This new entry-level 2014 BMW 3 Series is a prime example of the blurred lines that exist in the premium sedan segment these days.
Priced from $52,300, the BMW 316i with its 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine reduces the entry ticket to 3 Series motoring by about $8000 in one quick launch.
Reducing the sticker price also widens the possibilites for those shopping in the premium sedan segment: do buyers spend $49,900 on a size-smaller Mercedes-Benz CLA200, or find a bit extra for the size-larger BMW? Can buyers previously limited to a top-end Honda Accord V6L or Holden Calais V find a bit extra in pursuit of extra badge allure? And so it goes on.
Our tested 2014 model year BMW 316i costs a hefty $64,318. It gets a $7000 M Sport package – including 19-inch alloy wheels, M Sport suspension, sports seats, proper leather trim, aero bodykit and special sports steering wheel – in addition to a glass sunroof ($2245), Bluetooth audio connectivity ($385 – a rort), satellite navigation ($1538), and metallic paint ($1145).
Many buyers picking the sports package may also choose to delete the model designation badging on this base car, which is a no-cost option. Without the 316i-badge giveaway, this BMW 3 Series looks like an expensive model.
Critically, though, a tiny engine in a medium car doesn’t result in the performance disaster the match hints at. The BMW 1.6-litre produces only 100kW of power, but at a low 4350rpm, and 220Nm at a very low 1350rpm.
The BMW 316i has a kerb weight of 1405kg, which is a full 100kg less than the Audi A4 that retails for around the same price, and 77kg less than a Volkswagen Passat, both of which need offset their extra heft with larger 1.8-litre turbos. The BMW needs less engine to deliver much the same performance.
A superb ZF eight-speed automatic transmission further wrings every bit out of the little engine. A very short first gear means that initial performance off the line, say when taking off at the lights, is peppy. Because it’s a torque converter automatic, not an automated manual or dual-clutch gearbox as in the Audi and Volkswagen, there’s perfect smoothness when creeping in traffic and slightly lifting the brake pedal.
BMW claims a 9.2-second 0-100km/h, but the 316i feels faster than that, perhaps because it revs cleanly and sweetly to its redline. Less realistic is the 5.9L/100km combined consumption claim. The car switches itself off at the lights, but like almost every car with such system it switches the air conditioning off too, which is far from ideal in a hot Australian summer. Thankfully, stop-start can be turned off at the press of a button.
Without a good few options, the standard BMW 3 Series is only adequately equipped with dual-zone climate control, leather steering wheel, manual seat adjustment and automatic headlights and wipers.
Despite being less than two years old, the 3 Series interior feels dated, and will likely be mauled within months by the new-generation Mercedes-Benz C-Class that closely mimics the design of the expensive S-Class. By contrast, the 3 Series borrows cues from the cheaper 1 Series, with only average plastics and some ergonomic flaws – the top of the steering wheel obscures the lower part of the trip computer display, and the dual-zone climate control lacks a ‘sync’ button so a driver travelling alone must rotate two knobs each time the temperature is changed.
Hopefully a facelift, due within the next year, will address these issues.
Inherent to the rear-wheel-driven BMW 3 Series is a large centre tunnel that impacts rear-seat space.
There’s decent legroom, and much better headroom than that found in the coupe-like CLA-Class, but the BMW will struggle to seat three across the back comfortably. Thick bolsters for the outer rear passengers affect shoulder room in the same way the tunnel reduces legroom.
There are rear-seat air vents, however, which are omitted in the entry-level Audi A4, and the standard 40:20:40 split-fold backrest increases practicality and expands the already-generous 485-litre boot.
Among a plethora of steering and chassis options on the BMW 3 Series range, this is the first time we’ve sampled the car with optional sports suspension with non-adjustable dampers.
Suspension issues have plagued the 3 Series since launch. The standard set-up is far too soft for local roads, a consequence of BMW attempting to address owner and media complaints that the previous-generation BMW 3 Series had a harsh ride by softening the suspension to offset the hard run-flat tyres. It results in a small BMW that is inadequately equipped to tackle even modestly bumpy country roads. Choose the $1692-optional adaptive dampers, however, and all is solved, with the three mode – Comfort, Auto and Sport – system transforming both compliance and control in any setting.
The M Sport suspension is much better than the standard suspension, but falls short of the standard set by the adaptive suspension, although that may have to do with the thin 40-aspect 19-inch Bridgestone Potenza tyres.
The 316i M Sport is a bit jiggly on smooth surfaces and it thumps over some larger bumps around town, but it’s generally quite composed. Likewise big dips on country roads are taken in its stride, but the car crashes through over sharp-edged potholes.
In any case, the BMW 3 Series is superb dynamically and the benchmark for handling. It is light at the front end, beautifully balanced in the middle of a corner and eager to sprint out of it; although the 1.6-litre always makes more noise than actual movement in such hard-driven conditions.
The steering is merely decent, though, with a vague on-centre patch that is elimiated if buyers choose the variable-ratio steering system available for just $600. It also tightens the already-excellent turning circle and means less arm twirling when parking around town.
The BMW 316i is an excellent entry-level premium car begging for an ideal specification.
We’d strongly recommend choosing the standard 16-inch wheel and tyre package in conjunction with the adaptive dampers and variable-ratio steering, in addition to a few options that lift the interior ambience. We’d also hope either BMW Australia will make more equipment standard soon, or that dealers would be amenable to throwing some options in.
To get the best out of this entry-level 3 Series, it needs work with the options sheet. Do so, however, and the superb drivetrain and dynamics quickly clear up those blurred lines when deciding on which car to buy for less than $60,000.