The same day our editor Nate Risch was piloting a $138,000 BMW ALPINA B7 around Laguna Seca race track, I tested a new 2016 320i to see what BMW had up its sleeve at the bottom of the range. The second least expensive BMW starts at $33,450 and gets you nicely sized 3 Series Sedan that goes 0-60 in 7.1 seconds and comes with 4 years, 50,000 miles warranty, maintenance included. For 2016, BMW worked its mid-cycle refresh magic on the F30 3 Series. Internally BMW refers to these updates as a LCI – Life Cycle Impulse. As far as LCI’s go, this seems to be a rather mild refresh with new headlights, a subtly different front clip and LED taillights.
Most of the LCI upgrades go to the top of the range 3 Series with the inline six-cylinder which gets a new more powerful 320 hp 6-cylinder motor and the addition of an all-new 330e plug-in hybrid model. All 3 Series get new front struts, rear dampers and reprogramed electric power steering. Option packages have also been tweaked.
Powering the 320i is a 4-cylinder turbocharged motor that puts out 180hp and 200 lb-ft of torque with a broad peak band between 1250-4500 rpm. Standard with the 320i is swift shifting 8-speed automatic. A six speed manual transmission is a no-cost option in the rear wheel drive 320i, but is not available with the xDrive all-wheel drive 320i.
To help hold the cost of the entry level car down, BMW does keep the bells and whistles, luxury and even several safety features to a minimum.
The 320i standard seats are covered in what BMW calls SensaTec, an artificial leather like covering and come with manual adjustments. Power seats are optional. BMW’s SensaTec is a long way from the “naugahyde” fake leather in the 80s era cars I grew up with. You will find an entry level $22K Kia has a back up camera and keyless entry standard, but not on a BMW 320i. Alas, the U.S. Government will fix the back up camera for 2017, when they will require all cars to have them. The 320i does come standard with ABS, airbags and traction control. Just no blind spot detectors, or lane departure warning, back up sensors or back up camera though they can all be optioned for extra coin.
So what’s it like to roll around in the second least expensive BMW you can buy?
I assumed the handling was going to be the car’s strong suit, and that the 320i would feel underpowered, but I got it backwards. The 320i benefits from a motor that seems to pull harder than the figures on paper would suggest, but the handling is disappointing. A good part of the reason the 320i feels strong is that peak torque is available at a very low 1250 rpm just above idle.
Furthermore, the 320i’s 2.0 turbocharged four is paired very well to a rapid shifting 8-speed ZF automatic transmission where under full throttle, the auto keeps the engine at full boil. The programing of the powertrain is spot on. Nail the throttle and the automatic jumps down several gears and put’s the 320i motor in its power band.
Now for the disappointing part. It starts with the flat-wide, non-supportive seats and the pencil thin steering wheel. I could live with those though but the handling of the 320i is a bigger let down. With standard 17” wheels and high profile tires, I didn’t expect the feed back or handling on the order of a M3. At highway speeds, however, any input into the steering wheel results in a tipping sensation of the entire car before the turn begins and this electric steering rack feels over boosted especially at highway speeds.
Handling and highway manners are usually BMW’s strong suit. BMW in their press kit describe this a “comfortable suspension” which I guess is what sells now. I suspect that to most buyers of the 320i won’t mind its tipsy handling, but to those of us who know what typical BMW driving feel is, will be disappointed. Once you get the body rolled over, it does turn OK, but to me is the worst handling BMW in their entire line. And I’ve even driven a 2 Series Active Tourer on the Autobahn.
Driving a stripper 320i was rather revealing in terms of what I’ve grown accustomed to in automobiles. I am not sure why a keyfob the size that BMW uses won’t keylessly unlock the car. There is no where to stick the key in the dash, so clearly there is a wireless signal coming out of the key. Alas BMW chooses to charge extra for keyless entry.
My last disappointment was relegated to the trunk, where now BMW charges extra for fold down seats. To me fold down seats in a sedan dramatically increase the cars usefulness for trips to the hardware store or to tote the occasional bicycle. On the plus side, BMW does include Bluetooth and Bluetooth streaming standard.
The 320i can be a completely rewarding chassis and car, but it has to be spec’d right for me to be something I would consider recommending to anyone. I feel that the 3 series chassis is at the point where it has to have the Sport Suspension to make it feel/drive like a BMW opposed to a Lexus. I have never used the description of tipsy highway handling to describe any BMW before this one.
It took quite a while to find the true BMW character in the 320i and where I found it was in the powertrain and not the handling. Optioning the Sport Package for a very reasonable $1,300 adds M Sport Suspension, 18” Sport Wheels, M steering wheel, sport seats and anthracite headliner, and transforms the 320i in to a great entry level car, one that even Jalopnik praised.