Road impressions - The BMW 320

A worthy successor to the sporting 2002

For almost 10 years the BMW 2002 has reigned supreme in the world of compact, 2-litre sports saloon/coupes, a market which the model created and pioneered. Now the box-shape, unventilated design is showing its age and contemporary challengers such as the Lancia Beta Coupe and our own 16-valve Dolomite Sprint (albeit already dated in shape) have presented in some ways superior opposition. Right on cue the men of Munchen have hit back with a direct 2002 replacement, the 320, which merges the 2002’s sparkling performance with a modern passenger capsule and exceptional steering and handling.

The 320 we have been trying is one of three members of BMW’s new “3-series” family: the others are the 1,600 c.c. 316 and the 320i, fitted with Bosch K-Jetronic fuel-injection. All use the familiar single overhead camshaft engine, with improvements. In the case of the 320 this means an extra 9 b.h.p.—to 109 b.h.p. DIN—from its 1,990 c.c. (89 mm. bore x 80 mm. stroke) displacement, in spite of improved emission control, a slightly lower compression ratio of 8.1 to 1 and suitability for lead-free fuels.

A scaled-down version of the “5-series” best describes the conservatively attractive, two-door, four-seat body. An extra five inches in length and less than one inch width over the 2002 contrive to increase interior space quite usefully, particularly in rear-seat knee room— still poor, however—without feeling to increase the car’s bulk on the road. Crush zones front and rear, an integral roll-over bar, reinforcement struts and the positioning of the 11.5 gallon fuel tank ahead of the rear axle pander to the cause of safety.

Undoubtedly the most significant change to the running gear is the adoption of ZF rack and pinion steering in place of worm and roller. The basic suspension design follows that of the 2002, with MacPherson struts at the front and semi-trailing arms at the rear, but in reality the suspension is all new and more sophisticated. At the front the coil springs are positioned eccentrically in stead of concentrically to the strut axis, com pensating for transverse forces and improving spring response, the bottom wishbones are forged instead of pressed steel and the caster angle has been enlarged and the caster position displaced to improve lateral stability and reduce steering forces. Spring struts instead of. separate coil springs and shock absorbers are fitted to the rear suspension, which has more rigid semi-trailing arms and an additional link supporting the differential to lessen rear-wheel steering effect.

This new 320 proved one of those few cars in which we felt immediately at home before we so much as started the engine. A combination of driving position ideal for a really mixed bag of Standard House shapes and sizes, in spite of a non-adjustable steering wheel, a facia design which is one of the best we can recall and splendid visibility ensure such an impression. That facia is curved so that everything is equidistant to the eyes and within easy reach. The big speedometer, tachometer and smaller auxiliary instruments are ahead of the driver, the four separate quadrant heater/ventilation controls, rotary switch for the heater fan, cigarette lighter and quartz clock curve round to the driver’s left. The combined sidelight/ headlight/facia rheostat switch is on the right, along with the heated rear screen switch. A left-hand steering column stalk controls winkers and headlamp dip, a right hand stalk looks after powerful two-speed, plus intermittent operation, wipers and wash ers. Orange, aircraft-type illumination is provided for the instruments and clearly labelled controls, so kind to the eyes and dazzle and reflection-free. The Germans have tried so hard to please we “heel-and-toers” that the organ throttle pedal is a shade too close to the brake pedal.

Heating and ventilation are incorporated as splendid as that of the 2002 was poor. A whole battery of demisting and ventilation outlets is ranged across the top of the facia, side ventilation vents incorporate warm air outlets for side-window demisting. While BMW engineers have succeeded admirably in making the ventilation draught-free, this writer regrets that it won’t be possible to turn a refreshing draught of cool air into his face in sticky, summer weather.

An automatic choke for the Solex carburetter ensures easy cold starting and immediately smooth running. Beyond this point of mobility the first thing likely to he noticed by any erstwhile 2002 driver is the steering: the much smaller wheel, no longer set almost at face level, turns the front wheels so easily and positively at low speeds. The brakes are a fraction insensitive when stop-starting in traffic. On the other hand that smooth, four-cylinder engine revels in town work as much as it enjoys high speed, pulling casually from 1,000 r.p.m. in third gear. Speed up a little and the 320 shows remarkable agility in traffic, the steering responding instantly to quick changes of course, shrinking the car’s true size. The squarish front-end shape and good visibility make it an easy car to “place”.

At any speed it is the excellent steering which makes the 320 feel so immediately better than the 2002. It never calls for undue effort, is silkily smooth and precise and sensibly geared for the type of car. The suspension is softer than the 2002, with longer wheel travel, but the changes in rear axle location, a wider track and fine tuning more than compensate in the handling department. It’s a beautifully balanced car, in normal circumstances the onset of progressive over-steer marking its approach to the limit, swiftly controllable, in spite of a fair degree of roll. Traction is much improved over the 2002, especially when powering out of tight bends, although too much power on some greasy London roads had the test car’s 165 SR x 13 Michelin ZX-shod, 5J wheels spinning and the tail twitching rather easily.

Brakes show a considerable improvement over those of the 2002, which never boasted them as its best feature; the front disc diameter has been increased from 9.45 in. to 10.04 in., the rear’ drums from 9.06 to 9.84 in. diameter and an 8-in. Mastervac servo replaces the 6-in. item. They are powerful and survived a rapid descent of Mont Ventoux without overmuch fade— though smoking more like Vesuvius—when we tried another 320 during the BMW press introduction some months ago.

By lowering the final drive ratio from 3.64 to 1 to 3.9 to 1 and adding 9 b.h.p., BMW have put back the performance which an extra 2 cwt. over the 2002 would have lost. Indeed, this gearing makes the 320 more responsive and flexible around town, but for motorway work we would have preferred the old ratio or an overdrive 5th gear. It cruises comfortably enough, though leaving one aware that it is revving fairly hard for its living. This low gearing—abetted perhaps by carburation which was off song, displaying some hesitancy—no doubt contributed to the disappointing fuel consumption of 21 m.p.g. around town and a little over 23 m.p.g. during fast motorway and main road work, vastly inferior to 2002 figures. The fuel gauge needle struck the red sector and the warning light was activated pessimistically at a little over 200 miles from full. Acceleration is quoted as 0-60 in 10.8 sec. and maximum speed as 106 m.p.h., which means nothing. What does matter is the immediate response from that splendid engine, the smooth manner in which it thrusts the needle steadily and rapidly round the clock to 90 m.p.h. before performance tails off, the fashion in which overtaking manoeuvres can be executed quickly in top gear. It is not overfast; what counts is the way this “small” BMW uses its modest resources so efficiently.

The seats are typically BMW; firm, but with support where the body demands it, so relaxing in conjunction with the good driving position. More suppleness in the suspension has improved the ride, which remains taut by the standards of most saloons, yet a necessary facet of the 320’s sporting feel. There is less tail squat under acceleration, less dive under braking than with the 2002. Wind noise at high speed is acceptably modest, road noise is well damped, the gearbox has that familiar, though in this case more subdued, BMW whine and the revs of the engine at high road speeds are kept inoffensive, if not unnoticeable.

In general there is no mistaking the 320 for a BMW: that feel of tautness, the aura of quality, a train-like sensation of dependability, attention to detail such as the Jensenlike automatic delay on the interior courtesy light. Added to that, this new model is comfortable, relaxing and quite extraordinarily easy and enjoyable to drive. BMW Concessionaires GB, in the past so heavily criticised for over-pricing their range, could almost be accused of charity, pricing the 320 at £3,349.—C.R.