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

Starting at $36,850
  • Engine 4 Cylinder Engine, Turbocharged
  • Drivetrain Rear Wheel Drive
  • MPG 26 MPG
  • Passenger Capacity 5
  • Body Type Sedans

Roadshow Editors' Rating

6.9 Overall
  • Performance 8
  • Features 6
  • Design 7
  • Media 6

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.

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.

Center console
A manual gearbox is available, but the standard 8-speed auto is the most efficient way to go. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The 3 Series sedan features, just to the left of its shift lever on the center console, a Drive Mode selector that allowed me to toggle between the car's three different driving modes: Sport, Eco Pro, and normal. Sport mode behaves like it does in other cars, adjusting the throttle pedal's sensitivity for more responsive driving and deactivating the Start-Stop function of the engine. Eco Pro does the opposite -- virtually lightening your lead foot -- and more. While in Eco Pro mode, the climate control system is placed in a mode that wastes less fuel and the gearbox's shift program is set to shift earlier for more fuel efficiency. Normal mode is the baseline happy medium between the Sport and Eco Pro modes.

Interestingly, the automatic transmission's Sport shifting program can be set independently of the Drive Mode selector's Sport and Eco Pro programs. So, you could set the car up to have the the odd dichotomy of the Eco Pro's softer throttle response, but the gearbox's sportiest shift program. I'm not sure why you'd want to do so, but you could.

Whether you're using Eco Pro or not, the BMW 320i is able to take advantage of its EfficientDynamics regenerative braking system to recapture braking energy to charge the battery (located in the trunk where it helps toward the 50/50 weight distribution). This system allows the alternator to be decoupled from the engine during acceleration, reducing drag, increasing efficiency, and improving acceleration ever so slightly.

BMW 320i
Regenerative braking and Stop-Start technology help the 320i boost its fuel economy. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

With both of its Sport modes active, the BMW 320i happily hummed along with its trip computer reporting between 25 and 25.5 mpg for my testing. Spending more time in Eco Pro mode may have potentially bumped that average up a few miles per gallon thanks to its more efficient use of the climate control system, gentler throttle response, and use of the Active Stop/Start system to reduce fuel wasted to idling.

No less fun to drive
I stated earlier that the 320i is less powerful than its identical-engine sibling, but that it doesn't sacrifice much real-world performance in this pursuit. That's because our 320i has a few tricks up its sleeve to elicit grins when called upon.

First of all, there's the engine. Torque is stated at 184 pound-feet, but that power is available fairly low in the engine's range and offers its maximum grunt between 1,250 and 4,500rpm. With the power coming at this more "usable" point, the engine feels more powerful than it is and the driver doesn't have to get the engine screaming to take advantage of its performance. The result is that the vehicle simply feels quicker and more responsive on public roads, around town, and during casual back-road blitzes, which is where this vehicle will spend most of its life. Even with less power than the 328i, this is a very good engine.

Beneath the chassis, you won't find an active suspension or all-wheel drive (unless you paid extra for it). There's also not very much computer-aided performance trickery. What our 320i did have was the fixed and nonadjustable M Sport suspension, one of the only options with which our tester was equipped.

The M Sport package also adds 18-inch light alloy wheels with all-season tires, the simple M steering wheel, and Sport seats. All of which play a role in making the 320i feel like as much of a driver's car as its more powerful siblings. The suspension gives the sedan planted performance and helps the all-seasons to stick to the road, but isn't harsh enough to make the 320i uncomfortable to drive for long distances or over rough, pockmarked pavement. I did notice an annoying squeak coming from the center console when car was driven over very rough, cracked asphalt, but aside from this one issue that may or may not be unique to our tester, the 320i's chassis and interior felt rock-solid.

18-inch wheels
The Sport package adds bigger wheels, a firmer suspension, the M Sport steering wheel, and grippier seats. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The Sport seats are manually adjustable, but feature deep, power-adjustable side bolsters, so I was able to quickly tighten the seat's grip on my torso just before slapping the gearbox into its Sport mode and tackling a twisty road. The M Sport steering wheel was a bit too large in diameter for my tastes, but featured a thick rim that fit nicely into the hand and only minimal face buttons.

Whether being tossed through a series of corners or slingshotting down an off-ramp, the 320i is such a joy to drive, with remarkably few distractions and just enough power that the car never felt like it was getting away from me or attracting unnecessary attention from law enforcement. The TwinPower turbo engine sort of runs out of steam near the top end of the rev range, but with eight well-spaced forward gears, a bit more grunt is just an upshift away. By the time you run out of straight-line performance, you'll be well outside of the legal limits anyway, which makes the 320i particularly well suited for public roads.

What's more, the sedan has a nearly 50-50 weight distribution and 3,295-lb. curb weight for the automatic, though it feels lighter on the road thanks to the sorted-out suspension, nimble handling, and torquey engine hustling it along.

Driving the 320i quickly is an act of stretching the speed limit rather than obliterating it. Tackling a corner becomes a game of managing momentum and enjoying the grip afforded by the well-sorted chassis rather than simply diving in hard and lead-footing out. Without the noise of overwhelming power or the fear that you're behind the wheel of too much car, I think that casual enthusiasts and less ambitious drivers will feel freer to explore and appreciate BMW's claim of building "the Ultimate Driving Machine."

Am I trying to argue that the 320i is a better car than either the M3 or the 335is? Heck no, but I do think that it's more accessible. As a nice bonus, many casual commuters likely won't even notice the horsepower dearth without a side-by-side drive, and will appreciate the extra miles per gallon between trips to the pump.

BMW 320i
This may not be the 3 Sedan that I'd lust after, but it'd probably be the one I'd buy. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

In sum
In stripping away features to create a new entry-level sedan, BMW had to make a lot of choices and sacrifices, some good and some, well, weird. For example, the iDrive infotainment system falls somewhere between simple and functional, with a control scheme that's almost too big for its list of available functions. It's got half of a Bluetooth system and half of a smart-key system. It gets the job done, but I couldn't help but think that the 320i needed either more or less dashboard tech to make me happy.

However, the performance seems to be just right. This is not the 3 Series model for those who like to brag about power or plan to hit the track, but it offers a reasonably good blend of straight-line performance and fuel efficiency thanks to its outstanding, though detuned, engine.

When equipped with the optional M Sport package, the handling is amazingly good, grippy, and predictable. What's more, the chassis isn't outshone by the engine, making this a more approachable driver's car for casual enthusiasts. That it's a comfortable daily driver is icing on the cake.

I found myself thinking that this would be the 3 Series model that I would buy, were I in the market to spend my own money on a daily driver. It's not the 3er that I dream of, but it's surprisingly practical at a starting price of $32,750. Add $925 for destination fees, $1,300 for the M Sport package, and $550 for Melbourne Red Metallic paint, if you're feeling spicy, to reach our as-tested price of $35,525. The eight-speed automatic is probably the best pick for daily driving and efficiency, but I think I'd grab the no-cost manual transmission for my own car. I can't be expected to always make the most practical decision.

Tech specs
Model 2013 BMW 3 Series Sedan
Trim 320i
Powertrain 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine, twin-scroll turbocharger, 8-speed automatic transmission, rear wheel drive
EPA fuel economy 24 city, 36 highway, 28 combined mpg
Observed fuel economy 25.6 mpg
Navigation Optional, not equipped
Bluetooth phone support Standard hands-free calling
Disc player single slot CD
MP3 player support standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB/iPod connection
Other digital audio HD Radio
Audio system Standard
Driver aids n/a
Base price $32,750
Price as tested $35,525

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