FIT for purpose: when a design is suitable for its intended use. It might sound like we’re damning the BMW 320i with faint praise when we apply this term to the entry-level 3 Series, but few cars can claim to be fit for purpose. A Mercedes-Benz S-Class definitely is. Toyota Hilux and Porsche 911? Yep. The 320i? Undoubtedly. And here’s why…
Where the bottom-rung petrol-powered 3 Series used to be the runt of the litter, the F30 320i surprised us with its performance during testing. The 180 kW/350 N.m 328i Sports Steptronic that we evaluated in May 2012 accelerated from 80 to 120 km/h in 4,72 seconds. This 320i, fitted with the same Sports Steptronic eight-speed automatic transmission, took only 5,58 seconds. It was never slower than 0,5 seconds in any of the 20 km/h in-gear acceleration increments than its pricier stablemate.
Furthermore, the 320i reached 100 km/h from a standstill in 8,11 seconds and felt even faster in the daily grind. BMW SA still offers model-designation deletion as a no-cost option. See where we’re going with this?
The 320i and 328i share the 2,0-litre turbopetrol four-cylinder engine. But without the weight of six-cylinder-equalling expectation that hindered the 328i in our test, the 320i’s use of this powerplant surprised all who experienced it.
The 2,0-litre retains the smoothness of the previous generation’s naturally aspirated version, but adds a wallop of low-down grunt and some welcome zing at the top end. Our sole criticism is that it still sounds like a diesel engine on start-up, but this soon disappears as the powerplant reaches operating temperature.
Our test vehicle was equipped with a number of dynamics-enhancing options, including Adaptive M running gear (which features adaptive damping and lowered suspension; R10 900), variable sport steering (R3 000) and 17-inch allow wheels (an inch larger than standard; part of the Sport Line package), which made objective evaluation difficult. However, judging by the favourable comments the 320i’s ride, steering and handling garnered from the test team, we’d advise potential buyers to consider these options.
In fact, the F30’s new-found rolling refinement remains the most significant improvement over the E90, a vehicle hampered by its stiff ride and relatively high levels of road noise. That BMW has managed to make these strides without negatively affecting its breadwinner’s poised, unflappable nature is deeply impressive.
Moving inside, we were relieved to find that this 3 Series, unlike the 328i Modern Line test unit with its bilious oyster-coloured trim, featured Sport Line specification.
Aside from a number of gloss-black trim items on the exterior, this package includes red trim strips (less garish than you’d think) and larger black surfaces, red accent stitching and sports seats complemented by a smaller steering wheel with a thicker rim. Despite the garnish and the glitzy infotainment screen that accompanies the best iteration yet of the iDrive system, it remains a classily conservative cabin that just misses a best-in-class gong because of some suspect material choices along the centre console and a slightly hollow sound when closing the doors.
We’ve yet to test a close-to-standard 3 Series, but the basic spec is sound (leather, auto lights and wipers, cruise and climate control are standard) and admittedly the numerous below-the-surface extras don’t add much to the occupants’ sense of well-being.
They will be grateful for the additional space compared with the E90, however. In all measurable planes, the F30 has improved, especially in rear-seat leg- and headroom. The boot is now larger and the shape more regular, but at 328 dm3 it is still bested by the Audi A4’s 376 dm3.
In the voting for our match-up section, every team member bar one picked the 320i over the equivalent Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4. Therefore, until we’ve tested a 320d (two CAR staffers have driven this model and commented unfavourably on its lack of mechanical refinement), 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.
This entry-level version provides strong performance, averaged just 6,9 litres/100 km on our fuel route, is refined, comfortable and sensibly priced in its segment. It does everything it needs to very, very well. Fit for purpose? We’d counter that the 320i is perfect for all its intended purposes.