The cars we loved.
A new BMW 3 Series model in the US is always big news. This time, the new model is the one of particular interest not because of how big and powerful engine, but because of how small and efficient it is. In an unusual twist that’s sure to mark the coming of the apocalypse for American motor heads, BMW is touting the fuel economy as a highlight of a 2 litre 4 cylinder model in the US. The engine produces 180 hp in the 320i, but in the 328 the same engine makes 245. While the 3 Series is no stranger to four bangers, smaller displacements from BMW in the US have not been seen since the unloved E36 318. While most of the 3 Series range will migrate to fours in time, the new (to the US market) 320i and 320ix represent an interesting dilemma for BMW in North America.
There are smaller BMW’s offered here, but none of them are marketed for efficiency like a Toyota or Honda might be. An economy model within the 3 Series range is a safe way to suggests that ranks at BMW are testing the waters for a real economy models, like the smaller engine versions of the 3 and 1 Series that are available in Europe. It had been a tough proposition for all but the most die-hard brand loyalist in the US to consider any four cylinder, low powered BMW in the recent past. Since that time, small cars have quickly evolved into highly competitive machines and are nipping at the heels of entry-level offerings from BMW, Audi and Mercedes. Stand outs from Ford and Hyundai nearly match the refinement of BMW’s smaller offerings in Europe and cost thousands less. They are also learning the trick of balancing comfort and road feel. Due to global platform sharing, these cars are sold everywhere, making it more difficult for companies like BMW, Audi and Mercedes to meet the expectations of delivering luxury, power and performance in one (less expensive) package.
So why would anyone want a $33,000 3 Series that gets 36 mpg? Well, because it’s a BMW of course. The Germans are hoping that those who want more than just value from an appliance will seek out the name cachet that comes with having a BMW. Technically, its specs are not outstanding considering how quickly everyone has caught up with the Germans. The turbocharged 2.0 liter engine with direct injection and fancy valve timing (double-VANOS) sounds not too different from a host of other cars. The 0 to 60 time of 7 seconds and top speed of 130 mph means that in a drag race with a Fusion or Accord, the 320 might be in something of a three-way tie (at best). The 320’s performance numbers match those of the 325 from ten years ago, but 36 mpg (presumably on premium fuel) is better than the old 325’s 29 at 184 hp.
The One Series 3 door is the economy BMW in most markets. While it’s sold here only in larger engined coupe formats, the 320i has become the economy BMW for Americans. While it seems odd and counters global practices elsewhere, BMW is attempting to make an economy car for people (Americans) who don’t like the typical hatchback profile. The hatchback bias is disappearing, but it’s still associated with cheap imports for people over 40.
Americans are just now warming up to hatchbacks, but the sedan profile is still more agreeable for premium car buyers in the US. Aside from it’s model specific wheels, single exhaust pipe and 320i badge, no one would know that you were driving the least expensive 3 Series because it looks like the more expensive 328 or 335. This will no doubt be one of its major selling points, as the current F30 3 Series is a real looker. In time if sales meet expectations, maybe the 320i will spawn a coupe here like in other markets. Sure any number of Fusion, Camry or Accord sedans have similar specs for less, but they lack that all important snob appeal that comes only from one of Germany’s premium car companies.