2013 BMW 320i sedan review: Entry-level 3 Series skimps on power, not on thrills

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CNET Editors' Rating

3.5 stars Very good
  • Overall: 7.0
  • Cabin tech: 6.0
  • Performance tech: 8.0
  • Design: 7.0
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good Even with reduced power, the 2013 BMW 320i sedan has a fantastic engine that offers good torque and efficiency thanks to a number of fuel-saving technologies. The eight-speed automatic transmission keeps the power coming. An optional sport suspension package makes this a proper driver's car.

The Bad Bluetooth audio streaming isn't standard, and neither is keyless entry. The iDrive system seems like control overkill for the limited number of functions. Almost no driver aid technologies are available at this trim level.

The Bottom Line The 2013 BMW 320i is a more accessible 3 Series, with driving dynamics similar to its more powerful siblings. However, techies will want to look further up the line for gadgets.

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Sometimes, I catch myself looking at the BMW lineup -- so full of vehicles like the 5 Series GT and the X6 M -- rolling my eyes and scoffing at the claim of building the "Ultimate Driving Machines." It's also easy for some of our more vocal readers to look at all of the new-fangled iPod integration, dashboard apps, smartphone this and that and assume that BMW has gotten away from the point. These are easy assumptions to make until you find yourself behind the wheel of the 2013 320i sedan, the automaker's new entry point for the 3 Series sedan.

True, the lower output of the 320i's engine means that it's not as fast as the 328i -- to say nothing of the 335is or M3 . Its simplified dashboard tech offerings won't dazzle like a 7 Series ' will. However, after a weekend behind the wheel, I think that by stripping the 3er down to its most basic, the BMW 320i is the pudding where you'll find proof that BMW isn't missing the point after all.

BMW's new pared-down 3 Series
But before I start gushing over driving dynamics and efficient performance, let's take a moment to go all "Car Tech" on the dashboard. Usually, the cars that we're sent are pretty close to fully loaded with safety and infotainment tech and are representative, for better or worse, of the full extent of the automaker's vision of dashboard interaction. This 2013 BMW 320i, however, is a rare opportunity for us to evaluate the value of what you get if you elect not to check all of those (at times expensive) option boxes.

Things get just a bit odd on the 320i as a result of this paring down of BMW's tech offerings. Rather than offering a simple, single-line radio display like the BMW 1 Series models that we've tested, the 2013 3er features the automaker's iDrive controller and a 6.5-inch LCD that sticks out of the dashboard like it should be retractable, but isn't. The iDrive interface is simple enough to understand and use while behind the wheel, but with almost no advanced technology on board, the control scheme just seems like overkill. What's an intuitive controller for browsing a map, searching for destinations, or choosing from a broad range of audio sources seems needlessly complex for choosing radio stations and viewing trip computer data.

While I'll admit that the screen and knob do make short work of scanning through an address book before making a call or looking for a song on a USB drive, better voice command would be even better.

As is, the BMW 3 Series' most basic dashboard interface lives in the no-man's-land between "spartan and simple" and "high-tech and functional." And the interface isn't the last place where BMW made strange decisions with the 320i's tech.

BMW 320i screen
The iDrive interface seems like overkill for the limited number of functions available to it. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

For example, the 320i comes standard with keyless, push-button start, but it doesn't feature keyless entry (where the doors automatically unlock when you grab the door handle). So, you need to reach into your pocket or bag to unlock or lock the doors when approaching or leaving the car, but then put the key away to start the engine. Granted, that's still more convenient than fiddling with a key, but less convenient than it could be.

Bluetooth hands-free calling is a standard feature, but A2DP stereo audio streaming is not. A pair of USB ports in the center console make it easy to connect an iPod, iPhone, or USB mass storage device full of media, but without BT A2DP, users of Android, Windows Phone, or BlackBerry phones are stuck using the sedan's 3.5mm analog auxiliary input to play back their music, losing the ability to view the currently playing song on the iDrive's display and to skip tracks with steering-wheel controls. This simple software omission makes the 320i just that little bit more difficult to live with for anyone outside of the Apple ecosystem and wouldn't have been too expensive to include.

