In late 2012, the 328i variant of BMW's latest 3-series saloon earned a rare five-star rating in a Drivesouth road test.
Among the factors that led to this rating were several - exterior styling, cabin space and ambience, and the dynamic excellence of its chassis - that extend across the entire range.
Expectations were high, therefore, when the 320i variant arrived for appraisal recently. Priced at $74,300 in standard guise, and powered by a 135kW/270Nm engine, the 320i is one rung down the 3-series ladder from the $85,900, 180kW/350Nm 328i.
Both models use the same 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine, delivering power to the rear wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission: the key difference is that the version fitted to the 328i is in a higher state of tune.
As with the 328i, steering, throttle, gearshift protocols and, ultimately, traction control systems are driver-selectable between ECO PRO, Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus modes. Not surprisingly, with a third more power and some 30% more torque, the 328i leaves the 320i in its wake when it comes to acceleration.
Even so, and despite the engine having less of a sporting growl when worked, the 320i is a zesty performer. With maximum torque produced from a mere 1250rpm, it is immediately responsive from low speeds around town and flexible out on the open road. Economy, at 6.0 litres per 100km for the standard consumption cycle, is 5% superior to the 328i's.
Pushed over demanding roads in sport mode, the test car turned into bends beautifully, and maintained a surefooted composure at speed. Lacking just a little for power to haul it incisively out of slower bends, it felt most at home on long, sweeping corners, where it tucked in as if on rails, even when severely provoked to do otherwise by savage midcorner bumps and surface changes.
The manner in which those bumps and surface imperfections are soaked up by the chassis also show that those early problems with ride quality that bedevilled BMWs on run-flat tyres are a thing of the past. In fact, only once in 150km on demanding roads did the car strike a bump of sufficient severity to send a serious thump through the cabin.
That cabin, incidentally, is first-rate. There is noticeably more space than in the previous 3-series, and included in this is a generous boot. The look and quality of fit and finish are excellent, too.
Standard fare in the 320i includes leather trim, dual-zone climate, keyless start, cruise control, auto lights and wipers, parking sensors, and a reversing camera that activates on the 6.5-inch colour centre display screen.
The six-speaker sound system includes plug-in and Bluetooth connectivity, with one neat feature being the ability to connect multiple devices simultaneously via Bluetooth. Satellite navigation, a $2500 option, was included in the test car.
And now to the toughest question of all: Does the 320i earn the same five-star Drivesouth rating as the 328i? The answer for me is no, since, for all its merits, the engine lacks the final ounce of pep needed to exploit its excellent chassis to the fullest.
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