BMW drivers have a reputation. The reason for this is because they deserve it. The reason for that is because of the cars. Do not judge, you would be the same. I certainly was behind the wheel of my brand spanker (1500 miles on it) twenty plate 320i. Lucky to be alive, I ran out of dual carriageway on a trans-Pennine ‘A’ road while racing past lorries and lesser mortals. A very Beamer driver thing to do. I had joined the tribe, although briefly, via burning rubber on hatchings.
As for the car, in photographs, you may or may not like the look. In real life, sitting on your drive, it is beautiful from every angle. It has a huge boot. Remember when the 3 Series were so tiny that they were nicknamed ‘Baby Beamers’? This one looks massive. Baby no longer, it is a strapping, handsome, athletic lad. It will do 300 miles on half a tank. It handles beautifully. It drives & corners very, very well. It is nippy and fast. It will bring out your inner dickhead. But it is not perfect.
Mine was an automatic with an irritating electric gear change. A mechanical (a lever which moves between set positions) would be better. With the electric, you have to apply the foot brake, press an ‘unlock’ button on the side of the gear stick and tap it forwards or backwards to change the setting. The actual stick returns to its original position no matter what. There’s no way if telling what it’s in, unless you look at the very small writing next to the stick. There may be a way of getting it to show permanently on the dashboard.
This is just a nuisance. A mechanical gear lever is much easier. You can tell where an old-fashioned stick is just by putting your hand to it while looking at the road ahead. You can also change (Park is at the top, Drive at the bottom) without really thinking about it.
There is no ‘Park’ on the Beamer, you have to click a button on the back of the top of the gear knob to engage the parking brake. This is a confusing nonsense and nowhere near as good as the old way. I just sat with my foot on the brake all of the time.
Likewise, the air conditioning / climate control is a mass of buttons which are too small. They are rocker style, which makes the different options even smaller. Air conditioning / climate control should consist of three dials; temperature, fan speed and direction (windscreen, body, feet). Even worse, rather than being light coloured (or even illuminated) symbols on a dark background, they are different bright colours on silver. Arrrrgh. On this driver’s hot sunny day trip, the aircon needed constant, distracting, fiddling with.
Another ‘no no’ was the seat adjustment. You pump the back of your seat up with a lever and then release it. With no graduations in between, it then hits you in the back and sticks. This belongs to a Dacia Sandero. Electrically adjustable seats required.
With a lot of negatives out of the way, what’s it actually like to drive?
It is keyless, there is an engine start/stop button, apply the foot brake before you press it. The main dials are excellent; fuel, speed, revs, temperature. They are nice to look at and easy to understand. Below them, various stats; fuel economy, range and the like. There is also a little white circle within a red border, as if a road sign, telling you the speed limit. It is often wrong, let’s call it ‘advisory’.
The actual display doesn’t contain real dials. It is a GUI (graphical user interface). At times, little squares and text may also appear on it.
To the left, an iPad thing, nicely integrated into the dashboard rather than being slapped on to it. Letter box-shaped, its menus are easy to use. I bring up the map and listen to the radio. How do you turn the radio to a.m.? Can you turn the radio to a.m.? Am I showing my age again?
Let’s go somewhere. If you’re new to all of this (I am) then there is a bewildering array of buttons and sticks. The turning indicators are intuitive to use and on the left-hand side of the steering column. Likewise, on the right-hand side, windscreen wipers and screen wash. The wipers are completely quiet but don’t actually clean the windscreen. Insect splats and bits of bird’s emptyings remain.
Regarding the bewildering buttons, look for anything with ‘auto’ written on it. I found four and pressed them all, assuming that the car would thereafter sort of drive itself.
Check those big and easy to adjust wing mirrors (which tuck themselves out of harm’s way when you get out and lock the doors). Check a strangely dark rear-view mirror. Can that be adjusted?
Stab the accelerator and away we go. The car is very responsive; it lets you know when you’ve touched the accelerator. It handles very well indeed. It is a joy to drive. The seats are extremely comfortable. The driving position is niiiiice. Visibility is excellent. Your reviewer is Mr Average, average height, average weight, everything in the world was designed for him to use, which helps.
