CAPE TOWN – Currently in its seventh generation, BMW’s 3 Series is what comes to mind for many when thinking of the Bavarian luxury car maker. Since the mid-seventies, the “3er” has represented German precision; a well-built and compact sports saloon that offers thrill-a-minute dynamics courtesy of near-perfect weight distribution and rear-wheel drive.
As far as iconic badges go, “320i” has appeared on the back of BMWs since 1975. Over the years, there have been less powerful, value-oriented models such as the 316i and 318i, as well as more desirable and powerful options like the 325i and 328i. Still, the 320i has often been seen as the perfect compromise, offering decent performance for not too much outlay.
This was certainly the case with the previous-generation 3 Series. In fact, in our September 2012 road test of the F30-generation 320i, we remarked “there’s little doubt that the 320i is the best version of the new 3 Series and probably the best individual model in the premium D-segment”. High praise for what was then the base model.
It should come as no surprise then, that the new 320i is equally superb. Let’s begin with the exterior. It’s rather a handsome saloon, devoid of unnecessary styling gimmicks. Sporting a smaller grille than its siblings higher up the range, the 3 Series takes a more conservative approach, perhaps as to not scare away its traditional buyer. Opting for the M Sport package gives the 3 Series a more aggressive, sporting stance.
If you’re used to the interior of the previous-generation 3 Series, the new model will certainly impress you. Not only does it feel more upmarket than before but there is more room for passengers. Naturally, boot space has increased and now measures a decidedly roomy 368 litres. This should come as no surprise though, seeing as the current generation is about the same size as an E39 5 Series. While not as “baroque” as the cabin of a Mercedes-Benz C-Class, the interior still feels premium, in a minimalistic and modern sort of way. Ergonomically, it does rather well, too. In typical BMW fashion, the facia is angled towards the driver. Everything is well-placed and logically laid-out; a prime example being the climate and audio controls, which are easy to use while on the move.
Finding your ideal driving position shouldn’t prove to be much of a problem, either. The optional electrically adjustable sports seats fitted to our test unit are immensely comfortable and supportive, offering plenty of adjustment. An M steering wheel is part of the M Sport package but, while beautifully trimmed and of high quality, it’s slightly too thick. The tiller in the Standard or Sport line models is preferred.
On the move, the 320i feels sprightlier than its peak figures suggest. This is perhaps down to the slick ZF eight-speed automatic transmission which changes through the gears quickly and smoothly. The 135 kW 2,0-litre, four-cylinder turbopetrol is refined and frugal, too. According to BMW, the sprint from zero to 100 km/h takes 7,1 seconds, while fuel economy is rated at 6,3 L/100 km. I saw an average of 7,0 L/100 km while darting round the Mother City.
Through corners, the 320i is in its element. It dances through the bends like a much smaller car, cornering flat and with precision. The quick and direct steering allows you to place it on the road accurately. The M Sport suspension certainly gives the already poised 3 Series a more athletic edge, although the way it deals with bumps and road blemishes is less impressive. The large 19-inch wheels and stiff suspension aren’t particularly well suited to Cape Town’s potholed roads; while certainly not intolerable, the ride is harsher than one might expect from a premium saloon. The Sport line offers a far more sumptuous ride quality while still being able to provide the driver with entertaining handling characteristics.
At R700 562, the 320i faces stiff competition not only from its traditional rivals such as the Audi A4 and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, but from the increasingly popular premium SUV. With buyers eschewing the traditional three-box saloon in favour of trendy crossovers, the 3 Series has to fight even harder to tempt would-be buyers from their cherished off-roaders. While it may not offer the status of a high-riding SUV, the luxurious ride of a C-Class or the bank vault-like interior quality of the A4, the 320i is an excellent all-rounder. It delivers everything a buyer in this class could possibly want, especially if said buyer prefers their premium saloon with a sporty streak.