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Published: 10/23/2013 - by James Riswick, Automotive Editor
BMW's 2013 320i exists because entry-level luxury sedans are about to lose their place at the front door. In the past decade, the BMW 3 Series and its many competitors have seen their dimensions grow, prices rise and performance soar to the point where a sizable chasm has formed between them and fully loaded, rapidly improving family sedans. Like nature and a Beverly Hills housewife, the automotive business abhors a vacuum.
While cars like Acura's ILX may somewhat fill the void, the car that has truly kicked off the new entry-level is the Mercedes-Benz CLA250. Spurred on by a wildly successful Super Bowl ad, slinky styling and a $30,000 base price, this smaller, cheaper luxury sedan seems like a surefire hit. With Audi's A3 coming in the spring followed by Infiniti's Q30 sometime thereafter, BMW certainly can't stand by idly. Sure, it sells a four-door BMW 1 Series in Europe, but it's a non-starter here in the hatchback-averse United States. A 2 Series Grand Coupe is assured, but it's still a ways off and given BMW's price strategy will likely be pricier than the CLA.
Enter the 2013 BMW 320i. The formula is simple: Take the previous entry-level BMW sedan, the 328i, dial back the power on its 2.0-liter four-cylinder, drop the price down to $32,550 and voilà. You won't get quite as much equipment as on an equally priced CLA, but BMW is hoping that car buyers will trade some gadgets for a bigger, higher-quality car.
Cheaper, but What Is It Missing?
Indeed, the BMW 320i you see here is almost as basic as it gets. Remove the $1,300 Sport package that includes 18-inch alloys, a sport suspension, chunky M steering wheel and sport seats, and you're in the basement. Leatherette "SensaTec" upholstery and manual-operated seats occupy the window sticker, while a rearview camera, sunroof, Comfort Access keyless ignition/entry, satellite radio and navigation do not. Heck, our test car didn't even have metallic paint.
Price as tested was $34,775, which is hardly couch change, but a far cry from the $50-large stickers we've grown accustomed to seeing on loaded cars in this segment. More basic luxury features like those mentioned above can be added to the 320i, but you'll need to step up to the 328i (which starts at $36,880) for the advanced entertainment and safety gizmos that cause luxury car prices to skyrocket.
To be honest, though, we really didn't miss any of it. Look beyond the window sticker and you're still left with a car that has taken the crown in two Edmunds.com comparison tests. Its slightly numb steering and occasional springy body motions may mean it's no longer the runaway sport sedan choice, but it's well-rounded, well-built and engaging to drive. Surely that, and not the availability of adaptive cruise control, is the reason the 3 Series continues to be the No. 1-selling luxury car.
The Difference Between 320i and 328i
However, will the availability of a cheaper model with a less desirable, lower number tarnish its appeal? If it does, it certainly won't be the fault of that car's engine.
The 180-horsepower, 200-pound-foot 2.0-liter four-cylinder in the 2013 BMW 320i is in most respects the same 2.0-liter four-cylinder found in the 328i that produces 240 hp and 255 lb-ft. The difference stems from the 320i's higher compression ratio (11:1 versus 10:1) and unique ECU mapping, with nominal boost pressure being equal. Other changes include a 200-watt water pump (versus 400 watts), a different engine wiring harness, a single-pipe exhaust with no flap and a higher operating temperature.
However, the difference buyers are ultimately going to care about is acceleration. At our test track, the 320i hit 60 mph in 7.3 seconds (7.1 seconds with a foot of rollout as on a drag strip) with the standard eight-speed automatic and rear-wheel drive (a six-speed manual is a no-cost option and all-wheel drive costs $2,000).
That may be slower than the astonishing 5.4-second time of the 328i, but it's equal to the costlier 2014 Mercedes-Benz C250 and indeed average for most base engines in the entry-level luxury sedan segment — or rather, the previous one. We have yet to test the 2014 Mercedes CLA250.
Interestingly, however, the dynamic differences between the 320i and 328i are confined to the drag strip. The slalom was dispatched at 67.8 mph (versus 67.7 for the last 328i M Sport we tested), 0.89g of grip was measured on the skid pad (versus 0.90g) and a panic 60-0 stop was accomplished in 111 feet (versus 109). In other words, as long as you don't get into a drag race, the two are practically indistinguishable.
And really, around town, the 320i's turbo-four tends to feel just as strong as the 328i's in many situations. It's responsive off the line and when passing on the freeway, providing that nice push into your seat we've come to expect from turbocharged-fours. Turbo lag is nonexistent, as is the throttle delay that plagued BMWs for a few years. Only when you really push the 2013 BMW 320i does its power disadvantage seem apparent, but for all intents and purposes, it really doesn't feel like there's a mere 180 hp under the hood.
Less Power, More MPG
There is 180 hp, though, and with it comes better fuel economy. EPA-estimated ratings for a rear-drive, automatic-equipped 320i stand at a hugely impressive 28 mpg combined (24 city/36 highway). We managed to match that combined estimate during our standardized, 116-mile Edmunds test loop.
By comparison, the 328i achieves an EPA-estimated 26 mpg combined (23 city/33 highway), while the Mercedes-Benz C250 gets "only" 25 (22/31). Mercedes' CLA250 manages an even 30 mpg combined with 26 city/38 highway.
Take such comparisons however you like, but the fact remains that the 320i is a very fuel-efficient luxury car that sacrifices little in the way of performance or drivability.
For instance, during the road trip we enjoyed from Los Angeles to Phoenix with a pair of passengers and an 80-mph average speed, the 320i averaged an excellent 33.5 mpg. But that was simply the whipped cream upon the Black Forest cake. The 2013 BMW 320i is a massively impressive highway cruiser, with a surprisingly hushed cabin, comfortable ride and more than enough power to dispense with lane dawdlers.
Lower Number, Same High-Quality Cabin
This is probably the right time to mention the wonderfully supportive seats. Sure, they may be manually adjustable, but they're also the best manually adjustable seats on the planet. The 10-way range of motion they provide, particularly in terms of fore and aft height, can't be matched by most power seats. They are a tad complicated, but they're worth it. Unless you value memory settings, save your money and stick with these.
The standard "SensaTec" leatherette upholstery is less loved. Unlike Mercedes' could-have-fooled-us MBTex faux leather, BMW's doesn't feel as rich and fails to breathe. Things can get swampy.
The rest of the cabin is standard BMW fare, with excellent materials and top-notch construction. The backseat is large and genuinely adult-friendly, while its spacious trunk is far more useful than its 13 cubic feet would suggest. This clearly differentiates the 320i from the CLA, which trades quality plastics and a rear-seat space for a low price and slinky styling.
One notable omission on the 320i, however, involves the three sub-trims available on other 3 Series. The Luxury Line, Sport Line and M Sport add unique exterior paint and interior color schemes, so you'll have to pony up for one of the higher trim levels if you're the fashionable sort.
A Surefire Hit
Otherwise, the 2014 BMW 320i is a logical, wise extension of the 3 Series lineup. With the 328i capable of reaching 60 mph in 5.4 seconds, there was clearly an opportunity to offer a slower, more efficient and less costly entry. The fact that you can barely notice its lower power in normal driving speaks to BMW's engineering proficiency.
The real question, though, is will car shoppers be enticed by the 320i despite the presence of a new entry-level luxury breed? Well, it may never be able to match the CLA's good looks nor the upcoming A3 TDI's fuel economy, but a less expensive and no less impressive version of the best-selling luxury sedan seems like a surefire hit itself. Besides, who wants to be on the entry-level anyway?
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.