CAR REVIEWS

2006 BMW 320i LE

2006 BMW 320i LE image

Text: Jude P. Morte / Photos: Jude P. Morte | posted September 18, 2006 00:00

Sheer driving pleasure

The BMW 3-Series has always been in a class of its own. Whether it was the E30 chassis (1982-1991), the dolphin-shaped E36 chassis (1991-1997) or the controversial Chris Bangle-designed E46 chassis (1998-2005), the 3er (as the folks at BMW Philippines call their volume seller) has always set the standard for what many describe as the perfect car. Being chock-full of mechanical and electronic sophistication, exceptional composure, true agility, and a touring car race heritage (an E46 won the 2005 World Car Touring Championship) make it THE choice for those who want an accessible prestige-badge sedan.

But when the Munich motorheads decided to put the E46 to stud, they brought in a 3er that pays homage to the pre-Chris Bangle years with a conservative skin barely hiding the sinewy performance that has been a 3er hallmark. Just how the 3er's newest incarnation fared in an era where the competition has been catching up significantly is the basis for today's test drive - an E90 320i Limited Edition.

Performance, but don't forget the passengers

Plop onto the firm leather of the 320i Limited and you'll find that everything occupants need is located in an easy-to-reach place, with the exception of the only front passenger cupholder within the center console. The two electric outlets - the ashtray outlet in front of the six-speed automatic transmission (a/t) stick and the one within the centre console - are within reach of either front or rear occupants. For rear passengers, a divider hidden in the rear backrest folds down totes two pop-sliding cupholders, and there are vents within the center console for rear occupant airconditioning (a/c) enjoyment.

Speaking of creature comforts, the a/c system provides Arctic cold blasts or decent heat, and offers dual zones for individual preferences. The audio system is great, but needs an amplifier, along with improvement in bass tune reproduction. The one-touch power windows are convenient, but for the driver their location needs to be moved a little further back - this writer kept on activating the rear window switches instead of the front window levers. And there's no power assist for both front seats, unusual for a P 2.69 million car.

Unique to the 320i Limited is its Comfort Access system, which works via a radio transmitter within the key fob. Once the fob is within half a meter away -whether in the driver's pocket or a bag - the doors automatically unlock upon recognizing the signal from the fob's sensor. This reduces the need to open the key fob using the lock/unlock buttons, coming in handy especially when you're carrying a lot of groceries or breakable items. And Comfort Access works in tandem with a start-stop button (behind the right part of the steering wheel) similar to the 1-Series, eliminating the need to retrieve a key and insert it in an orthodox ignition slot to move the car. The onus is that you have to step on the brake and press the start/stop button in order to bring the engine to life.

Storage can be deceptive in the 320i Limited. The door storage gaps (for front passengers only) are rather narrow, the glovebox is small and there are no front passenger backrest-mounted storage pockets. The trunk seems small, but can swallow three to four medium sized travel bags. Fortunately the abundance of lights within the interior (trunk and glovebox included) helps a lot when searching for small stuff in darkness.

Lately, BMW has been hammered for fussy styling, especially on its flagship 7-Series. The cleanly drawn E90 (chassis code for the current 3-Series) targets younger, more expressive buyers. External changes have been dialed back, but the look has not been dumbed down, sort of like an evolution in styling. There's a distinctly wedge-shaped profile, with a clean pair of character lines that smoothly integrate the hood line and grille surround, culminating in a discreet scoop under the trademark twin kidney grille and sharp side creases ending directly at the front wheel arches.

Now for the fun stuff

The 320i Limited totes a 2.0L inline four cylinder engine, which puts out 150hp and 200 NMs of torque. Don't be fooled by the apparently paltry power figures; this writer observed that the 320i Limited can outrun with ease larger sedans of higher displacement (such as the new Camry and Accord). The engine seems eager to downshift when given one-half to full effort on the gas, and accessing the six-speed a/t's Steptronic feature helps getting into the powerband (1900 rpm onwards) quicker. And for those who want balance between power and petroleum-pinching, this writer achieved a 230 kph top speed on Batangas's Star Tollway and 10.13 kilometers/liter on 3.5 days of mixed driving.

Handling is superb, whether the 320i Limited's Dynamic Traction Control (DTC, found on a button between the middle front a/c vents) is on or off. Turn DTC on and the car corners like on rails, with a dint of understeer uncommon in rear-wheel drive cars such as the E90. You can actually hurl the car on sharp turns at 100-110 kph, with the Bridgestone Potenza 225 45R17s giving great grip. At 115 kph the tires start squealing and plowing occurs at 120-plus kph. Unfortunately, due to run-flat technology, the tires give a harsh ride, especially on broken asphalt.

Turn DTC off and you can do your best impression of (Initial D protagonist) Takumi Fujiwara, only that you're driving a luxury car instead of Fujiwara's white/black AE86 (1985-1990) Toyota Corolla. With DTC off, you place your life (and this E90 variant's structural integrity in case a collision occurs) to control the bum-slapping but manageable oversteer, but the good news is that DTC makes you have a little fun before calling a halt to the madness by reducing throttle and increasing braking output.

The steering is a bit heavy, but is much appreciated during hard cornering. The steering wheel proper features tilt and telescoping movement, but doesn't have buttons for audio control. The side mirrors are pretty wide, and have a dimming feature that reduces glare at night. The headlights are bright, but even the front/rear foglights are more than bright enough to guide the driver. The windshield wiper switch can be frustrating to operate, requiring a few trips to the owner's manual.

Although there are certain comforts that were sacrificed, the BMW 320i Limited Edition still retains its unique abilities that's great for the casual or performance driver. In other words, it's still sheer driving pleasure, head and shoulders above the rest.