While we miss that revvy six-pot, the numbers for the 2.0 were just way too good to pass up. Then we received news of an even less-powerful 2.0-liter 3 Series - the 320i. This was interesting, as it saw BMW delving into a power level previously owned solely by the anemic Lexus IS 250 and its six-cylinder engine.
Could BMW make a sub-200-horsepower sedan that still drove the way we expected a 3 Series to drive? To find out, we borrowed the new 320i for a week of testing.
For the 320i, BMW has detuned its 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder from 240 hp to 180 hp, all of which is available from 5,000 to 6,250 rpm. Torque is similarly taken down, from 255 pound-feet to 184 lb-ft, spread from 1,250 to 4,500 rpm. A six-speed manual is available as standard, although our tester was fitted with the more frugal eight-speed automatic. Rear-wheel drive is standard and what we found ourselves with, while BMW's xDrive system offers some all-weather ability for the low-powered sedan.
Regardless of which transmission is chosen, the 320i can hit 60 in 7.1 seconds. Hardly brisk, we'll agree, as the average hot hatch can out-sprint this BMW. But in practice, the readily available torque and excellent transmission result in a car that feels quicker than its numbers indicate. We were rarely wanting for power while testing the 320i, as a bootload of torque was seemingly always ready to be called up. Having the smaller engine doesn't feel like a handicap, like it does in the Lexus IS 250. We can thank the broad spread of torque for this.
This is a responsive engine, too, without much in the way of turbo lag. In fact, this author prefers its smoother dynamics to that of the more powerful 2.0-liter in the 328i. It doesn't sound half bad either, with the single-pipe exhaust delivering a smooth, refined note that isn't intrusive or noisy.
The eight-speed automatic is the excellent 8HP unit from ZF, which, if we're honest, is one of the best traditional, torque-converter-equipped automatic on sale today. It is quick on upshifts and downshifts, and will happily drop multiple gears in a single go. It doesn't need to be thought about - it just delivers whatever the driver needs, seemingly before the driver knows it.
Our tester was fitted with the Sport Pack, which added paddle shifters, along with 18-inch wheels, an M steering wheel, sport seats and a tweaked suspension. In practice, the transmission responded well in manual mode, while the paddles themselves featured a nice action and a solid feel. It still doesn't beat a dual-clutch system for involvement (or for that matter, a proper manual trans), but it can provide some entertainment in the right circumstances.
The ride provided by the sporty suspension certainly adds a degree of entertainment to the 320i. It feels poised and balanced, with progressive body roll that comes on through a turn. Despite the sportier ride, though, the 320i is still very much a comfortable car. BMW's decision to fit 18-inch wheels as the largest option on this model makes for a ride that isn't compromised by the firmer suspension.
Opting for the least-powerful 3 Series is also a boon to fuel economy, with BMW claiming our auto-trans car will net 24 miles per gallon in the city and 36 mpg on the highway. We certainly had no issues hitting right in the middle of those two, recording numbers in the high 20s.
Aiding the fight for fuel economy is BMW's Driving Dynamics Control, which features an excellent Eco Pro setting. Paired with a smooth stop-start system, we imagine netting over 30 mpg would be a fairly easy task for a conscientious driver.
Not surprisingly, the 320i is the cheapest member of the 3 Series family. Prices start at $32,750 for our rear-drive model, while opting for xDrive adds $2,000. Our tester's sole option was the $1,300 Sport Package, so while we had a very reasonable as-tested price of $34,975 (including a $925 destination charge), that number only tells part of the story.
Our tester was stingy on the standard equipment. The sport seats were unheated and featured manual controls, while a dumbed-down version of the brand's iDrive control handled the radio and Bluetooth functions. Moreover, those infotainment options lacked things like streaming Bluetooth audio and satellite radio. And for some reason, the USB input wouldn't recognize the iPhone 5 we attempted to use for some extra tunes. The lack of rear park sensors added insult to injury.
It's not that the 3 Series is a bad car for lacking these features, but it's simply something prospective customers should keep in mind before making a purchase - a well-equipped 320i isn't going to be anywhere near that $32,750 starting price. Fitted with the missing features we listed above, the price pushes $41,000.
The 320i puts BMW into difficult territory. Between the base price and a well-equipped price, there are no shortage of upstart competitors, from a Ford Fusion Titanium to more traditionally luxurious brands, like the new Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class. If you really want a BMW, the 320i retains the brand's pedigree well - it's just going to cost you.