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Car reviews - BMW - 3 Series - 320i sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Sub-$60k pricing, efficient and energetic turbo 2.0-litre engine, eight-speed auto transmission, driving dynamics
Room for improvement
No sat-nav as standard equipment, run-flat tyres with no spare wheel

31 May 2012

MERCEDES-BENZ’S C-Class has kicked plenty of sand in the face of BMW’s 3 Series since the current-model ‘C’ waltzed in from Stuttgart in 2007.

While the propeller brand returned the favour in the SUV department, BMW saw its lead in the mid-size luxury sedan segment evaporate as word spread that Benz had lifted its game.

Now, BMW is armed and dangerous with a new model and, while the handful of 3 Series variants that have led the charge for the latest sixth-generation ‘3’ have hardly dented the Benz supremacy, the game-changers might just have arrived in this country in the form of the entry-level petrol and diesel models, the 320i and 318d.

BMW expects the 320i to resume its position at the head of 3 Series sales, even though the more powerful, better-equipped and $7000 dearer 328i has been a sell-out success.

The question in many buyers’ minds will be: is it worth $7k to step up? After all, the 320i and 328i share the same 2.0-litre TwinPower turbocharged four-cylinder engine, although the pumped-up version in the 328i delivers a handy 35kW of extra power.

On the road, the difference is not as marked as you might think. The key is the creamy torque delivery of both versions of this engine in the normal driving range, which masks any obvious deficiency in performance.

The twin-scroll turbo eliminates turbo lag – a key goal for BMW in its switch away from normally aspirated engines – delivering on-demand performance from idle to the redline.

It is only as the revs climb that the frisky 328i shades the 320i, with the former hitting the 100km/h mark a full 1.5 seconds faster, at 6.1 seconds.

Another triumph for the 320i is the matching of the engine with the new eight-speed automatic transmission that has found its way down through the range to the ‘3’, across the range.

Unlike a particular X3 model we drove last year – the now defunct six-cylinder X3 2.8 – the eight-speeder’s ratios are brilliantly matched to the various powertrains in the new 3 Series, including the 320i.

The perfect gear always seems to be at the ready, and there are none of the clunky reverse-forward awkward moments of rival dual-clutch trannies from the likes of the Volkswagen Group.

The 320i gets paddle-shifters as well (they are missing from the entry level diesel, the 318d), adding a fun factor.

In terms of performance, the average motorist can rest assured that the 320i not only does the job, it does it surprisingly well.

But the better news is that this jewel of a powertrain helps the 320i to achieve almost diesel-like fuel economy figures without the compromises of an oil-burner.

Diesels have made major inroads into the luxury-car segment in recent years, but the petrol fightback has started, and the 320i is a great example.

BMW claims a combined fuel efficiency test figure of just 6.0 litres per 100km, and while we didn’t see that in our brisk burn through steep hills east of Melbourne, we have no doubt that this package will deliver better-than-average returns.

With the same chassis and tyre package as the 328i, the 320i slips through the corners with the same aplomb, riding flat, smooth and sure, even under torturous treatment.

The electric power steering sets an example to all vehicle manufacturers, delivering the feel of a conventional hydraulic set-up with the variable assistance afforded by modern electronic control.

Tip the 320i into a corner and the front end bites and grips with such ferocity that it crosses the mind that the rear end might have trouble maintaining the line. Not so – the multilink rear suspension remains firmly planted, dutifully following the front wheels to the corner apex.

The entire action is impressively neutral, which we have come to expect from these rear-drive German cars.

Like the 328i that reached showrooms a few months ago, the 320i rides on 17-inch wheels and 50-section tyres (Bridgestones on our test vehicle) which combine to help imbue the vehicle with a happy compromise of sharp performance and pleasant ride.

Gone is the harshness of the previous-generation 3 Series, at least on these lower models with more rubber between the car and the road.

Road noise is remarkably suppressed as well, while wind noise from the super-slippery (0.26Cd) body is negligible.

Without a spare wheel in the boot, all 3 Series models are equipped with run-flat tyres, which enhances luggage space – up 20 litres to 480 litres – but still is a cause for concern in this harsh, pot-holed nation of ours.

Nevertheless, the driver would hardly know the tyres are run-flats from behind the wheel, such is their uncompromised performance.

Inside, our 320i test car had the basic fit-out, without any of the extra-cost “lines” that BMW offers.

When we say the 320i is lined with fake leather – called Sensatec – it conjures up a horrible image of vinyl-like material, but in reality the trim is remarkably leather-like.

Because the 3 Series is bigger than before – getting close to the 5 Series of a couple of generations ago – the spaciousness is enhanced, especially in the back seat where previous 3 Series passengers wished for more room.

A fine leather-wrapped (real leather this time) sports steering wheel sits front and centre for the driver, framing the typical clean black and white dials of the speedo and tacho. No gimmicks here, nor much change from the previous generation.

Driver ergonomics are benchmark for this type of vehicle, and seat comfort is better than the bum-numbing fare of yore.

The refined BMW iDrive system controls a wide range of functions via a console-mounted knob and a 6.5-inch screen that stands, orphan-like, vertically out of the dash.

Speaking of the screen, standard sat-nav would have been appreciated, but that is one of the omissions made to achieve a sub-$60k list price ($57,600).

Would a buyer step up to the $64,600 328i for real leather, more oomph and a few extra tricks? That’s the $7000 question that only the individual – and their back manager – can answer.

Either way, they would be getting a fine vehicle – one that is going to make life hard for BMW’s German rivals, at least until the new C-Class and Audi A4 come along in a year or two.

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