As many of my readers know, I’m a fan of European cars. Specifically that of German cars. Having spent most of my life in one, riding (and throwing up) in one as a kid, and finally owning one, I just like the bank vault-like feel of German vehicles.
Full disclosure, we did have Japanese cars growing up too, but riding in “the other” car (incidentally Mercedes-Benzes) was almost for special occasions only.
Being a car enthusiast, I’ve come close to buying into the “Ultimate Driving Machine” mindset and becoming a BMW owner myself. However for various reasons, be it timing, cost, or availability, the furthest I’ve gone is actually being a part of the BMW Car Club of British Columbia, mainly due to their excellent member-organized driving events.
So when BMW Canada offered me the keys to their latest 3-series, internally dubbed as the F30, I graciously accepted the opportunity to see what the fuss was all about.
The sixth generation 3 Series has grown moderately in size compared to its predecessor. Its track has been widened (front + 37 mm, rear + 47 mm), and increases to the car’s length (+ 93 mm) and wheelbase (+ 50 mm) are all designed to accentuate its sporting allure. Inside the new BMW 3 Series sedan, rear passengers will appreciate the noticeable increase in space made possible by the larger dimensions.
The entire BMW 3 Series range is now also available in a variety of trim and equipment variants. They are called the Sport Line, Luxury Line, Modern Line, and M Sport respectively. Each presents its own individual take on the character of the car with different interior colours/material combinations and different exterior wheel/trim designs.
Drive and chassis technology have always been key areas of expertise for BMW, and therefore agility and driving dynamics remain outstanding attributes of this latest generation 3-series. The new car is up to 88lbs lighter than its predecessor despite being larger.
My tester was a 2014 BMW 320i Sport Line sedan with the company’s newest xDrive permanent all-wheel-drive system. This is the smallest engine that you can get and the cheapest 3-series that you can order (with the exception of the rear-wheel drive 320i).
Normally I don’t like base model cars because I spend a fair amount of time behind the wheel of any car. Therefore I enjoy an vehicle environment with all the modern conveniences and technology available.
However, it could be argued that a stripped down model is the greatest way to enjoy the best of a car’s particular chassis goodness for the least amount of money. Especially with a chassis as revered as that of the 3-series. All you need is a key, a heater, and air conditioning, don’t you?
But the big question was whether BMW can make a sub-200 horsepower car still worth of the “Ultimate Driving Machine” phrase. Keep reading to find out!
Ah, Bayerische Motoren Werke (aka BMW). Founded in 1916 in Munich, Bavaria, this German company was formed following a restructuring of the Rapp Moterenwerke aircraft manufacturing firm in 1917.
At the end of WW1, BMW was forced to cease aircraft engine production in 1918 due to the terms of the Versailles Armistice Treaty.
Ever notice how the BMW Roundel (logo) looks like propellers? That’s no coincidence!
These days, the company is well known for its Ultimate Driving Machines – luxury cars with a sporting edge, designed for people who like to drive.
As the lowest rung on the 3-series ladder, the 320i xDrive that BMW Canada lent to me wasn’t tarted up with a whole lot of options.
My car included the $2,000 Navigation package, and the $2,800 Sport package (which includes the Black Dakota leather trim upgrade with Coral Red highlights among other things).
BMW also equipped my press car with Pirelli 210 Winter Sottozero run-flat high performance winter tires and 17” BMW wheels. A rather unflattering looking combination, but well suited for the winter weather.
The face of the BMW 3-series has constantly been evolving over the last 30+ years of its existence. With this latest iteration, designers were faced with the challenge of incorporating the traditional BMW stylistic values while still incorporating modern but yet future-orientated design.
Visually, my 320i lacked a couple of the fancy BMW elements that are in the glossy brochures and television commercials. The most obvious missing element were the signature LED angel eyes as my test car was only equipped with halogen headlamps. You need to spring for the more expensive Bi-Xenon or LED headlamps to get those distinctive rings.
However the classic BMW kidney grill is present, and in this latest F30 3-series body style it’s more prominent than ever. BMW says that new face, with elongated headlights reaching along as far as the kidney grille, emphasizes the sense of width and strengthens the car’s athletic overall profile.
While I admit that I’m still not a raving fan of this look, it has grown on me since the F30 3-series was introduced in 2012.
The rest of the 320i’s shape is pure BMW, pure 3-series. It retains the luxury compact sports sedan look that many continue to judge as the benchmark in the industry.
Since the 3-series is a major part of BMW’s bread and butter, it’s clear as to why they didn’t want to mess around with it too much from the previous model.
The driver-orientated cockpit makes its return back to the 3-series with this latest generation. The previous vehicle was heavily criticized by both former owners and the media for its expanses of black plastic and generic design.
In the F30, the wrap around cockpit is angled towards the driver by 7 degrees as part of its natural design. BMW says that this puts all the important controls within easier reach and exudes a feeling of “active driving”
More importantly, the dashboard lines on the driver’s side of the cockpit are laid out to converge on a single point behind the steering wheel and to guide your eyes towards the road. Even the driver’s side of the centre tunnel is grained with a different trim surface than the passenger’s side.
