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What does the BMW 320i give up with the 'less is more' argument?

Buying a true entry-level model does bring trade-offs

Published: October 07, 2014 08:30 AM

Bargain shopping and buying a BMW 3 Series seem mutually exclusive, yet the 320i exists as the first step onto the model’s price escalator. Despite the nomenclature, this least-expensive 3 Series isn’t just eight less than the high-scoring 328i. Here are the sacrifices.

A substantial 60 horsepower less. Sure, the 320i’s four-cylinder engine shares the same 2.0-liter displacement as the 328i big brother. But thanks to a different turbocharger and camshafts, the 320i only makes 180 hp to the 328i’s 240. That results in …

... More engine noise. You have to work the 320i harder, especially when merging into traffic. And that’s without BMW’s optional xDrive all-wheel-drive; its added weight over the rear-wheel-drive car we sampled certainly won’t help. Both engines sound like diesels at idle, unseemly for a gasoline-powered luxury sedan.

Slower acceleration. While the fleet 328i knocks off 0-60 mph in just 6.6 seconds, an informal run on our test track with a 320i press car took 8.0 seconds. It’s hard to complain about that, given that good four-cylinder midsized sedans such as a Honda Accord accomplish the same. Then again, shouldn’t a BMW be faster than the familymobile Accord?

Less standard stuff. Decadent luxuries such as a split-folding rear seat and power front seats are options ($475 and $995, respectively) in the 320i. The lack of power seats is galling, especially as you yank yourself up by the steering wheel to manually adjust seat height.

Sounds like a bummer, right? So what do you gain?

$2,900. That’s the approximate difference in price once you account for the missing options.

More real-world option flexibility. Want a 3 Series with a light load of options? You’re more likely to find that with the 320i than the 328i. Most of the latter on dealers’ lots come with the Premium package or other goodies. Remember, BMW’s options list is long and lucrative—for BMW—partly because BMW is comparatively stingy on standard features.

Better fuel economy—maybe. EPA figures say the 320i gets one mpg better. That will probably come out in the wash.

Check out our road test of the 320i's more powerful sibling, the BMW 328i.

Too bad BMW throws some monkey wrenches into the math. BMW occasionally offers dealer incentives for options, such as the $2,000 currently offered on 2014 328i’s that are in stock. While the 320i does lease for less money, differences in residual value can make up some of the difference, too.

So, should you go for the 320i? It depends. We envision two primary—and very different—buyer profiles for the 320i:

Enthusiast ascetic.  2002 isn’t just a year to you, it’s the model that defined the ultimate driving machine. You want the 3 Series’ excellent handling and ride comfort balance—still evident in the cheaper 320i—for the least money possible. To get that, you’re willing to special order, since no dealer will stock this thing.

You’ll go for the optional manual transmission, grumbling that you don’t save any money by skipping the (excellent) eight-speed automatic. Pick white or black to save $550 on metallic paint. Add in the $1,400 Sport package (grippy sports seats, grippy tires, sports suspension) and heated front seats ($500, because you’re not a barbarian) and it stickers at $35,800. Go European Delivery and you’ll save even more, plus thrill your friends at parties with the resulting travel story. The result: a BMW for less than a Buick Regal.

I just want a nice car. The 320i gets you the BMW badge, free maintenance, and the feeling that you made it. There’s nothing wrong with that goal. Driving the car around town, you won’t notice those missing 60 horses. Important, the 320i remains a “real” BMW, unlike the cheap-feeling Mercedes-Benz CLA250.

Finally, saving money on the car means you could spend more on options. Your 320i with metallic paint, sunroof, heated seats, and folding rear seats will sticker at $37,270. All-wheel drive is $2,000 more.

Honestly, most of us on the staff would splurge for the 328i. We’re car guys and to us, the extra power and smoothness is worth it. And with BMW selling about one 320i for every two 328i’s sold, the math is adding up for buyers. Sometimes less really is less.

—Tom Mutchler

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