Monday, 11 June 2007

Test Drive: BMW 320i SE

By Dr Long

How does one justify spending quarter of a million ringgit for a junior executive car roughly the size of a Corolla Altis or at best a Honda Civic (if wheelbase dimension is a criteria)? With this higher-spec 320i SE, is the asking price of RM249,800 pushing the envelope a little too far? Futhermore with BMW’s snazzy tagline like “Sheer Driving Pleasure”, it begs the question of whether a higher level of motoring nirvana can be attained by dishing out the extra RM17,000. After getting acquainted with this E90 variant, the answer is both a ‘Yes’…and a ‘No’.

Let’s start off with all things positive. The radial-multi-spoke Style 160 alloys -while being a pain to clean - does somehow appear more convincing than the puny-and-sissy 16-inches Style 154 of the base 320i. Its Conti SportContact 2 SSR 225/45 R17 looks the part too. Strangely, the wooden inserts (Poplar Grain Natural fine wood) inside contrasted better with the dash and door trim, somewhat easier on the eyes than the tacky-looking Titanium matt ones in the lower spec model. The electrical sunblind for the rear screen and roller sunblind for rear side windows proved a cooler option for rear passengers, especially in our blazing tropical sun. An extra set of Park Distance Control (PDC) sensors at the front is well appreciated in tight parking spaces. Similarly, the standard anti-dazzle rear view mirror contributes to a more serene night driving. Gadgets like front electric seats with armrests, auto headlamps, rain-sensing wipers and high-fidelity loudspeakers makes up the rest of the bragging points over its lesser sibling. More often than not, extra gizmos like these do make life easier (and lazier).

Now, could more differences be palpable in the driving experience as well? To be honest, those upsized tyres did give a better feel of the road and nicely weightier steering turns (though the steering did seemed more 'wooden' than the 325i Sports). Throwing this 2.0L-powered 3 around corners is a tad more satisfying with lower profile (45 vs 55series) rubbers. Body control is taut and handling is fluid enough to induce an occasional grin or two. Braking may be slightly better in the SE due to wider section of tyres here (225 vs 205). In the city and the suburbs, the 4-pot Valvetronic+VANOS enabled motor proved adequate for daily commute. Ride comfort is surprisingly more pliant than even the standard 325i, yet not much worse than the base 320i wearing thicker donuts.

Hit the highway and that’s where the 320i’ Achilles heel starts to flare up. It desperately need forced induction (think: Mini and 335i) to keep up with the times, and possibly the Kompressors and TFSIs too. Pushing the car above highway limits puts the 4-pot into quite an uncomfortable position and encroaching Vmax takes a bloody eternity too. Exploring the higher reaches of the speedometer you can hear the whining protest and hoarseness up front, even with that distinct firewall in the engine bay. Don’t believe what people say about this modern and tech-endowed IL4 from BMW having refinement of the IL6 of yesteryears. It does NOT. Despite what the responsive and busy rev counter would have you believe. 0-100km/h runs returned an averaged figure of 11.5secs (claimed: 9.7sec). To be fair, high speed stability and quick lane change composure on motorways cannot be faulted though. Ditto for overall low NVH levels during laid-back drives.

So, is the 320i SE a good buy at quarter of a million? Go for the base 320i if you desire to be seen in a junior executive sports sedan wearing a blue-propeller roundel and likely not much else. If you can afford the SE, go for broke hire-purchasing the 325i instead. Sadly, the latest BMW Lease and BMW Credit promotion of 1.38% interest rate (allegedly valid for June 2007 only) don’t seem to include the 325i and 325i Sports. I wonder why. Hmmm…

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