One of the most hotly debated topics in motoring circles is the never-ending battle between Mercedes-Benz, Audi, and BMW, and in particular, the “entry-level” sedan models from each of these three brands. BMW has long held the title of the “benchmark” in the segment, and there has been many a claim that the new F30 3-Series would continue this heritage of being the best. So, we decided to test it out for ourselves when BMW South Africa gave us a red 320i Sport Line last week.
As far as looks go, the F30 hasn’t departed too much from the E90 series, but is rather an advanced facelift, with the biggest changes coming in size, and the dipped nose. The Sport Line we had on hand looked striking in red, mounted on 5-spoke 18-inch alloys, with a slightly lowered body, and “sport” badging just behind the wheel arches. Possibly one of the only gripes one may have with the styling of the F30 is the bonnet line, which now runs horizontally above the kidney grill, as opposed to along the line of it as seen previously. As with all BMW design, you either love it or you don’t, I for one do. Interior-wise, however, BMW has departed from traditional DNA and given each of the model lines a different look almost entirely, with careful detail being given to seating and dash design. This Sport line offered sport seats in black leather with complimentary red stitching, while the dash had brushed aluminium inserts on black, with a red line across the front. The interior design is something rather phenomenal, offering a bit of excitement at 1st glance, hinting to what the drive might hold. The materials are all high-class and comfortable to the touch, classier than those found in the E9X series.
Once inside the driver’s seat, comfortably in position courtesy of the 7-way manually adjustable seats, and with the steering wheel adjusted into place, frontal visibility was excellent, however I struggled with visibility out the back, and no matter how much I re-arranged the mirror’s position, I couldn’t get a clear line of sight through the rear windscreen. Apart from that, all felt well, and I felt more than ready to tackle the road every time I set foot in the 320i. The 320i Sport Line is decently kitted out with features and the one I drove came standard with sat-nav, voice controls and cruise control. While most of the systems worked fantastically, the BMW iDrive system was a conundrum to learn how to use, and the voice controlled navigation was fairly useless for anyone without an American accent, unable to correctly input even the simplest road and suburb names. Barring these two issues, functionality on the BMW was superb, just what you would expect from a top brand such as BMW.
The entry level engine spec is a 2.0 TwinPower turbo 4-cylinder motor producing 135kW and 270Nm at 5000 and 1250-4500 RPM respectively, a fair bit, but would it be enough to silence the moans from BMW traditionalists complaining about 4-cylinder turbo motors? In a word, yes. While BMW are known for their inline-6 engines, the E9X series 320i’s lacked grunt, and the heavy lump of metal at the front made for a boring and rather apathetic drive on all fronts. The N20 engine series has corrected this and then some, providing eager torque from just above idle, and preventing choking at altitude. The 4-pot is light and free-revving, as well as enthusiastic to the point of being over-eager; in fact I found it almost impossible not to give the 320i a full go at every open road I came across. The one and possibly only fault with the N20 motor was the idle noise, which sounded diesel-ish to say the least.
The 2.0T engine on our test mule was paired with the 8-speed ZF auto gearbox, a definite must-have on the 320i. Even though we didn’t have the M-sports transmission, the auto-box was close to telepathic in its anticipation of gear changes, and when used in conjunction with the drive-style selector switch next to the gear lever, the changes in throttle response were perfect for every situation we faced. In traffic the ZF box was smooth and efficient, combined with Eco-Pro mode and auto stop-start functionality, and on the open road, the gear shifts were near on seamless, even when revving to redline in Sport and Sport+ modes.
The 135kW motor was always ready, and the suspension setup offered the perfect combination of comfort and stiffness for sporty, dynamic handling, as well as relaxed, inter-city cruising. The electronically assisted power steering setup, although somewhat mute, had a weighty feel to it, offering precise, calculated turns, with eager turn in and accurate exits from turns. Whether on smooth highways or less than perfect suburban roads, the ride quality was always smooth and comfortable, epitomising class at every turn, and symbolising sporty elegance along every straight.
Sport and Sport+ modes offered the most excitement, and I found myself utilising these more often than not; sharpening the suspension, throttle response, steering feel, and in Sport+, semi disabling the ESP enough to allow power sliding around corners, and tyre spin off the launch on our 0-100 test runs. The exhaust system opens up magnificently at high revs, shouting out in a deep roar, echoing out whenever I pushed the throttle a little harder, yet thinning to a background purr when easing off the power. Performance on the 320i is simply brilliant for the power and size of the vehicle, offering a 0-100 sprint of 7.54 seconds in our test runs (0.04s slower than the claimed times by BMW), and a top speed of 236km/h. These modes and a heavy right foot do come with a price though, as fuel consumption tends to jump substantially with just the thought of sudden acceleration.
While the claimed consumption figures are 6.1l/100km on a combined cycle, even in Eco-Pro mode, we could only achieve 7.6l/100km, and that was on an economy run. Our average consumption for the rest of the test period was 10.1l/100km; heavy, yes, but I blame the superb dynamics and sporty feel of the 320i. For the life of me I couldn’t bring myself to drive slowly, or even economically for long, the 320i was just too inviting, the power too readily available, and the enjoyment too much for me to resist a good hammering through a curvy bit of roadway, or a dice down an empty quarter mile straight. Perhaps this is the 320i’s greatest flaw, but in the same stroke it might just be its single greatest point; one can not buy the 320i if you plan on being economical, it’s just too thrilling and inviting, and the sporty feel, throttle, steering, suspension, and overall performance dynamics available at the slightest whim are just too great to try and resist using them.
The BMW 320i begs you to go and go harder still, it instils you with the notion that you are the king of the road and as such everyone should bow down to you or move out of your way. It offers a sheer excitement that many manufacturers aspire to as a long term dream, all while offering the style and comfort of a top end executive sedan. The F30 3-Series is the 6th generation of BMW 3’s, and offers up striking looks, effortless dynamics, sporty characteristics, and sheer elegance on a silver platter to whoever sets foot in the driver’s seat.
But, is it still worthy of being called the benchmark? Most definitely! It offers a complete package with no false pretences, uncompromising attention to detail, top-class quality and a drive second-to-none on the market at present. The dynamics are sublime, and the F30 is engineered from the ground up to be a fantastic piece of machinery. Although the new Mercedes-Benz C Class and Audi A4 haven’t been released yet, and one can’t compare them to this new 3-Series, I fear for the other 2 German parties; I fear they won’t be able to match the BMW as a whole, the 3 is just that revolutionary, that brilliant everywhere it matters most.
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135kW @ 5000RPM
270Nm @ 1250-4500RPM
8-speed ZF Automatic
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Author: Roger Biermann
Photos: Jarryd Junkin