It’s been decades since the BMW 320i was everyone’s “starter” BMW, now that there are various rungs beneath it on the brand’s model ladder. But this was once BMW’s smallest car with six cylinders, and thus, the main introduction to what the boys from Bavaria have to offer.
Times change, of course, and cars change with them. The 320i no longer has six cylinders, but a turbo in-line four. And it’s become surprisingly grown up — believe it or not, this current G20 iteration is actually wider than the very first 7 Series was.
BMW launched the G20 here in early 2019 as a 330i M Sport (we liked the refinement and performance, but not the bumpy suspension) but since then, the 3 Series range has expanded.
There’s the M340i xDrive, which is the vroom-vroom version until the next M3 appears. For people curious about electric drive, there’s the 330e, a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle that offers the best of both worlds, in that it has a limited range under battery power, but a 2.0-litre turbo engine for those long drives.
Then there’s the 320i in Luxury trim (the car we drove) and M Sport guise, with its lowered suspension, stiffer springs and sporty design elements. Incidentally, the 330i M Sport is being rejiggered slightly, and will come with adaptive suspension as standard to address the jiggly ride.
What to expect from the 320i? It’s actually surprisingly plush inside, and it still feels like a baby 5 Series.
It’s surprisingly big in the back and when you’re on the move, the 320i is laudably quiet, thanks to acoustic glass and noise-absorbing foam. Cabin quality is much better than in the last 3 Series by leaps and bounds. The plastics are less plasticky, and there’s a clean, business-like look to the dashboard’s layout. The neatness is despite the fact that it retains lots of buttons, which actually makes things easier to find and adjust — jab a switch to set the air-con temp, instead of calling up the air-con menu first.
That said, the 320i follows the 330i into the digital world. It has the tile-based, customisable touchscreen system running the latest BMW OS 7.0 software, along with the cluttered virtual instruments that the current BMWs have, the one with the rev counter’s needle going the wrong way. It’s an attempt to keep pace with the competition, but frankly, Audi and Mercedes do their screens better.
But where the others lag is where you’d expect. The 320i is right at the top of the class in terms of handling. Steering feedback isn’t a strong point, but the BMW otherwise behaves beautifully through corners, turning into them with a great deal of eagerness, and the sort of polish that makes it feel as if an army of keen drivers worked on fine tuning its setup.
There’s a price to pay for the 320i’s poise, and it’s the ride quality. Even though the standard suspension setup in the Luxury edition is meant to be comfort-biased, the way the 320i tackles bumps can’t be described as plush. It’s never properly thumpy, but it’s firmer than firm, so after a spell you do tire of the way rough tarmac makes itself felt through the cabin. Inexplicably, the front seats don’t come with lumbar support adjustment, so take note when you do your test drive and see if you reckon you’ll still feel comfortable after a long drive.
There’s no complaining about the engine, however. It sounds about as good as a turbo in-line four can sound (most likely because the sound system pipes in some artificial engine music), and pulls without hesitation all the way through the rev range.
Singapore cars come with the Steptronic Sport transmission, which tunes the eight-speed auto to shift more aggressively, but this results in some low-speed jerkiness that doesn’t fit with the 320i’s overall poshness.
At least that makes it clear how to choose between this and its arch nemesis, the Mercedes C-Class; in time-honoured tradition, the Merc is the more comfortable car and the BMW is sharper. That was the case back when the 320i was a starter BMW, too. Some things stay the same after all.
BMW 320i Luxury
Engine 1,998cc, inline 4, turbocharged
Power 184hp at 5000-6500rpm
Torque 300Nm at 1350-4000rpm
Gearbox 8-speed automatic
0-100km/h 7.1 seconds
Top Speed 238km/h
Fuel Efficiency 6.3L/100km
Agent Performance Motors Ltd
Price S$208,888 with COE
Source: CarBuyer Singapore