Choosing a BMW 3 Series with a four-cylinder engine instead of one of the company's iconic, and glorious six cylinders was a bit like going to the fish markets and ordering seafood extender.
We say was because the installation of a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine in this latest BMW 3 Series - in 316i and 320i grades - has delivered an engine with guts and great-sounding glory.
The previous-generation BMW 320i had a non-turbo four cylinder that took a claimed 9.8 seconds from standstill to 100km/h - about as slow as a base Corolla. The current 320i with 270Nm of torque delivered consistently from 1250rpm to 4500rpm, and 135kW of power at 5000rpm, does the same sprint in just 7.3 seconds. If the four isn’t a trout now, it’s at least a tasty little oyster morsel…
Official fuel consumption for the tier-two 3 Series is 6.0L/100km, though we saw 10.2L/100km on our test, which considering the way the steering wheel-mounted gearshift paddles were slapped, is no great disappointment.
The 3 Series in this specification now has plenty of punch. The tachometer swings with gusto to a 6800rpm cut-out, the turbo four-cylinder itself being growly, flexible and quick to rev.
The eight-speed automatic transmission also makes its rivals’ seven-speeders (C-Class) and six-geared jobbies (Lexus IS) look like yesterday’s heroes. Highly intuitive when left to its own devices, dual-clutch-quick to shift back and forth in manual mode, yet with none of an automated manual’s low-speed lurchiness, it is basically flawless.
A rocker switch in the centre console of every BMW 3 Series allows drivers to choose between four modes - Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport and Sport+.
Only on 3 Series’ models with the optional ($1692) adaptive suspension (as fitted to our test car) does the car become progressively harder between the first and latter two modes.
Otherwise, Eco Pro dulls the throttle and makes the automatic transmission upshift early to save fuel, and cleverly shows the driver how many ‘kilometres’ have been put back into the fuel tank if driving efficiently. Comfort does much the same, and both modes get nicely light steering that largely makes up for the vagueness felt just off the centre position and when trying to pin a constant line through a corner.
Sport mode, however, gives and takes in equal measure. The sharper throttle response is very welcome - needed, even, to make the 3 Series feel lively around town and not betray the superb engine. Choosing Sport, however, also means accepting a needlessly heavy steering weighting that does completely betray BMW’s once-strong reputation for building cars with fantastic steering.
The optional ($400) variable ratio steering, which quickens the rack as lock is wound on, is a 3 Series essential, but a Mercedes-Benz C-Class has a variable ratio set-up standard, and it’s far superior to both the standard and optional BMW systems…
Thankfully, our 3 Series came with the adaptive dampers, which is the even bigger option-essential.
There is no new car currently on sale that benefits from having the clever suspension technology that varies damping rates as much as the BMW 3 Series.
To offset the hard sidewalls of the standard run-flat tyres - which allow you to drive with a flat but also severely affect ride comfort - BMW has softened the standard 3 Series suspension to the point where it fails to offer adequate control on even slightly bumpy roads.
Drive a 3 Series on a twisty country road without adaptive dampers and its lack of poise is shocking. Yet with the adaptive suspension fitted to our test car, in either softer Eco Pro/Comfort or harder Sport/Sport+ modes, the control versus compliance compromise is finely judged.
The 3 Series with adaptive suspension still can’t beat the standard suspension in the C-Class for either outright comfort or control, but the BMW also delivers the sort of keen handling that beats the Benz, in addition to the Audi A4 and Lexus IS, hands down.
There’s something about the body and chassis of the 3 Series - and its larger 5 Series stablemate - that makes it feel at all times agile and light on its feet. The way the 320i tips into corners endows it with a sports car-like front end, yet it is also supremely keen to oversteer on the throttle.
Thumb the rocker switch to Sport+ mode and the stability control is more relaxed, yet it’s necessary to switch the stability control off entirely to activate the electronic differential lock standard on all BMW 3 Series grades.
Essentially, it mimics a limited slip differential by subtly braking a spinning inside wheel when powering hard out of a corner. Plenty of cars have that system, but few work as brilliantly as the BMW’s; even in the 320i, big slides are effortlessly available, perfect for the junior executive who drives past a racetrack on the way to work.
Together with the spirited drivetrain, it is entirely possible to have plenty of fun in this near-entry-level BMW 3 Series.
As with the suspension and steering options, however, there’s a decent list of interior options with the BMW 320i, too.
Standard on the $58,600 BMW 320i are electrically adjustable front seats, leather trim and dual-zone climate control, but satellite navigation is optional ($1538) as is, astonishingly, Bluetooth audio connectivity ($385).
No amount of money can solve the interior quirks in this generation of BMW 3 Series, either. For example, the climate control lacks a ‘sync’ button, so travelling one-up the driver must manually use two buttons to keep the same temperature for each zone; the lid above the cupholders detaches from the console, so to use the cupholders there’s nowhere to store the lid except in the glovebox; and the steering wheel obscures the trip computer screen that sits below the speedometer and tachometer.
Curiously, too, the leather used on the transmission lever is smooth and high quality, but the cow-hide on the steering wheel and seats is a coarser, cheaper grade.
Otherwise, the most modern iteration of iDrive works intuitively, and the warm orange glow of the instrumentation is classic BMW, in a good way.
There’s a decent amount of rear legroom for a medium-sized car, rear air vents are included, and the tri-split 40:20:40 folding rear backrest allows benchmark sedan practicality.
The BMW 320i hits higher highs than the more consistently-excellent Benz C200, but it is extremely dependent on what options are ticked. Choose adaptive suspension and variable ratio steering, however, and the BMW becomes the sportiest offering in the premium medium class, in addition to being the lightest, most frugal and - finally for a four-cylinder BMW - the fastest.