A silver orb glows in the night sky, a patchwork of scars and ruts adorning its face. A crimson shadow creeps across to slowly suffocate the lunar shimmer. The blood moon rises.
And it’s tax day. Surely, this is a sign—a higher calling to do something great. The only logical interpretation: Take a half-day off of work and go test-drive some BMWs. Well, it was the only logical conclusion I could come up with, at least.
Now, what to drive? Maybe the economy is treating you a bit better lately, or your burgeoning career is taking its first big stride upward. Or maybe that tax refund is more than you expected. Maybe it’s time for a new car!
Even though our beloved marque has never been the least expensive entrance to car ownership, I wondered what an entry-level BMW now offers. But before picking among the tasty sheet metal at BMW Cleveland of Solon, it was time to come to terms with what an “entry-level” BMW might be; aside from the motorcycles and CPO cars, today that definition probably includes any roundel-wearing vehicle under $40,000.
Dan Wilson, my trusted advisor on new BMWs, arranged a quartet of vehicles to try. This being Cleveland, we focused on xDrive models, and I drove each on a combination of city, highway, and rural roads.
First up, an X1 with the family N20 turbo-four in 28i guise. Built on the last-generation 3 Series platform, there was still plenty of room for rear-seat passengers, plus a healthy amount of cargo space. Fuel economy on my typical test-drive loop was solid: 28 mpg. Contributing to that number was a rather sedate ride. It’s not that the X1 is boring—it’s actually perfectly capable of producing a few smiles in the corners—it’s just so easy to cruise around with minimal effort.
The steering wheel communicates well enough, and it certainly perks up with some lock applied, but there is an odd vague patch just off-center. This is a common theme with the newer electric steering, though it must be said that BMW is getting very close to eradicating this nuisance. A little less body roll would be welcome, and the ride seemed compliant enough that stiffer settings could be employed without damaging the general calm of the suspension.
Inside, there was an intuitive layout, quality materials, and no iDrive; the interior reminded me of an E39 5 Series, which is not a bad thing. The panoramic roof was a nice perk, along with the attractive wood trim, but I wish the main radio controls were a touch higher up on the console. At $38,000 well-optioned—$33,000 or so base—the X1 is a genuine deal.
Next up was the least-expensive 3 Series, the 320i, equipped with xDrive and the master-class eight-speed automatic, same as the other contenders (note that this dealership had two 4 Series models with row-your-own manual transmissions: bravo!). The least-powerful Three has a real kitten spirit; it encourages brisk and playful progress. This is partly because the engine needs lots of throttle to feel quick—but hey, it was a joy driving it like a proper BMW for the whole test drive, and 31 mpg was my penalty.
If you need a bit of extra room for gear or people, then the 320xi would be a great first leap into the world of new BMWs. It changes direction well, feels nimble, has an excellent seating position, and offers just enough power to keep life interesting. Watch that $35,000 base price, however, as the options add up quickly; remember that if you don’t need the winter traction, then rear-wheel drive will save you around $1,500.
The third contender takes some imagination, since it was a very-well-equipped 328xd diesel sport wagon optioned to Fifty-Five Large. But a bare-bones 328d sedan can slide under the Affordable mark, and with the net fuel-economy benefit, you can spill over enough to get xDrive or the sport wagon body if you need it. The key here is that whichever four-cylinder 3 Series you chose, the 180-horsepower diesel is a fantastic engine for daily driving. With torque aplenty and a better throttle response than the N20, this engine sincerely shines on the road. With nearly instant power from 1,800 rpm to 4,500, you would think that a wagon body, xDrive, and spirited driving would drop fuel-economy to the level of the 320i. But with eight gear ratios and modern diesel technology, 42 mpg registered on the dash. Lovely.
My fourth and final entry-level model for the day was the new 228i. Much has been discussed about this humble baby Bimmer, with our own Scott Blazey comparing it to the E36 M3 (in stock form, we must assume). Bold move—but Scott, you were absolutely right. If family and passengers are of little concern, then this is the best relatively-low-cost BMW to buy new. If gratifying on-road travel is all that matters, then this is the new BMW to have, independent of price.
It only takes a handful of corners and a smattering of potholes to know that this is BMW suspension tuning at its pinnacle. The optional larger wheels may rob the 2 Series of this brilliance, but on the stock wheels and narrow tires, this car has Lotus levels of composure. I cannot stress how shockingly well this little coupe soaks up big bumps, provides your fingertips with valuable information, and flat-out flows along the road. Floor the long-pedal and you are even rewarded with a staccato snarl, complete with bass undertones—it sounds great. And only $34,000 with heated seats and wood trim? I am smitten.
Okay, where did they save the money? It’s not in the interior, which has comfortable, supportive seats and a sporty-but-upscale ambience. The latest and most-improved version of iDrive with the 6.5" widescreen is included, but a moonroof is optional. The model I drove had the premium package, which includes the heavy power front seats and moonroof—personally, I would save the weight and order this gem with minimal options.
The overall package goes further back than Scott Blazey’s E36 M3 allusion, if I may say it: E30 M3? 2002tii? Frankly, these comparisons only matter because, over the decades, BMW has continued to offer such wonderful creations that manage to live and breathe with both road and driver. And this latest one achieved 32 mpg with rather, ahem, aggressive driving.
Okay, then, that settles it: Go buy a 228i now. It’s the one over there, right behind the M235i—
Being the owner of a well-tuned, track-oriented E36, I had to see what the decidedly non-entry-level sort-of-an-M car—the first M Performance model in this country—had to offer beyond the standard 228i. One more test drive!
Let’s leave it at this: The M235i is seriously impressive. It fidgets slightly as its Michelin Pilot Super Sports grab the cambers, and the exquisite steering wheel passes along all of that pertinent information. But strictly for the road, I prefer the 228i, which is sublime and doesn’t even feel much slower than the six-cylinder M235i. But if regular track work is involved in your schedule, the big-brother M235i would be very hard to beat.
Just be aware that the first wave of M235i coupes all have tax-man gray wheels and side mirrors—not sure why, but Dan Wilson confirmed that this is the standard for now. Given that the first of the four “blood moons” has arrived, I would opt for something in a nice scarlet color to complement the gray. Red sure looked nice on the 228i parked in the lot.— Chris Doersen