HERE, IN THE 2016 BMW 320i, WE HAVE A MID-MODEL BMW THAT DOESN'T NEED A WHOLE BUNCH OF EXXY OPTIONS ADDED TO BRING IT UP TO A SATISFACTORY PREMIUM 'SPEC LEVEL'.
In terms of luxury equipment and technology ‘smarts’, the kind that previously jacked-up the starting price significantly, the $61,900 (plus on-road costs) 320i being tested here is fine just as it is. (So put the pencil away, your wallet can take a breather.)
Truth to be told, this generation BMW 3 Series has had a tough time since launching in 2012, often being outsold two-to-one by its Mercedes-Benz C-Class rival.
That same Merc also trounced it for standard equipment. And, with a brand new Audi A4 also now here, BMW has responded with a ‘life cycle impulse’ (we’d call it an “update”…) to save the day for the 3 Series.
Vehicle Style: Medium sedan
Price: $61,900 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 135kW/270Nm 2.0 4cyl turbo petrol | 8sp automatic
Fuel Economy claimed: 5.8 l/100km | tested: 7.3 l/100km
With standard LED headlights, surround-view camera, head-up display, lane departure warning and collision detection with autonomous emergency braking, electrically adjustable front seats, satellite navigation with digital radio and internet connectivity – no longer does the 320i feel under-equipped.
Crucially, all 3 Series models except the model below this 320i – the $54,900 (plus orc) 318i that won a TMR comparison test against the Lexus IS200t – now get standard adaptive suspension in addition to stronger rear suspension mounts and revised kinetics.
‘Crucial’, because the 3 Series without adaptive suspension is… well, let’s say ‘floaty’ and imprecise. Clearly, BMW thought a fix was required as much as we did.
And, yes, you can still find a few options to add to the list. Full leather trim, for instance – as opposed to leather-look vinyl – adds $1980 to the price of the 320i, and a sizeable 8.8-inch centre-screen asks a further $1154.
Keyless auto-entry needs an $846 tick of the options box, while 19-inch alloy wheels to replace the standard 18s adds $1384 (do the sums, as all these are standard on the $8000-pricier 330i).
- Standard equipment: Cruise control, power windows and mirrors, multi-function trip computer, dual-zone climate control air conditioning, leather-look seat trim with electrically adjustable driver and passenger seat, automatic on/off headlights and wipers, automatic dimming rear-view mirror
- Infotainment: 8.8-inch colour screen with USB/AUX inputs, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, Spotify and news/weather/Google app connectivity, digital radio tuner and satellite navigation with real-time traffic information
- Options fitted: Innovations package including active cruise control, auto-park assist and extended smartphone connectivity $2900, leather trim $2308, sunroof $2245, woodgrain $615, ConnectedDrive freedom concierge and internet connectivity $330, LED foglights $308
- Cargo volume: 480 litres
This isn’t a backhanded compliment to the 320i, though, which scores highly with consistently-matched plastics, tactile controls, soft mood lighting and BMW’s iDrive system that remains the best infotainment system on-sale.
Particularly when linked to the optional 8.8-inch screen, iDrive is simply a winner with its bright graphics and intuitive interface. The sat-nav is easy to use and clearly shows traffic issues and suggests ways around them.
The LCI update has finally discarded the detestable, detachable cupholder lid on the centre console that required passengers to store the lid in the glovebox if they wanted to park their drinks. A simple roller blind is now the way forward.
The steering wheel still obscures some of the lower instrumentation when set to this tester’s ideal driving position, however.
Also, the climate control air-conditioning lacks a ‘sync’ button – requiring a driver travelling alone to manually adjust two separate dials to maintain the same cabin temperature. But with these minor gripes out of the way, the 320i cabin impresses.
For this driver, the seating position is nice and low, the steering wheel compact, and the general size and all-round visibility of the 3 Series strikes an ideal balance between interior space and city-friendly size.
In a world of growing and often gargantuan sedans, the compact BMW is pretty sweet.
There’s precious little toe-room left for rear passengers when the driver’s seat is cranked right down, but legroom is agreeable and air-vents are standard. The cushioning of the rear seat prioritises two, rather than three, people behind, offering broad cushioning on the sides to the detriment of centre passenger space.
The 40:20:40 split-fold rear-seat is inspired, though, and the boot with its 480-litre volume isn’t too far off models in the large sedan class.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 135kW/270Nm 2.0 litre four-cylinder turbo petrol
- Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, rear wheel drive
- Suspension: Aluminium double-joint spring strut front, five-link independent rear, adaptive dampers
- Brakes: Ventilated front and rear discs
- Steering: Electrically assisted mechanical steering, turning circle: 11.3m
- Towing capacity: 695kg (unbraked), 1700kg (braked)
Both the 320i and 330i share the same 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine and eight-speed automatic transmission.
The more affordable 320i model we’re testing here, however, produces 135kW of power and 270Nm of torque, quite a bit less than the 185kW and 350Nm of the 330i.
And a significant enough difference to allow the 330i to claim 0-100km/h in 5.8 seconds versus 7.3 seconds for this 320i.
Also, if you spec this model up to match the equipment level of the 330i, the faster slicker 330i costs just $2636 more.
For fuel consumption, however, both models make the same claim of just 5.8 litres of premium unleaded per 100 kilometres in combined conditions.
In any case, the BMW drivetrain is absolutely superb. The automatic transmission is flawless and the 2.0-litre engine boasts lush torque and smooth power everywhere.
On a freeway drive from Sydney to Canberra the 320i averaged 6.6 l/100km, rising to 7.3 l/100km after some spirited driving in the Brindabella Ranges.
The twisting roads of the Brindabella’s are where the 3 Series shines more than ever. The two-mode suspension now feels less floaty than before in Comfort and provides crisp and athletic body control in Sport mode without turning harsh.
No rival in this class – certainly not the C-Class – can match the BMW’s perfect balance and supreme agility.
Without overstating things, it’s a bit like driving a four-door sedan version of the Mazda MX-5 the way it dances into tight bends with a sharp front-end, then powers out of them with definitive rear-drive poise.
Ah, the power issue. The 320i is sweet to drive hard, but you just know this engine is capable of more. Sometimes the 320i gets breathless where the 330i would steam forward.
Still, once the hard driving is done, the automatic slinks back into tall gears, the steering becomes lighter and the suspension softens, leaving you to enjoy the luxurious cabin and refined driving experience. Only a touch too much coarse-chip road noise is a slight spoiler.
ANCAP rating: 5-Stars - this model scored 36.76 out of 37 possible points.
Safety features: Six airbags including dual-front, front-side and full-length curtain, ABS, ESC, pre-collision and pedestrian warning, lane departure warning, low-speed autonomous emergency braking, front and rear parking sensors, surround-view camera
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
The new A4 and XE are begging to be tested against the 3 Series – watch this space. The IS is an inferior rival while the C-Class is definitely up there if you rate a luxurious cabin more than superb dynamics.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
With its latest update, the BMW 3 Series is a supreme compact sports sedan. It’s a terrific size, with a nice cabin and a responsive yet frugal drivetrain.
All this comes wrapped in a chassis that offers stellar handling and sweet ride comfort.
But do you want our tip? As capable as the 320i is, and certainly good-value buying in this medium premium segment, it’s the 330i that steals the show.
It claims the same fuel economy numbers, offers demonstrably more power and comes with the standard equipment you’d perhaps be tempted to option on the 320i anyway.
So, it’s four stars for this one, but we’d also strongly recommend a close look at its dearer stablemate - the 330i. That car is arguably the most complete 3 Series in years.