The BMW 320i

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Where has all the sportiness gone?

Not so long ago BMW offered the 2002, a quick 4-seater coupe in which any then-aspirer to the hand of the Queen’s daughter could be happy between horses and the 2002Tii, an even quicker, livelier thoroughbred which kept many a racing driver content between circuits. Now this popular high-performance pair has been replaced by the 320 and the 2002Tii’s fuel-injected equivalent, the 320i. In Motor Sport, January, 1976, I reported very favourably on the 320; in fact by Motor Sport’s usually cynical standards I raved quite eulogistically. Understandably, a road-test of its quicker, injection sister was anticipated with some -eagerness. I regret to report that when the test 320i did materialise our relationship proved to be less harmonious than that in which the carburetter car and I were involved.

Yet in essence the two models have little more than the engine to distinguish them. If they were parked side by side a man-from-the-street would be hard-pushed to find the differences, other than the lower-case “i” suffix on the boot-lid badge. The bodywork and interior appointments are identical. Only the wheels and tyres give the game away to the sharp eye, the 320i sporting 5 1/2J x 13 in. wheels and 185HR tyres against the 320’s 5J and 165SR wear.

Under the bonnet lies the real and visibly obvious distinction, the complexities of Bosch K-Jetronic fuel-injection pipework in place of the simplicity of a single Solex downdraught carburetter. This Bosch electronic system replaces the Kugelfischer mechanical injection of the 2002 Tii. BMW claim the new arrangement to be simpler in design, easier to service and essential to compliance with future low-lead fuel regulations, to which means also the compression ratio has been lowered slightly to 9.3 to 1. The sad result is a reduction in power out put from the 2002 Tii’s 130 b.h.p. DIN at 5,800 r.p.m. to 125 b.h.p. DIN at 5,700 r.p.m. and 131 ft. lb. torque at 4,500 r.p.m. to 126.5 ft. lb. at 4,350 r.p.m, While the 320 and the lesser 316 will run happily on 91-octane fuel the injection car requires premium grade. Mechanically the single overhead camshaft, oversquare, four-cylinder engine remains unmolested, of 1,977 c.c. capacity with a bore of 89 mm. and stroke of 80 mm. It has a cast-iron cylinder block, aluminium cylinder head, five crankshaft bearings and slightlyimproved hemispherical combustion chambers containing two valves each. Cooling efficiency has been improved by increasing the system’s volume.

This engine sits at 30 degrees upon improved mountings designed to cut down vertical movements, noise and vibrations while a hydraulic vibration damper has been added. The drivetrain, including ratios, is identical to that of the 320, with a single dry plate spring clutch and a four-speed Getrag gearbox. Automatic transmission is not available on this injection model.

On its own the injection engine’s power reduction would not be too significant. Combine it with a weight increase of 2 cwt. (to 20.7 cwt.) and the same 3.64 to 1 final drive ratio as the 2002 Tii and it doesn’t need a pocket calculator to confirm that there must be a marked performance loss. Indeed there is and the 320i feels quite a sluggard compared to the earlier car. I can claim this with more than just figures, however, for our Managing Director has one of the later, square rear-light 2002 Tii with some 39,000 miles on the clock. We were able to exchange ears during the test and both of us were disappointed by the 15,000-mile-old 320i’s lack of sparkle compared to the superb liveliness of the earlier model. Change down a cog in the Tii and it picks up and goes, the tachometer needle dashing round the scale. Repeat the manoeuvre in the 320i and the instant response is missing, the tachometer needle lazy, the length of time spent overtaking delayed. The same applies when changing up—you can feel the 2 cwt. hanging on the end of the needle as the higher gear takes up drive.

Now this comparative criticism might sound unfair, for the 3201 remains a quick car, capable of knocking up 60 m.p.la. from rest in 9.6 seconds and a 112 m.p:h. maximum (the 2002 Tii jumped to 60 m.p.h. in the “eights” and did a claimed 118 m.p.h.). Newcomers to 2-litre BMW-injected motoring are unlikely to find the performance too disappointing; existing Tii owners who want to update their models will be the disappointed ones. They could easily be persuaded to the Rover 3500 or Alfetta GTV 2000 for quicker and cheaper motoring or save even more money with a Dolomite Sprint.

There is another performance comparison to take into account closer to home, In the reshelling, the 2-litre carburated engine was given an extra 9 b.h.p. (to 109 b.h.p.) while the injection engine lost its 5 b.h.p, The 320 weighs nearly cwt. less than the 3201 and uses a lower, 3.9 to 1 final drive ratio. As a result, the 320 and 320i feel much closer together on performance than did the 2002 and 2002 Tii. The 320 is just over a second down on 0-60 acceleration and 6 m.p.h. on top speed, a similar difference to that between the 320i and 2002 Tii. However, the 320 consumption suffers from the lower overall gearing; the test 320 managed only a little over 21 m.p.g. around town and just over 23 m.p.g. in fast use out of town against a worst of 21.8 m.p.g. and best of 25.45 m.p.g. from the 3201. On the other hand, while our MD’s 2002 Tii averages well into the thirties on his daily 140 miles round commuting trip, the 320i managed only 24.09 m.p.g. on the same journey.

