quick turn of speed. And it won’t sound strained doing it.

Yet this is just part of the 320i’s performance picture, because there’s nothing working against the driver.

For instance, the gear ratios seem perfectly matched to the engine’s torque outputs, so you’re never in the wrong gear. And at 110km/h in sixth the engine’s only turning at 2300rpm.

Speaking of transmissions, the gearshift, clutch and wheel are placed so they’re accessed almost subconsciously and operate with absolutely perfectly measured precision.

So the handling is as crisp as a Quentin Crisp quip. For the E90, BMW has redesigned the rear suspension, incorporating a five-link set-up similar to that found in the recent ‘1’ hatch and luxury ‘7’.

Thus threading the ‘3’ through a series of tight hairpin bends, it can be placed super-accurately. Lovely.

And then there’s the grip factor. Like the One, the 320i will ballet its way through all shapes of corners light-footed and fancy-free.

Switch off the DTC button and conduct the movements with your throttle foot, for tighter tuck-ins and catch-able tail-outs, since there’s (just) enough power for this sort of fun and frivolity.

This four-cylinder Bimmer is happy to come out and play.

Adding to the pleasure is the knowledge that excellent anti-lock brake and the traction and stability control nannies are standing by to step in when things get sloppy. Which only happens if you ignore the early and obvious warning signs.

There just aren’t any driving-related downsides.

As rev-happy as the engine is, it’s not unduly noisy or disruptive as communicative as the steering is, there’s no vibrational backchat and as agile as the cornering is, the 320i always feels firmly planted to the road reciting it.

Plus it’s frugal, averaging between 8.3 and 8.6L/100km over a variety of conditions. That’d be the E90’s use of lightweight materials, such as the aluminium front suspension and high tensile steel body panels.

On the alloy-wheeled 205/55 R16 run-flat tyres fitted, even the ride – though firm – is compliant and absorbent enough not to raise eyebrows.

Unlike in the BMW 5 Series, this suspension was calibrated from the onset to work with the harder properties of the run-flats.

There is, however, some road noise that drones in on particular surfaces. This is typical of a German-engineered (though South African-built in this case) vehicle.

This is a bit of a cliché, but like the Mazda MX-5, Honda S2000 and Mini Cooper, this finely balanced driving machine feels like its chassis could easily handle a bigger engine.

And obviously more power would up the pleasure ante considerably. But if the $71,000-plus price for the 325i is prohibitive then the 2.0 isn’t the performance purgatory its pre-’02 four-pot predecessors were.

Other elements of the 320i also impress.

Its exterior mix of convex and concave is reflected in an interior that strikes a balance between simple and elegance.

As if to reiterate the sheer driver focus, the dash – with its exoskeletal-like construction – and controls are orientated for ease of use.

For starters the instrumentation – minus a temperature gauge – is two chrome-ringed dials (speedo and tacho naturally) with a fuel and (very Holden Camira this) litres-per-100km (or Econogauge in GMH parlance) fuel consumption meter.

Symmetry and ease sum up the console, plucking ideas from more recent BMWs such as the X3 and 1 Series in the metallic-look trim, gentle curvature and logical layout.

It’s a smart family look that continues through to the door mouldings.

The test car came with the $3600 ‘Business’ navigation option, which incorporates a 7 Series-like screen binnacle sitting proudly above the (superb) centre ventilation outlets, along with an i-Drive control.

Besides GPS, the latter accesses Communication (for optional phone and telematics features), Climate and Audio/Entertainment facilities.

Anybody who finds this simplified computerised interface difficult is either a Luddite or needs to spend a few minutes to fully acquaint with the system. It’s actually dead easy to use.

No complaints about the excellent seating either. The driver’s props up its occupant to help achieve the perfect position of control, and that’s aided by a height and reach-adjustable steering column.

But it’s the back seat that’s a real revelation to anybody familiar with any previous Three.

For one thing, there’s now a comfortable amount of room for knees and legs so it’s no longer a bad place to spend a trip in.

For the record, there’s 26mm more shoulder room, 7mm more headroom, and knee space increases by 19mm over the E46. Plus the front seat runners have 13mm of additional length added to them.

Further back and the 460-litre boot is 20 litres up from its predecessor – and that’s not including the space formally occupied by a spare wheel but now home to a small cubbyhole.

Faults are few.

Nobody past puberty will enjoy sitting on the hard centre-rear position the driver’s cupholder that cleverly curves out of the dash can foul knees more storage spaces would be nice and rear vision is hindered by the high boot, which also suffers from a small aperture.

There aren’t seat pockets either, while the rear backrest doesn’t split/fold as standard – which is actually understandable seeing as for it to do so might compromise the fantastic dynamic qualities.

And don’t stray too far off the bitumen in this. There’s no spare - only a run-flat tyre - to get you back again. That said, you’ll be glad for them if there’s a blow-out at 120km/h.

Astoundingly, equipment levels are surprisingly rounded. Gone are the days of the poverty-pack base models.

They include eight airbags, climate-control air-conditioning, leather trim, cruise control, a trip computer, CD-audio with steering wheel controls, rain-sensing wipers and auto headlights.

You also get sculptured sports sedan styling.

In the flesh, the E90 sedan is quite a good-looking machine, striking a balance between the profile of its predecessor and the design details of its larger and bolder E60 5 Series sibling.

Of particular note is the exquisite upper swage that forms part of the BMW’s shoulder line it blends in beautifully from front to rear. The anthropomorphic headlight and kidney grille treatment is another nice touch.

On the other hand, aspects such as the rear bumper integration are less successfully executed. But overall the E90 is another example of Bangle-era style that’s moving the game on.

And this is exactly what the E90 320i does.

It’s a stunningly rounded effort, conceding nothing to its ageing rivals.

The fact that more than one BMW owner thought it was a six-cylinder engine beating underneath that stylish bonnet says it all about this four-cylinder 3 Series, doesn’t it?

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