Whether or not you believe the marketing spin, the cockpit is a very nice place to be. There is no question that the driver is of significant importance here.
Larger front door pockets mean that they now even accommodate 1-litre water bottles. There are also two large drink holder binnacles ahead of the gearshift knob. Anyone who has spilled a drink due to the flimsy pop-out cupholders in the previous 3-series will rejoice.
If this is too much cupholder overload for you, a clever oddments tray can be fitted to cover them up. It even has its own special net pocket in the glove compartment when not in use. I found the tray to be the perfect spot for my iPhone to rest without sliding around.
Rear seat and legroom has never been a 3-series strong point. However I’m happy to report that passengers will now enjoy significantly more space than in the outgoing model. There is an extra 0.71” (18mm) of extra legroom, +0.6” (15mm) of extra knee room, and +0.31” (8mm) of extra rear headroom. My only complaint was the lack of front seatback map pockets, which looked a bit cheap.
Golfers can now rejoice as well because with careful packing, the luggage compartment can now hold as much as 3 golfbags. This is all thanks to a trunk capacity that has been increased by 20 litres to a total of 480 litres.
The lift-in height has also been lowered and is now at 66 cm from the ground. For bulkier items, the 40/20/40 spit rear seatbacks offer extra versatility for longer items such as skis.
INSTRUMENTS AND TECH GOODIES GALORE
The cockpit’s four circular dials (fuel gauge, speedometer, tachometer and oil temperature gauge) are classic BMW but have now been updated with a multi informational black panel display.
The previous versions of iDrive required a PhD to understand. This latest version of iDrive is easier to use than ever. While it is still a complex system integrating everything from multimedia and vehicle settings/info to a built-in owners’ manual, it is a vast improvement over previous efforts. Thankfully BMW has seen it fit to keep the climate control settings as a separate panel still.
The freestanding iDrive monitor with its slim, transreflective, wide screen high-resolution display recalls the latest flatscreen televisions normally found in living rooms rather than cars. Very nice.
New for 2014 is a touchpad on top of the iDrive controller that lets you write out letters of the alphabet with your finger rather than have to twirl the wheel endlessly while spelling out a street or city name. Clever.
BMW’s navigation map graphics as of late have been a step above the competition, perhaps with the exception of Audi and Cadillac’s newest CUE system. This latest iteration is no different. With high levels of detail, smooth transitions and fast refresh rates between turns and zooming in/out, this is certainly a system that other manufacturers should use as a benchmark.
I was slightly disappointed that despite having Bluetooth connectivity in my test car, I still had to plug my iPhone into the USB port to enable music playback. Evidently there is a separate option you have to order for Bluetooth audio streaming.
My test car was also not equipped with the excellent rearview camera, Park Distance Control ultrasonic parking sensors, or auto dimming mirrors. All 3 options are ones that I would highly recommend if you are going to purchase this car for yourself.
SO, HOW DOES IT DRIVE?
The 320i is equipped with a direct-injected four cylinder engine which gets its extra kick from a single twin-scroll turbocharger. This is the same N20 engine that powers the 328i except that it’s rated at 180 hp and 200 ft-lbs of torque versus the 328i’s 240hp and 255ft-lbs of torque.
The good news is that the 200 ft-lbs peaks at a low 1250 rpm. This means that the 320i never feels slow. The twin scroll turbocharging technology results in minimal turbo lag, and performance more than adequate for daily commutes.
However, because the 320i’s engine doesn’t feel overly torquey or quick when pushed harder, the 328i’s uprated engine is still the way to go if you want to lean into the performance side of the 3-series without going to the turbo 6-cylinder goodness in the 335i.
Designed with BMW’s standard formula of a longitudinally mounted engine, 50/50 balanced weight distribution,and a torsionally stiff chassis, the 320i feels agile. I was surprised as to how fun it was to drive despite being down on power compared to other BMWs I’ve tested.
The suspension feel and handling are what you expect from the 3-series. Solid, quiet, composed but not wallowy. BMW has made great strides in the adjusting their suspension tuning with the stiffer run flat tires in mind and the ride quality is back to what it should be.
A wheelbase of 2,810 mm (+ 50 mm) and a front and rear track width of 1,543 mm (+ 1.46 37 mm) and 1,583 millimeters (+ 48 mm) gives this new F30 3-series a more road-hugging stance than its predecessor.
However I’m still not a fan of the electric power steering. While supposedly this has been quietly fettled for the 2014 model year, it still lacks the feel and weight of the previous legendary BMW’s hydraulic steering rack. I guess this is the price that we pay for increased efficiency.
Although we don’t get much snow here in Vancouver, we do get a whole lot of rain throughout the year. Therefore I’ve always felt that the added safety and security of all-wheel-drive is a huge plus.
My test car was equipped with BMW xDrive intelligent permanent all-wheel drive system, perfect for Canadian climates. According to BMW, more than 80% of all BMWs sold in Canada are specified with xDrive! A huge uptake rate.
