2013 BMW 320i
We don’t celebrate base models enough around here. It’s not that we don’t love the cheap versions, but carmakers usually loan us models tarted up with more options than sense. But the stripper, the price leader, the key-and-a-heater—that’s the way to obtain the goodness of a particular car for the least amount of money.
The lowest rung on the 3-series ladder is now the 320i, starting at $33,475. We can almost hear the sales pitch: “This 320i is $4550 less than the 328i, and you get the same 2.0-liter turbo engine.” That’s true, but what your salesperson might not tell you is that you give up 60 horsepower to the 240-hp 328i, and the 320i’s zero-to-60 time of 6.5 seconds is 0.9 second slower than the 328i’s.
But mid-range acceleration is really the only sacrifice the 320i asks of its driver. From a stop, the short first and second gears of the eight-speed automatic assure that there’s plenty of punch. The 320i doesn’t start falling significantly behind the 328i until it reaches 50 mph. Fifty-to-70-mph passing times are a second slower in the 320i, so the freeway merge requires a bit more planning.
The rest of the car is just like a 328i, from the quiver-free structure to the noisy idle of the four-cylinder to the spastic startup every time it awakens after shutting down at a stoplight. Weight distribution (50/50 front/rear) remains unchanged, as does the flavorless steering feel. It’s a new 3-series to the core. Avoid the temptations of the optional power leather seats, sunroof, and navigation system, and you’ll still get every bit of what’s great about the 3-series.
To improve the driving experience, though, try the $1300 Sport package that adds staggered 18-inch wheels with summer tires and an M Sport–tuned suspension. A choppier ride is a minor trade-off for quick reflexes and unshakable stability. We measured 0.87 g on the skidpad, which isn’t very impressive, but all of that grip is usable on freeway ramps or canyon roads.
Cut free of frippery, the 320i becomes a car that goads you to play with it instead of the trinkets inside. A vinyl-trimmed interior sounds like a hardship, but we suspect that anyone who sits in this BMW will assume the upholstery is bovine-based. A 6.5-inch display that juts out of the dash will make folks think you paid for navigation. You will have to manually dim the mirror, and winter may make you wish you had splurged for heated seats.