The BMW 320i was part of the first-generation BMW 3-series (E21), which ran from 1975 to 1981, during which time over 1.3 million cars were made. It was designed to replace the innovative 02 series models with a slightly longer, lower and wider body but keeping the 2-door compact sedan (saloon) body styling, though a Baur convertible was also available.
The 3-series was initially launched with a choice of three four-cylinder M10 engines. The 316 had a 1.6-litre motor developing 89hp, the 318 had a 1.8-litre engine with 98hp and the 320 had a 2-litre engine with 108hp.
All three were equipped with carburettors, but late in 1975 BMW introduced the 320i, a fuel-injected version of the 2-litre model with a meaty 123hp.
BMW replaced this engine with a new 2-litre, 6-cylinder M20 motor in 1977 to produce the 320/6, which ran all the way through to 1981, but this carburettor-equipped engine produced no more power (2hp less, in fact) and it took the 2.3-litre 323i’s 141hp to convincingly upstage the 320i.
There was an upgrade to the other four-cylinder models in 1980, and one of the rare occasions when BMW’s naming system (based on series number and engine size) came unstuck. A downgraded version of the 1.8-litre engine replaced the 1.6-litre unit in the 316, and a fuel-injected version was used in the new 318i.
The 1.8-litre motor appeared once more in the US-only 320is, but with 99hp it was a lot less powerful than the ‘proper’ 320i, despite the addition of Recaro sports seats, upgraded suspension, alloy wheels and other trim and equipment goodies.
Like the 02 series before it, the 3-series followed the classic front-engine rear-wheel drive layout and delivered lively handling – the semi-trailing arm rear suspension produced camber changes during cornering and a tendency to snap oversteer.
The cars initially came with a four-speed Getrag gearbox, but this was superseded in 1980 with a five-speed overdrive Getrag ‘box. A three-speed ZF 3 HP-22 automatic gearbox was also available.
There was one further model, the BMW 315 introduced in 1981, but with a modest 1.6-litre 74hp engine, this was a tame and underwhelming reaction to the second oil crisis of 1979 and a long way from the lusty 320i.
So was the 320i the best of the bunch? The 323i brought more power, a smoother 6-cylinder engine and all-round disc brakes rather than the disc/drum setup on the 320i and earlier models, but the 1975 320i surely set the benchmark for the rest – and for generations of sports saloons which followed.