BMW 320i Skips the Leather, But Not the Fun

BMW featuresThe list of features that don?t come standard on the new BMW 320i is a long one.

This is the bargain Bimmer, meant to lure you onto a lot where a salesman can slather on options that send the price soaring.

It?s still not exactly cheap, starting at $33,675 for a 2014 model. That?s with no leather, no wood, no navigation, no backup camera, no moon roof, no heated seats ? no power seats, even. You get your choice of either black or white at that price; all other colors cost extra.

The even longer list of cars with more than this one?s 180 horsepower includes the cheapest Honda Accord or Nissan Altima.

And yet it?s without reservation that we can say: If you want a sedan in this price range, buy the 320i now. This basic Bimmer delivers beautifully on everything that matters and saves you money on everything that doesn?t.

It handles and shifts with the utmost precision. Every pound in the frame feels meticulously balanced. The controls feel like extensions of your limbs.

The 320i, in short, is more fun to drive than many cars with double the horsepower selling at double the price. It obliterates most competitors in the sport sedan segment, defending the lead position the 3 Series has held for decades. (There?s a reason why every new competitor in the segment is called a ?3 Series fighter.?)

In an industry obsessed with overpowered engines and superfluous in-dash gadgets, the comparatively bare-bones 320i offers a refreshing example of just-right engineering and packaging. This is as close to simplicity as a luxury automaker gets.

In fact, we wish BMW would take the cost-cutting a step or two further: Cut the standard equipment list by half again ? ditch the turbocharger, the in-dash display, the sport and eco driving modes ? and sell something that looks, handles and shifts like this, with maybe 140 horsepower, for about $25,000. Hell, bring back hand-crank windows, manual door locks and an ignition that actually takes a key.

The soul of BMW would survive ? indeed, in purified form. This is, after all, supposed to be the Ultimate Driving Machine, not the Ultimate Riding Machine.

This will never happen, of course, because add-ons are the lifeblood of automaker profits, and especially dealer profits. Upselling is the core of the business. Luxury automakers such as BMW are notorious for endless lists of overpriced options. (Porsche may be the worst.)

Moreover, many car buyers confuse added features with overall quality ? the more, the better, at whatever cost. In the luxury realm, having the best-equipped Bimmer or Benz or whatever also comes with better-than-you bragging rights.

German automakers have a habit of building an endless series of variants on a particular model, and the 3 is an extreme example ? you can get more than 20 different versions of this car (including the recently renamed 4 Series coupe, the two-door.) But none of them really look any different than the basic 320i. In other words, if you care about a status statement, no one will know the difference.

Just for fun, we went to the ?build your own? feature on the BMW website to see how far we could run up the price on a 3 Series sedan. Starting with a 335 xDrive, with a six-cylinder and all-wheel-drive, we checked enough boxes to run the price past $66,000 ? a truly ludicrous figure for smallish sedan. (If you?re determined to give that much cash to BMW, you could and should buy two 320is for the same amount of money.)

The 320i, by contrast, is merely well-equipped. It could hardly be considered stripped except in comparison with overloaded peers. There?s plenty of standard fare to keep you safe and comfortable while you?re blasting down a mountain road with sweaty palms, a racing heart and a wide smile.

Our 2013 test car came with a sport package that included 18-inch alloy wheels (17s are standard), sport suspension and sport seats. Adding the (ridiculous) extra charge of $550 for ?metallic? red paint and a destination charge, and the as-tested total came to $35,325.

Standard equipment includes automatic dual-zone climate control; a leather-wrapped steering wheel with controls for the radio, cruise control, and Bluetooth-connectable phone; and, of course, power windows, locks and mirrors. A screen pops up from the dashboard, with easy-to-use menus controlled by a circular knob on the center console, offering all sorts of infotainment options and driving data.

Four-wheel disc brakes are anti-lock with Dynamic Brake Control and Cornering Brake Control, whatever that means. Suffice it to say the car stops just fine, and brake-pedal feel was excellent during aggressive driving.

Shifting was even more intuitive with the silky six-speed manual transmission in our test car, which was paired with a perfectly weighted clutch that made rev-matching on downshifts a breeze. An eight-speed automatic is offered at no extra charge.

Under the hood lies a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder with, as mentioned, a modest but more-than-adequate 180 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque.

That?s substantially less power than offered in the more expensive model of the same sedan, the 328i, which gets 240 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque from a hopped-up version of the same 2.0-liter four-cylinder.

But the extra power will be meaningless to almost all drivers. And certainly hard-core driving enthusiasts can get in and out of plenty of trouble with 180 horsepower. That?s particularly true in the 320i, where predictable handling and braking allow for the full use of the engine?s power.

If there?s a nit to pick, it?s a lack of immediate power at the lower end of the rev range. But that?s easily cured with a healthy dose of right foot. The floored accelerator is rewarded with a pleasing growl from an engine that never seems stressed, even when flogged.

Despite frequent flogging sessions during our weeklong test, the 320i managed a respectable 24 miles per gallon. Its EPA rating is 23 mpg in the city, 36 mpg on the highway and 27 mpg combined, which compares well with its peers.

The overall driving impression is one of balance and harmony ? all the controls and mechanisms working in unison. Communication between driver and car approaches telepathy, which is the real achievement of the decades of engineering that BMW has lavished on its signature sport sedan.

2013 BMW 320I:
?Los Angeles Times take: The 3 Series you really need ? and want
?Highs: Standard-setting handling and shifting; simple packaging
?Lows: Sport suspension isn?t worth the extra cash; slight turbo lag at low RPMs
?Vehicle type: 4-door compact sport sedan
?Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder, rear-wheel-drive
?Transmissions: Six-speed manual; eight-speed automatic with Sport mode
?Horsepower: 180
?Torque: 200 pound-feet
?0-60: 7.1 seconds, according to BMW
?EPA fuel economy rating: 23 mpg city, 36 mpg highway
?Base price: $33,475
?Price as tested: $35,325
Prices include destination charge:

Source: MCT Information Services