There is just something about a base model BMW that is extremely desirable.
It’s that one thing that appeals to enthusiasts that you just can’t quite put your finger on. Is it the lack of electronic things that might eventually go wrong? Is it being able to use 100 percent of the power whenever you want? Who knows? The F30 BMW 3-Series has brought a new base model to American shores. Until now, the base model came in the form of the 328i, which was a mid-range model everywhere else on the globe. In 2014, BMW brought over the 320i. The goal being to rival the then-all-new Mercedes-Benz CLA250, which famously advertised itself as being the only brand-new Mercedes-Benz under $30,000. Truth be told, the CLA cost $29,995 before the destination & handling charges and options. I have never seen one under $35,000. BMW never promised a badge for a bargain like Mercedes-Benz, rather they appealed to the people who wanted to go back to the roots of the original 3-series.
Every euro car nut knows the E30 3-series. It was the car for the late ‘80s-early ‘90s college yuppie whose parents were more than happy to send them off to college in California. Okay, maybe that was just the owners of the convertible version. Now, the E30 is regarded as one of the best cars to build a track car off of. Whether it be for endurance racing or autocross, the E30 can be built to fit. When you get behind the wheel of the BMW 320i, you already have the feeling that in 20 years, someone is going to strip it of all its creature comforts and create a racecar. Unfortunately, the example I tested was not equipped with the manual transmission. If you want a 320i with a stick shift, you’ll have to special order one or offer something or someone as a sacrifice to the BMW gods at BMW USA HQ.
For 2016, BMW is offering a 320i Special Edition. Naturally, that comes with special wheels that may or may not sell for seventeen million gummy worms on Bimmerforums in 20 years time. Included in the SE package are black kidney grills, which look pretty badass no matter if you choose black or white, and a badge delete. The standard engine in every 320i is a 180 horsepower inline-4 with BMW’s TwinPower Turbo technology. It will do 0-60 in 7.1 seconds with the automatic transmission, but you’ll want the manual to get every ounce of power out of it.
The tester vehicle that I took out was a 2016 320i Special Edition with BMW’s xDrive AWD. It’s mostly rear-wheel biased, but it does the trick in most all weather conditions. The exterior lines are smooth and well-sculpted. My tester was Alpine White, which is a nice color if you’re colorblind. Honestly, I’ve had enough of every new luxury car around here being black, white, or grey. That’s a rant for another time. The SE package really helps this look more like a well-optioned 335i. I really liked the contrast between the white paint and the gloss black kidney grilles. I don’t see how cars can look “athletic,” but the 320i really does. I can’t quite put my finger on it but somehow the design demands respect. Compared to the new 2015 W205 Mercedes-Benz C-Class, the 3-year old BMW 3-Series design somehow looks better. It’s not a shrunken 7-series design. The best part is that the design has a strong appeal to both males and females. I feel like I could name this car “Stephanie” or “Gary” and the name would fit the look of the car perfectly. Overall a very handsome design by BMW.
Inside, it’s more generic. Black SensaTec seats (it’s not real leather!) offer good support and comfort. They’re not the finest seats ever to grace a car, but they’ll be taken out and replaced with Recaro buckets at some point. The steering wheel is very thin and is contoured on the back, so you always have a great grip. However, the SensaTec material is used on the steering wheel and makes it feel rather cheap. BMW could definitely improve the feel by using actual leather on the one piece where you have a constant physical connection to the car. The iDrive system is much improved and is easy to use while driving. Audio, optional navigation, Bluetooth logs, and vehicle settings are controlled with the directional mouse in the center. The dash layout is very similar to previous BMWs. The back seats truly impress. The seatbacks curve toward the edges, so you almost have the feeling of a wraparound chair. Your back never contacts any hard plastics and you have plenty of head space and legroom. I can see riding back here on a road trip and not having a difficult time at all.
While driving the 320i, I was able to use quite a bit of the power. The acceleration certainly won’t snap your neck and send you to the ER with possible paralysis-inducing injuries, but it’s adequate for your everyday commute. The turbo in this car isn’t for speed, it’s to aid fuel economy. If you want a turbo for speed, stop being poor and get the 335i. The 320i is definitely a driver’s car though. Compared to the C-Class, it’s just so much more involving and keeps you engaged. The driving position is spot-on as well. I took the 320i around Topeka through neighborhoods, traffic-filled streets, and side roads. Being Topeka, all the roads were in a state of complete disrepair. The BMW has a stiffer suspension, but it won’t drive you crazy over the bumps and potholes.
I tested the BMW in its different modes. Sport, Comfort, and Eco Pro modes are selected by a switch next to the iDrive controller. Personally, I preferred driving in Sport mode because the transmission shifted faster and it held out the RPMs higher so I always had the right amount of power. Comfort mode is what the system defaults to when the car is started, so most will experience the car with the settings in that mode. Comfort mode doesn’t really do anything to the car except make the suspension a little less harsh over rougher surfaces. Eco Pro mode will shut off the engine when you come to a complete stop. That reduces emissions and saves some gas. When you let off the brake, the engine comes back on seamlessly. No matter what mode you select, the 320i will offer a delightful driving experience.
In my personal opinion, the BMW 320i is a great little car for the daily drive. I would definitely have one over a comparable C-Class or Audi A4. In certain ways, it reminds me of the old E30 3-Series. It’s just a good ol’ basic BMW. My tester performed well, and driving it made me smile just because it was fun. Not many cars these days have that fun factor, but somehow BMW has been able to keep that in its volume seller car. The 4-Series, the 2-door version of the 3-Series, does not offer a 420i. I think that might be a rather popular car with the well-heeled “recreational tree enthusiasts.” I would like to see one, but I guess that’s what the 2-Series is for. I can see people swapping an M3 engine into a 320i later down the road as they are doing now with so many E30s. BMW is like the Mazda of the volume-seller luxury car world. It’s about the driving experience, and the basic 3-Series surely did not disappoint. The 320i certainly deserves the badge of the Ultimate Driving Machine.