FOCUS ON FUN: BMW concentrates on sports-sedan basics for entry-level BMW 320i

As a rule, automakers – especially high-end marques – like to send out top-of-the-line versions of their various models for review to demonstrate all the wondrous new tech toys, optional doodads, performance upgrades and appearance enhancements.

But really, plenty of would-be buyers opt for lower-end models with a minimal add-ons, especially if they just want entrée into a prestige manufacturer, say Audi or Mercedes-Benz.

Or BMW. Beemers don’t come cheap, and options on them add up quickly to the point of pricing some folks out of contention.

So it’s rather refreshing to get to test-drive a base model from BMW’s iconic and best-selling 3-series, a 320i, minimally optioned with all-wheel drive (xDrive in BMW parlance) and a Sport Pack (18-inch alloys with performance tires, sport seats, an M steering wheel, anthracite headliner and an increased top-speed limiter).

Looking for leather? Best look elsewhere. Those sport seats are swathed in SensaTec, a high-grade vinyl that’s a dead ringer for real cowhide. And don’t expect those form-fitting buckets to be heated. We’re talking entry-level here.

In fact, the roster of missing accoutrements includes some surprising things that are fairly standard these days on much-less-prestigious cars, such as adjustable lumbar and hands-free entry.

What the 320i xDrive does supply is what BMW is most famous for: excellent performance, handling and braking, the things that most define a sports sedan.

The 320i is motivated by BMW’s smallest engine, a 2.0-liter, turbocharged, twin-cam four producing an advertised 180 horsepower. Given the car’s zip, that figure seems highly underrated. Praise also goes to the eight-speed automatic transmission, one of the slickest autoboxes in autodom.

bmw3interiorWhile BMW has somewhat dialed back the 3’s taut suspension tuning, it still corners with real verve, yet dampens road imperfections to provide a soothing highway ride. Ditto the steering: It’s lost a bit of road feel, yet remains beautifully direct. Brakes are simply superb.

After all, a sports sedan is mostly about the driving. The 320i’s vital elements mesh together in a precise manner few other carmakers can emulate, at a palatable price point. And that makes the BMW 320i a relative bargain.