Ilan Kolet, a young colleague of mine from Ottawa, noted earlier this year that BMW’s 3-Series out-sold the Honda Accord in Canada in 2012.
What? An affordable family car, beloved by all, out-sold by a German luxury car?
The numbers don’t lie.
Your first reaction might be: Has Honda lost the plot? True, many of its recent efforts have been lacklustre, although the new-generation 2014 Accord should do better.
Your second thought might be: How did BMW bring the 3 Series into radar range for Accord intenders?
The least expensive arrow in the 3 Series quiver is the 320i sedan, which lists at $35,990. Add four-wheel drive (and an X to the name, as in my test car) and you also add four grand to the sticker. This includes an eight-speed automatic, a $1,600 option on the base rear-drive 320i, which comes with a six-speed manual.
That’s a long way from Accord’s starting point of $23,990. But you’d have to move well up Honda’s trim level ladder to get comparable equipment. The priciest four-cylinder Accord is $30,690 — still quite a gap.
For decades, BMW has been telling us that inline six-cylinder engines were the way to go because of their innate balance and smoothness, much better than the fours or V6s of the competition. They were right, too.
But in the quest for better fuel consumption with no loss in power, BMW has gone where Volvo went 20 years ago: turbocharged four-cylinder engines.
The 2.0 L turbocharged four-cylinder in the 320iX offers merely decent power (181 horses) but shines in torque delivery, with a plateau rather than a peak of 200 lb.-ft., all the way from 1,250 to 4,500 r.p.m. Torque is what accelerates you, so this is a good thing.
A BMW press release said this engine “achieves refinement, noise and vibration of a kind that was previously confined to BMW six-cylinder engines.”
Er, no, it doesn’t. There’s a typical four-cylinder honky gruffness at moderate levels of acceleration. It isn’t all that objectionable, but it ain’t six-cylinder.
The engine features idle stop-start, for better fuel consumption in city use. Initially this feels a bit disconcerting, and the restart can be a bit harsh on occasion. You can disable it if you wish, but I soon got used to it. Then again, I’ve owned lots of cars that would stall out at stoplights. Still, idling even for a few seconds is just dumb.
On deceleration, the fuel-consumption bar at the bottom of the tachometer dial switches from red to blue, and swings left into the “Efficient Dynamics” range, indicating the battery is being recharged. Not quite a hybrid, but a clever re-use of the car’s kinetic energy that would otherwise be wasted.
The ZF auto-box in the 320iX shifts beautifully, with a slight pause in power delivery between shifts, but no perceptible shift shock.
It is managed by BMW’s console-mounted electronic shift lever, which I have hated from the moment I first encountered one. The lever toggles back and forth, but always returns to the same position, so you cannot tell by feel where it is. Eyes off the road is never a good idea.
You must push a button on the side of the lever to actually shift into Reverse or Drive, and push another button on top of the knob to select Park. Way more complicated than it needs to be.
The only saving grace for this shifter is that when you pull the lever to the left to change gears manually, it’s back to upshift, forward to downshift. Most car makers get this backwards.
BMW has so far resisted the siren call of front-drive architecture for improved space utilization. It will succumb eventually, but the 3 Series still delivers reasonable rear-seat accommodation for two average-sized adults.
Has BMW cut corners inside to bring the 3 Series into contention with lesser brands? Even before driving, it feels that way.
First, the doors don’t close with that authoritative thud we’ve come to expect from German cars, and this car was assembled in Germany.
Second, parts of the interior feel cheap. The one thing you touch all the time in a car is the steering wheel — not the place to economize.
BMW’s website claims the wheel is leather-wrapped. I never saw a cow with skin that looked and felt like hard plastic.
The central screen that gives you SatNav, radio, Bluetooth, etc., appears to have been glued on to the dash as an afterthought, rather than being integrated seamlessly into the design.
That’s all before Metre One. After Metre One, it feels as if BMW has fired all of its suspension engineers. The ride is flat-out awful, harsh over bumps small or large, noisy and non-compliant on all surfaces.
I should say it’s “run-flat” awful, because a peek at the tire sidewall explains it — yes, the dreaded run-flat tires. For a sidewall to be stiff enough to support the car with no air in the tire, it creates a compromise in ride quality that BMW and, in this case, Pirelli have not been able to solve.
The point of run-flats is to save the weight of a proper spare, and improve fuel-economy ratings. Theoretically, it also saves space.
But how often do you ever fill your trunk to the absolute brim? You have to live with the crappy ride every kilometre. It’s not worth it.
My test of this BMW overlapped that of a Volvo S60, also with four-wheel drive. The Volvo’s ride was a million times better.
Harshness in suspension can be partially forgiven if there are handling rewards, as is the case with BMW’s MINI line and its other more sporting cars. But in a supposed luxury sedan, this is not good enough.
You can’t just stop at your local tire store for new rubber, either, because BMW appears to have softened up the springs to mitigate the lousy low-speed behaviour. So the car wallows in a most uncharacteristic BMW fashion at higher speeds, too.
BMW used to rule the world in vehicle dynamics. But until tire companies figure out run-flats, or BMW abandons this ill-conceived tire, those days are over.
Have I been hard on this car? Yes.
Unduly hard? I don’t believe so.
Do I hold BMW to a higher standard than other car makers? No doubt.
Because I know they can do better. I can hardly wait until they do. You should, too.
BMW 320i / 320iX
Price: $35,990 / $39,990.
Engine: 2.0 L inline four, direct fuel injection, twin-scroll turbocharger.
Power/torque: 181 hp/200 lb.-ft.
Fuel consumption L/100 km: 320i M6: 9.0 city, 5.5 hwy; 320i A8: 8.7, 5.4; 320ix A8: 8.9, 5.6
Competition: Audi A4, Infiniti Q50, Lexus IS 250, Mercedes-Benz C250/C300 and, er, Honda Accord?
What’s best: Strong linear power delivery, excellent automatic transmission, good fuel economy.
What’s worst: Deal-breaking ride, silly shift lever, inconsistent interior quality.
What’s interesting: Much of what I know about intelligent car design and engineering, I learned from BMW. What happened?
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