By Zack Klapman.
Saying, “I’d like a BMW.” is like saying, “I’d like some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.” You need to be specific, because there are enough options to satisfy an ADHD sufferer with multiple-personality disorder. BMW offers cars in 1 through 7 series, with numerous of models within those classifications. You need the Dewey decimal system to navigate their catalog.
Say you’ve decided to follow in everyone’s footsteps and get a 3-series. You want good gas mileage, so you’re thinking 2.0-liter turbo. You don’t want to spend a lot on options; a fancy stereo and leather-matched cupholders are not in your budget, and you decided your iPhone is fine for NAV. Frills and cosseting don’t interest you.
But driving does. Proper driving. You appreciate a good steering wheel over a heated seat. Fitting seats are more important than a cargo net. Sporty suspension is important. You want a bit of M Sport, but you can’t afford (or don’t want) the boisterous V8 M3 or the tiny-on-size, big-on-price 1M. Lucky for you, BMW offers some M in the two lesser models we’re comparing today.
We’ll start with the 328i. It has a 2.0-liter turbo-charged 4 banger making 240HP and 255TQ at a very low 1,250RPM. It starts at $37,745 with a sweet 8-speed automatic and a 0-60 time of 5.4 seconds. It isn’t fast, but merging (and speeding) will not be a problem.
The M Sport Line Package ($3850) gives you bigger wheels, an aero pack, better trim inside and out, sport suspension, wonderful 10-way adjustable seats, and one of the best steering wheels around. First impressions were great. 10-way adjustable seats are amazing. It rode smooth and quiet. What a nice way to commute.
But in the twisties it let me down. The summer tires didn’t have as much grip as I wanted, and the M suspension still felt too soft; much more at home on the highway. It was more “m” than “M!”
This car also had a Premium Package, which meant SAT radio, a moon roof, some attractive trim, and a $45,000 price tag. What it is then is not a cheap, basic, performance sedan, but a return to what the normal 3-series was in the early 2000s: a capable, comfortable sedan that is an excellent daily driver.
So it was with hopeful skepticism that I climbed inside this 2014 BMW 320i. This car has two options: the ZSP package, and the ZMT package. The first gives you the same 18” wheels as the car above, the same seats, steering wheel, headliner, and M Sport suspension. The latter gives you a 6-speed manual. All that for only $1,300; a bargain, bringing the total to only $34,375.
The engine is a de-tuned 2.0-liter turbo, making only 200HP and 180ft-lbs of torque. FR-S power in a German four-door? Hm.
I expected it to be slow (because math), and unfortunately I was right. On highways it took time to get to speed, and any spirited driving uphill would have to be done in another car. I found the steering light and vague, but my colleagues assured me this was due to the tires. I hope they’re right, because this car could be quite good. Because it has a trick up it’s sleeve.
Its lack of power is only due to engine tuning, not because it has pistons made of cotton, which means you can probably get 240HP with a little cash given to the right shop. And the tires can be changed out. Your iPhone will solve all your audio and navigation needs, leaving you with a great chassis, decent power, and plenty of comfort, and an admirable brand (admit it), for about $36,000. BMW says this car is about the essence of the 3-series. Back to its roots. With some small and easy changes, I think they’re right.
With that thought I looked back at the 2013 BMW 328i, wondering if it’s worth the extra $10,000. It’s an excellent daily driver. Sublime, without being over-bearing. A stereo package that doesn’t requite NAV? Brilliant!
But $10,000 for 40HP, red seats, and a moon roof I won’t ever use? And it’s no more a performance car than the little one, save for the power bump. A fine car, but although it has the same potential as the 320, if I know I need to make changes to a new car, I’d prefer to start with 10,000 extra dollars.
(Note: All vehicles provided by manufacturers for comparison test purposes. Photos provided by BMW.)