Few car enthusiasts would question that the BMW 3-Series has set the standard for small sport sedans since its introduction nearly four decades ago. But the competition has seldom been more fierce.
The German automaker is responding at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit with an entry-level variant of the sedan, a turbo-charged four-cylinder 320i — with a base price of $33,445. The all-wheel drive version, the 320i xDrive, starts at $35,445.
For the cost-conscious among the upwardly mobile, that should help the relatively stripped-down Bimmer hold off competition from the redesigned Lexus IS and Infiniti Q50 — two models also unveiled in Detroit and looking to take the 3-Series down a peg or two.
As with many models, the 3-Series has over time grown larger, more lavishly optioned and more expensive. With the current models ranging from a low of $36,850 for the base 328i sedan, up to $49,650 for the ActiveHybrid 3. Options can pile on thousands more.
No Bimmer comes cheap — and the 320i's price will no doubt climb with special packages offerings dubbed Sport, Cold Weather, Premium, Drive Assistance and Lighting, among a slew of available add-ons.
But the 320i seems as close to attainable as a Bimmer can be. For the base price, you get good-not-great acceleration, with a zero-to-60 time of 7.1 seconds. BMW calls the less-is-more philosophy — a moderate 180 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque — an old-school take on the 3.
"The state-of-the-art, lively 2.0-liter engine marks a return to the popular sport sedan's roots — it was with lightweight, high-performance 4-cylinder engines that the BMW made its debut back in 1975," the company said in a release.
That's likely enough power for 3-Series purists, who know the soul of the car lies in the handling, which should be superior if every other 3-series is any indication. That cause won't be hurt by what BMW calls "near-perfect 50-50 balance" of weight between the 320i's front and rear.
Transferring power to the wheels will be a choice of transmission, a traditional six-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic. Preliminary estimates of fuel economy are 22 mpg in the city and 34 on the highway for the manual, and 23 city, 33 highway for the automatic.
If you get carried away and put the 320i in a ditch, despite its road-hugging prowess, the car will call in the first-responders, transmitting information on the location of the accident and the likelihood of serious injuries.
In addition to the newly revamped offerings from Lexus and Infiniti, the 3-series and its new downmarket variant will compete in a segment that includes the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and the Cadillac ATS. The 320i will go on sale in late spring.
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