The automatic transmission is completely seamless unless you stab the accelerator, in which case it jumps through the gears smartly and tips you towards hyperdrive. I’m not sure what the seats are made of, certainly not leather or fabric or plastic. Is there a synthetic leather these days? If so, I’ve sat on it and very comfortable it is too.
The 2-litre petrol engine is fast. There’s a very good story of the late Jim Clark, the quiet Duns Formula 1 racing car champion. A modest natural, half a lap after red lights had turned to green, he would look in his mirrors and whisper under his breath, “Why is everybody behind me?”. You are now his brother. You will hear yourself asking, “Why is everybody going so slowly? Why are they all in lanes one and two while I’m over here on my own?”.
But. The ride is not perfect, the suspension can be bumpy. You will know what kind of a surface you are driving on. If you are on a very smooth, level, dry road then the suspension will invent a few bounces for you. I don’t care what the back seat is like, I always sit in the front. It looked roomy enough but not over-generous. My back-seat passenger’s comments suggested that the suspension felt worse in there. The ride can be adjusted. Have a fight with the buttons and menus.
The car is beautiful to look at. Nice girls will smile at you. You will pull (but not my daughter). It cuts through the air in perfection. There is no pull on the steering wheel when passing a big lorry but there is a “lane alarm” which tugs on the wheel if you’re straying. This is very annoying, as you might want to stray out of a lane. It even happens when filtering into a new lane. There is probably a way of switching it off. Have another fight with those buttons and on-screen menus.
There is an eco-drive that I didn’t use. No doubt this would have squeezed out more fuel efficiency. Bear in mind, I also had the air-conditioning belting away. On my 300-mile round trip, on ‘A’ roads, motorways and Hull town centre (twinned with Thunderdome), we stuck at 37 mpg. On the same route, a big old E class estate (with a smaller engine) had similar fuel efficiency. A SEAT Ibiza, about 15 mpg more. Yes, I know, that’s why I hired a BMW for the day.
Speaking of hiring a car, I must briefly right a possible injustice. Some online Thrifty car hire reviews would make our old friends at Shenzhen white knuckle Airlines blush (“There was an announcement in Chinese and everybody else started to scream”). Thrifty were very good with me. Five stars.
The 320i makes various daft noises whilst being locked and unlocked. There may be a way of switching them off. This draws unnecessary attention to the car meaning that, in Hull, you will have to stand and guard it while your companions do their business. This will make you feel very important.
I’ve no idea what the cost of ownership might be. I suppose residuals will be decent and servicing costs high. It is insurance group 30ish, partly because people will be tempted to steal it and party because of the way that you will be tempted to drive it. (My SEAT is group one. I lose more money down the sofa every year than I spend on car insurance).
And drive it you will, for fun, for the sheer joy of being able to. If you hate driving, you probably don’t. You just have the wrong car. Hire one these for a day and super boost your confidence. It will rewire your brain to associate roads with pleasure. Like me, you will return to your own crappy car with a zest for tarmac and white lines.
You will drive a 320i for pleasure, you will have unnecessary spins, you will leave the front door of your house wide open as you are led towards the drive in a trance. I certainly was. It is beautiful to drive. It. Is. Beautiful. To. Drive.
What about the competition? The only one I’ve driven recently was a 2017 Mercedes C Class. Beautiful to look at, a horror behind the wheel. It lurched through the corners, it bounced about, the suspension was too hard, it had an iPad nailed on top of the dashboard, I got a whistle out of the closed windows on the motorway, the driving position was too cramped, the automatic gear change was on the steering column, like Rock Hudson and Debbie Reynold’s station wagon. You changed by twiddling the stalk around. ‘Park’ was somewhere else. No thanks. The old PRND lever above the driveshaft was much better. I couldn’t believe that somebody would pay 30k plus for one. Knocked out to a price in South Africa. Avoid. Am I right in saying of Mercedes’s, “the older the better?”
At £35k, would I buy a 320i? No. Would I let somebody else buy one for me? No. The electric automatic transmission control was too disappointing, likewise the air-condition / climate control. It needs electrically adjusted seats. At times the suspension is not great. It is beautiful to look at and wonderful to drive but, for me, some over-fussy and difficult to use controls let it down.
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file