BMW makes some exciting cars. The new 320i isn't one of them. Heresy, I hear you cry! Alas, and it pains me to write this, I think I'm right.
First, the 320i is powered by a 2.0 liter twin turbo 4 cylinder engine that has 180 horsepower. For reference, that's a not-insignificant 60 fewer horses than the $5,000 more expensive 328i. For someone whose personal daily driver is a 138 hp 1994 BMW 318i, that should represent a nice bump in power. However, in the much heavier current 3 Series cars, it just isn't enough. To give the new-to-me 320i a fair review, I didn't drive any of the much faster BMWs arrayed before me at a recent press event so that my sense of horsepower wasn't skewed - like clearing the pallet with French bread at a wine tasting. Nope, slow is slow.
Also, my test ride was strangled with an automatic. It's a good automatic (which to many BMW enthusiasts is an oxymoron) but it is an automatic. So, for me, the fun factor dropped several more notches.
On the inside, my red steed was "blessed" with an unrelieved, all black leatherette interior. No, my spell checked didn't change what I just typed. You read it correctly, a $32,000 BMW with leatherette interior (called Sensatec in BMW-speak). Want a dead cow interior and you'll have to fork over another $1,400. OK, leatherette isn't bad and in fact it was quite attractive but if I was going to go cheap (there, I actually typed the word again) I would have installed cloth. It's more comfortable on the behind in the hot and the cold than leatherette ever could be.
One the road, the 320i is, what's the word I'm looking for? Hmm, it rhymes with slow? And slow it is. Not dangerously slow - far from it. Not, OMG, this is slow either. Just, gee, I wish this was a little faster, slow. For sure, a 6 speed manual would have helped. However, since (rumor has it) BMW only sells about 3% of its cars with a manual, shift it for yourself, gear box, most of you reading this will never see one on the dealer's lot and will be discouraged by the salesman (who probably can't drive a manual) from ordering one. "You'll never sell it," they'll tell you and, alas, that may be true when it comes to trade in time. Certainly, they would probably never encourage you to lease one with a manual for the very same reason.
That's the not so good news. Here is some good news. Happily, the basic BMW-ness hasn't been dumbed out of the 3 Series. It still has that Mosler-safe-like thunk when you close the doors. It's quiet at speed - very little tire noise and absolutely no wind whistle. Nice. The $1,300 M package installed on my press tester gives the driver a fat, grippy M steering wheel that I really liked and wished was in my personal BMW. It also gives the front seat passengers M sport buckets. And while they are still leatherette, the seats are better than OK. "Kind to the behind," is what my test notes read. But, we're in a BMW "stripper" here so the seats are manually adjustable. And since the seat controls are on the door side of the seat and way down low, you better not have fat hands like I do or adjusting them will be a challenge. Best to do this with the door open before you set off. And then there are the brakes. Quoting myself, BMW makes the best standard brakes of any sedan I have driven. Yeah, Porsche's S brakes are better and Porsche's and Ferrari's ceramic brakes are better yet. However, if you want just-plain-excellent-no-extra-cost brakes - buy a BMW and drive safely.
Driving dynamics are OK. I drove the 320i on the track too at Monticello and it was not the vehicle I would have selected for my BMW Car Club driver's education vehicle. If, however, you have one and want to go to NJMSP or Lime Rock, you won't be embarrassed - provided, of course you have a manual and the M package with it's better wheels and tires.
Did I mention that my car lacked a sunroof. It did. A BMW without a sunroof is a rare bird indeed and is another way they have brought this car in a a price point.
The bottom line is that this mildly optioned press car had a sticker price of $35,325. Fair value when you consider that inside it's still built like a BMW. And if you need the size of a 3 Series and are on a budget, correctly optioned, this would be a good daily driver that would make your work-day commute less of a chore.
My rating - One star for the good on the road manners. One star for the superior brakes. One star for the solid BMW feel. It could have been a four star rating with a manual transmission and it could have been a two star review without the M suspension tweaks.