Comparative performance and consumption figures apart, the 320i packs a superb engine under its full-width bonnet. It is silkily smooth, by four-cylinder standards, and unobtrusive, starts from cold more easily than the 2002 Tii, will drive away smoothly from cold without a hiccup and does not have the latter’s idling surge. Forgetting the Tii com parison, it is a responsive and flexible engine, though the 320’s lower gearing is perhaps preferable around town. Out of town the higher final drive comes into its own, giving useful speeds in the lower gears of 30, 60 and 90 m,p.h. and very relaxed high-speed motorway cruising, in which conditions wind noise is very markedly reduced compared to the 2002. One hundred miles per hour is a very easy cruising gait, as it needs to be for limit-free German autobahns. This lovely engine is coupled to a gearbox with a precise, light and easy change. But it does have only four ratios against the five of its rivals; at this car’s price the 5-speed, close-ratio Getrag gearbox available as an option in Germany (with first and direct top ratios identical to those of the four-speed unit), or, and perhaps preferable for most road users, a box with an overdrive fifth coupled to the 320’s lower final drive ratio, ought to be standard. It would save a lot of the performance dropoff between gears.

In general the 3-series is intended as a softer, roomier, more sophisticated replacement for the old range. Unfortunately the softness extends to the suspension which, while pleasantly adequate in the 320, shows some quite bad shortcomings when forced to cope with an extra 16 b.h.p. Very surprisingly, the only running gear difference between the two new 2-litre models (other than wheel and tyre sizes, which also increase the track by 0.9 in.) is a 1 mm. increase in front and rear anti-roll bar diameters. Spring and damper rates are identical. In the process of revising the 2002 suspension of MacPherson strut front and semi-trailing arm rear (detailed in my 320 report) for use in the 3-series, BMW engineers reduced the front spring rates by 25% while increasing the rear by 40%. I feel they have overdone this ratio, for the front is now far too soft and the rear too stiff. The 320i wallows soggily at its front end and when pushed really hard exhibits considerable body roll. At the same time the rear 2 roll stiffness, increased over both the 2002 and 320, causes the inside rear wheel to pick up far too easily, resulting in pretty abysmal abysmal traction in most circumstances in the lower two gears. I grew quite tired of this trait in the wet and slippery conditions which dominated the test, more so because I had recently forsaken the excellent traction of an Alfetta GTV 2000. In spite of suspension too soft for good handling the ride is quite harsh over secondary roads, the lumpiness mainly emanating from that rear-end again. I recalled the 320 as riding much better than this 3201, though on paper there is only the greater unsprung weight of the larger wheels and tyres to make any difference.

The pleasantly smooth ZF rack and pinion steering does to some extent retrieve the handling situation, but I wasn’t very impressed with the roadholding in the wet, particularly after all four wheels had let go on the exit from an up-hill, second-gear bend on Dartmoor. To be fair, the Michelins were part worn and the whole car felt to have had a pretty hard life in its 15,000 miles; I had to return it to BMW after a day to have excessive valve gear noise and front wheel shimmy cured. The noise was rectified but the shimmy was only reduced, so I had to live with it. Presumably 320 BMW’s replacement on the fleet had been made overdue by the ban on changing cherished numbers.

The 320i’s brakes are effective, but extremely insensitive, especially in town when there is a disquieting servo lag when stopping and starting in traffic streams. They also lockup easily in the wet, a vice I found to my cost on the 3-series introduction in the South of France in 1975. Brake dimensions are shared with the 320: 10.04 in. diameter discs at the front and 9.84 in. diameter rear drums. The twin hydraulic circuits are helped by an 8 in. Mastervac servo. However, the 320i has the benefit of ventilated front discs.

In looks this Munich 2-litre is smart and attractive with a finish exuding quality, though slamming the heavy doors does reveal a certain flexibility in the side panels around the B-posts. The body contains a capacious boot and a built-in roll-over bar. I won’t go into too much detail about the interior package, which is identical to that of the 320 I tested. It is functional rather than fancy, with heavy use of that black plastic into which BMW so cleverly inject a quality air, and with cloth inserts to the seats and built-in headrests. The front seats are typically hard, yet superbly comfortable, though I did find the front of the cushion digging into my thighs after a long mileage, and the driving position excellent. The rear scat has more room than that of the 2002, but remains very cramped for adults. I can recall no better facia layout than that of the 3-series BMWs, which have beautifully clear instrumentation, illuminated by orange aircraft lighting at night. A gentle curve in the facia brings everything close to hand, including the controls for the powerful heater. Fascinatingly and defying confusion, all the switches are labelled in full, their lettering benefiting from individual orange lighting.

In quality of manufacture there is no denying the excellence of this BMW product, but retrogradely, the engineers seem to have buried the old injection car’s sportiness in over-concern for softening the 320i to suit a supposed mass market and by endowing it with a middle-aged spread of weight. Driven at modest speeds its handling is adequate, its performance is always excellent if not so good as its predecessors, but the overall impression is that it has been designed with too much emphasis on autobahn cruising (at which it excels), not for cornering quickly nor putting its power on the ground. Buyers who spend £5,237 on the 320i deserve better chassis engineering; they can buy it elsewhere for less. As it is, the ordinary 320 is a better buy at £4,549.—C.R.

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