Does the new 320i really stand a chance when matched against the brilliant 320d?
After a long wait, BMW has finally added a turbocharger to its four-cylinder petrol engine which not only increases performance but also improves fuel economy.
The 320i now has a new petrol-turbo motor known as the N20. The normally aspirated counterpart of the old 320i was called the N43.
The 320i's 184hp N20 unit is the same as the one used in the 520i. Also shared with the 520i _ and distinguishing it from the previous 320i _ is an eight-speed automatic gearbox, brake-energy regeneration and automatic stop/start features.
The 320i comes in three different trims _ Sport, Urban and Luxury _ all priced the same: 2.679 million baht. This one-price policy was first used in the 320d, for which the asking price was 2.899 million baht regardless of which spec the buyer opted for.
So, the key question here is whether the petrol 320i _ with a 220,000 baht advantage _ will prove to be a better choice than the excellent diesel 320d, which earned a spot in our recent listing of the top 10 cars of 2012.
The only great thing about the old 320i was the engine refinement. In the new model, it's even better by being quieter regardless of whether it's idling or getting close to redline.
But the really impressive aspect of the 320i's new N20 motor is the virtual absence of turbo lag, something that's still quite pronounced in the 320d. Sure, the 320d gains with a substantial amount of torque (see graphic), but it can't match the linearity of the 320i's power delivery.
Motorists who use their cars mostly for urban commuting will love the 320i because the engine is so wonderfully quiet at all times (the 320d still suffers from diesel clatter when idling) and is utterly effortless in performance terms.
When you get out of the city, the 320i is still a gem. The turbo and eight-speed automatic gearbox makes overtaking other cars on the road a doddle.
Plus, the 15kpl-plus average we recorded during a drive up to the North really shows how much BMW's petrol-engine tech has progressed.
The other strong points are identical to those we appreciated in the 3-series when we drove it last year: high-quality interior, excellent handling and chassis poise and a comfortable ride despite the use of run-flat tyres.
For misers, the 320d is still the outright winner when it comes to fuel economy. And on mountain roads, the 320d's superior torque means that it's more convincing to drive than the 320i.
Sport trim nets sporty bucket seats.
You'll be inclined to kick down the automatic transmission more in the 320i to get a convincing forward surge. And if you have a heavy foot, the automatic isn't that smooth when you down-change more than a gear, or when the gearbox upshifts at the red line in low gears.
With the 320i, this is the third time we've tried out the latest 3-series _ and we've spotted a small downside: the driving position is spoilt by a steering wheel whose upper half doesn't allow for a full view of the panel dials, in spite of the adjustments available.
And while the 17-inch wheels help out on the 320i's secondary ride, they feel a tad small for the increased body dimensions of the new 3-series, especially in Sport trim, as tested here, which is supposed to yield a dynamic and athletic appearance.
BUY OR BYE?
There's no question that the new 320i is a big improvement over the outgoing model in terms of performance, economy and refinement. BMW fans born with petrol in their blood will definitely love this one!
Objectively speaking, though, the 320d is still the better car because it offers the kind of economy that makes even Ecocars look dated and its diesel clatter is immediately subdued once one drives off. That's assuming you're okay with the 220,000 baht premium for 320d (over the 320i). We'd recommend it for buyers who plan to do lots of driving beyond the city limits. Even so, it's still hard to dismiss the 320i entirely because it does such a good job of suppressing the 320d's weak points (more turbo lag and more vocal engine).
And as a petrol head the 320i is still reasonably frugal.
Because of that you'd never be foolish or wrong to go for the 320i. We reckon that BMW can now comfortably offer a cheaper and less powerful version in the guise of, say, the 318i, should they want to chase up more sales.
For the time being, though, the 320i gets the nod from us because let's be truthful pricey luxury cars in Thailand are not always just about the fuel consumption.
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT:
- The cabin uses good, upmarket materials.
- Ride is quite good for run-flat tyres.
- New turbo engine is pleasantly refined.
About the author
- Writer: Richard Leu
Position: Motoring news Editor