HD Radio tuning is standard in the 320i's list of available audio sources, which is good for those who listen to a lot of terrestrial radio in areas where the free HD and multicast broadcasts are available. Satellite radio, on the other hand, is not a standard feature, but is available as an option at additional cost. I'm not really a fan of satellite radio's audio quality, so this omission didn't bother me as much as the lack of Bluetooth streaming, but you may feel differently.

Speaking of audio quality, the 320i's base (and only available) stereo sounds fantastic when you're listening to audio through its single-slot CD player, USB ports, or the analog audio input. BMW's materials don't specify the power or number of speakers for this unbranded rig, but I was able to count six drivers outputting strong, clear bass with crispy mids and highs. Many cars' premium audio systems could stand to learn a few things from BMW's. However, I noticed one minor annoyance when listening to audio through the 3.5mm input: there was an odd high-pitched whine that could be heard in the silence between words in podcasts and during quiet passages of music. It's barely there, but still noticeable if you're listening closely or have the volume cranked.

Other than browsing media on USB-connected storage or scanning the address book of a Bluetooth-paired phone, the iDrive controller and menu present options for changing certain vehicle behaviors (locking, lighting, and such), monitoring fuel economy and trip data, and not much else. There is no navigation, traffic data, weather information, and the like, which is understandable on a stripper model like this. Navigation is available as an a la carte option, should you be directionally challenged.

If you opt for navigation, 2014 320i models with that option also get BMW's new iDrive 4.2 controller with a touch pad built into it, but our navless, 2013 model makes do with the old, standard twist-and-tap knob.

Our example also didn't have power-adjustable seats, bun warmers, HID headlamps that turn with the steering, or a moonroof -- though some of these luxury features are available as options or as part of option packages. Active safety tech features, like Blind Spot Monitoring or Pre-Collision Detection, aren't even available on the 320i. I can sort of understand why not; BMW is keeping it simple.

However, I was disappointed to see that a rearview camera was not a standard safety feature, but part of a $950 Driver Assistance Package that only adds the camera and proximity sensors. For that price, I'd want a few more safety features thrown in (perhaps Blind Spot Monitoring), but ideally I'd want that camera to be standard equipment.

Less power, more efficient
If you've ever lifted the hood of the BMW 328i, the 320i's engine bay will be familiar. That's because the two sedans make use of the same 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine with TwinPower twin-scroll turbocharging. However, where the 328i's engine makes 240 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque, the 320i's mill makes a mere 180 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. This is because the 320i's engine has been retuned to make less power with the goal of increased fuel efficiency.

The EPA calculates the 2013 BMW 320i at 24 city and 36 highway mpg, which gives it a combined estimate of 28 mpg. That's 2 combined mpg more than the 328i's 26 and 3 mpg more on the highway. These are moderate improvements, but the 320i doesn't sacrifice much real-world performance in this pursuit, partially thanks to its good low-to-midrange torque and the gearbox's ability to take advantage of that grunt.

BMW 320i grille
Behind this grille is the same engine as the 328i, but with less available power. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

I'd have liked a manual transmission on our stripped-down 320i (one is available as a no-cost option) but made do with the eight-speed automatic transmission -- the first hint that this "stripped" 3er's engine bay isn't as low-tech as you might think. This transmission features a Sport shift program that holds each of its forward gears higher into the tachometer's swing and delays shifting into higher gears at the expense of a bit of fuel efficiency. There is also a manual shift program that lets drivers choose their own gears by nudging the BMW's shift lever forward and back for downshifts and upshifts, respectively. However, our 320i model lacked the paddle shifters that would have made this manual mode useful for sporty driving, so I opted to just use the automatic's Sport program for my more spirited testing.

The 320i, like its more powerful siblings, also makes use of Stop-Start technology that shuts down the engine while idling, saving what would be wasted fuel, and restarting the power plant when the brake is released.

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Trim levels 320i
  • Body style Sedan
  • Available Engine Gas
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