This latest generation system has been recalibrated for greater agility and precision, with benefits also for cornering and not just after slippage has occurred. The electronically controlled system is rear-biased for the typically sporty BMW rear wheel drive feel.
However it can vary the torque split between the front and rear wheels with split-second speed to ensure power is transferred to the wheels that grip. This allows for optimal power management whatever the weather and road conditions.
One major highlight of the 320i, and in fact any F30 3-series, is the new ZF sourced 8 speed automatic transmission. Not only is it the only 8 speed transmission offered in this class, but it is even more efficient than even the 6 speed manual transmission.
BMW engineers have also managed to keep the size and weight to a minimum. So despite the two additional gears, the unit is comparable in weight and size to the previous generation 6 speed automatic gearbox.
Despite a larger overall spread, eight gear ratios mean that the spacing between them is smaller, so that the optimal ratio is available in virtually all situations. This helps to explain why, when fitted with the 8-speed automatic transmission, the 3-series has even lower fuel consumption than when equipped with the 6-speed manual transmission.
With its optimized control technology, the 8-speed transmission boasts extremely fast shift and reaction times and direct downshift capability. It’s almost as quick as a dual clutch transmission, at least from behind the wheel, when the car is in Sport+ mode. The electronic transmission controller can also alter the shift characteristics to cater either for a sportier or a more relaxed fuel-saving driving style. If you want paddle shifters though, you’ll have to spring for the Sport package in the 328i, the 328d, or he 335i.
ADJUSTABLE DRIVING DYNAMICS
Drivers are now also able to vary the overall character of the car depending on the driving situation or to suit their personal preferences.
Using the Driving Dynamics Control switch, the driver is able to customize accelerator response characteristics, engine response, the power steering characteristics and the Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) thresholds.
The modes are defined as ECO PRO, COMFORT, SPORT and SPORT+. Each of these predefined setups activates different settings for the relevant powertrain and suspension components (if so equipped with adaptive dampening).
In SPORT mode, for example, throttle response is very sharp and the steering becomes even more direct. On vehicles with automatic transmission, the shift points are altered to provide a significantly sportier drive.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, ECO PRO mode is designed for maximum efficiency. It changes the accelerator mapping so that the same pedal travel delivers less power than in the standard mode.
In other words, to discourage inefficient quick throttle changes, the accelerator pedal is dulled as if it has been to the dentist and shot full of Novocain. Bad for performance but fantastic for fuel economy.
In Eco Pro mode, the automatic transmission control strategy is also modified so as to upshift as soon as possible and to delay downshifts. Intelligent energy and climate management reduces the mechanical power consumption and also the consumption of electrical systems such as heated mirrors and seats.
However since the driver’s own personal driving style is the biggest influencer of fuel consumption, special displays in the instrument cluster act as a training coach. The instrument cluster display lets the driver know how much the driving range is being extended and the fuel consumption for the specific driving situation. Tips and incentives on a more economy-conscious driving style as even offered. It quickly becomes a game to see how much you can extend the range of the car.
I was particularly intrigued by Eco Pro’s Coasting mode which seems to automatically shift the transmission into neutral to maximize rolling distance. A quick stab at the throttle pedal brings the revs back up. This mode works well for long distance cruising as long as you don’t have to make any passing maneuvers.
BMW claims that ECO PRO mode allows average fuel consumption to be reduced by up to 20%, with a corresponding increase in driving range. Impressive for a non-hybrid vehicle!
BMW rates the 320i xDrive at 8.9L/100 kms in the city, and 5.6L/100 kms on the highway. Over my time with the BMW 320i xDrive, I averaged a very respectable 8.7L/100 kms in mostly city driving. So not only is it relatively inexpensive to own and maintain, but it’s also surprisingly fun to drive.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing parts of the BMW 320i is its price. Price for a base 2014 BMW 320i xDrive starts at only $39,990. This is a car you can get into for V6 Camry or Accord money, and as good as those are, they aren’t available with all-wheel-drive.
Furthermore, a quick call to Kristoffer Ong at BMW Langley reveals that a base 2013 BMW 320i rear wheel drive currently leases at $479 a month for 48 months/78,000 km limit. This includes the 4 years/80,000 kms free schedule maintenance that BMW includes with all of their vehicles.
That’s almost the same as what a well equipped Toyota Camry or Honda Accord leases for. Kristoffer tells me that many customers who shop for the aforementioned two cars also frequently cross shop for the 320i. Why not get the prestige, engineering, technology, and safety in BMW for Toyota/Honda money?
While there are faster/better equipped 3-series models or larger cars for the same money, there is no denying the quality teutonic feel of a BMW. While I occasionally craved for more torque and more toys, I grew to enjoy the 320i over my test week with it.
If you’re looking for a fun to drive sports sedan that can actually function in the snowy roads up to Whistler/Blackcomb but doesn’t cost a boat load of money, the BMW 320i xDrive is an excellent choice that deserves a top spot on your shopping list.