Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
The benchmark sports sedan.
No matter the body style, the BMW 3 Series is the prototypical driving enthusiast's car. This is precision machinery. These cars corner, accelerate and stop swiftly. They turn winding roads into amusement parks. They put drivers in touch with the road instead of isolating them. At the same time, they are highly refined sedans that provide comfort and a strong sense of well being while cruising along. Occupants are treated to elegant, businesslike interiors. Completely redesigned just last year, BMW's 3 Series is roomier, smoother and quieter than ever.
So whether you choose a sedan, coupe, convertible or sport wagon, you've chosen a car you can love for as long as you own it.
3 Series is the smallest of BMW's three sedan lines. A pair of new coupes was launched last summer as 2000 models. Though based on the same platform (chassis and drive train) as the sedans, the new coupe body shares few body panels with the sedans.
Prices for the 2000 models (including $570 destination charge): 323i Sedan ($27,560); 328i Sedan ($33,970); 323Ci Coupe ($29,560); 328Ci Coupe ($34,560). New this spring: the 323Ci Convertible ($34,990) designed for alfresco motoring and a cool 323i Sport Wagon ($29,770). Look for a powerful new M3 within the next year.
BMW's 2.5-liter six-cylinder engine delivers 170-horsepower to the rear wheels of the 323i Sedan, 323Ci Coupe, 323Ci Convertible and 323i Sport Wagon. A 2.8-liter inline-6 rated at 193 horsepower generates thrust for the 328i Sedan and 328Ci Coupe. We love the 5-speed manual, but a superb 5-speed automatic is an option ($1200 or $1275 for the Steptronic).
3 Series styling is a fresh turn on a classic look. BMW's traditional quad headlamps are enclosed in aerodynamic covers. The roofline is long and gracefully integrated into the rear deck. Though elegant and refined, the 3 Series is striking in appearance.
All based on the same chassis, these 3 Series models are slightly larger than the previous generation (pre-1999) models. The wheelbase is 1 inch longer, while overall length has increased 1.5 inches. Track is nearly 3 inches wider. The change is most obvious in the cabin. Interior volume has increased 5 cubic feet, and that extra space translates into more rear leg and shoulder room. The 3 Series Sedans are roomier than the Mercedes-Benz C-Class or Audi A4, according to the government standard for measuring interior volume.
Nearly every part in the 328i has been improved. The suspension components are lighter, yet stronger. There are new vibration dampening devices throughout the car, including hydraulic mounts for the differential and front suspension. The body shell has more high-strength steel and it all works to reduce the noise and vibration in the 328i's cabin.
This is an interior designed for the business of driving. Bucket seats provide fine support without feeling hard and come standard with six adjustments. The seats that come with the optional Sport Package are superb, adding more side bolstering for winding roads. The back seat is roomy enough for two adults during a night on the town, but bear in mind that this sedan is a compact. If rear cabin space is top priority, you can find more for your money elsewhere. An optional leather-covered steering wheel tilts and telescopes for optimum adjustment.
Dashboard and door panels are rich in appearance, and appealing to the eye. Different trim packages offer a choice of Myrtle wood inserts or plastic that looks like polished aluminum. The instrument panel features orange backlighting. Overall, it's a big improvement over the last-generation 3 Series, which suffered from a Spartan interior with a dash cluttered by vents and glovebox latches. This new generation 3 Series addresses that complaint.
In design, the dashboard is a more open design that feels less like a cockpit. Still, most switches fall intuitively to the driver's fingertips. All 3 Series models feature power windows and locks with remote keyless entry. Like many European vehicles sold in markets that can't agree which side to locate the steering wheel, the 3 Series window controls are on the center console. A glance down is required to operate the windows. Having the controls on the doors would make them much easier to use. Automatic climate control and a microfilter ventilation system are standard. The radio buttons look a bit too similar to the automatic climate controls, demanding a glance down to change radio stations. Optional volume and station controls located on the steering wheel address this. Shallow cupholders in the center console seem like an afterthought. The 328i offers BMW's Park Distance Control; an electronic beep warns the driver of objects behind the car during parking maneuvers.
BMW's 3 Series cars are not class leaders when it comes to moving cargo. The trunk is small, the trunk opening is even smaller and the rear seats do not fold down. Also, our 323i did not have a trunk release inside the car, so unlocking the trunk meant turning off the ignition, then using the keyless remote or walking to the back of the car and unlocking the trunk with the key.
Front and front side-impact airbags come standard. Also standard are head-protection airbags that deploy from the headliner along the length of both sides of the cabin. Rear side-impact airbags are optional. With all 3 Series models, the purchase price includes scheduled maintenance for three years or 36,000 miles. Xenon high-intensity discharge low beams offer much better visibility on stormy nights and we recommend them as an option.
Don't hesitate to choose the 323i if you just can't see your way to shelling out for the 328i. For $6,000 less, you get an outstanding sports sedan. You may never miss the extra power of the 328i, and you certainly won't miss the increase in monthly payments. (See New Car Test Drive's review of the 1999 BMW 3 Series for driving impressions of the 328i, which is relatively unchanged for 2000.)
The 2.5-liter engine doesn't develop the urgent thrust of the 2.8-liter. But there's plenty of power here. Power delivery is smooth and linear with no significant dead spots or rushes of power, just strong, gradual propulsion. It's so smooth, that it's easy to rev past the redline to where the rev limiter cuts back on the throttle. BMW's new Double VANOS variable-valve timing helps both engines provide plenty of torque -- the power that makes a car jump when you hit the gas -- throughout the rev range. BMW 323i accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in about 7.1 seconds.
For a real kick in the pants, the 2.8-liter engine delivers more gusto at the top of the rev range, yet is surprisingly strong at lower engine speeds. BMW 328i hits 60 mph from a stop in about 6.6 seconds, making it one quick sedan.
Changing gears with the 5-speed manual is a smooth, satisfying operation. The shifter uses longer throws than a sports car, but it's a precise movement befitting a world-class sports sedan.
At highway speeds, the 323i is extremely stable. I found it extremely difficult to obey the 55-mph limit around Washington's Capitol Beltway and impossible to stay within the law on Maryland's back roads. The suspension is tight, feeling like fine machinery. BMW's 323i isn't as quiet nor does it ride as smoothly as the best luxury sedans from Japan, but it isn't intended to be. Instead, the BMW 3 Series cars put the driver in touch with the road. You hear and feel what's going on, though the outside world is muted well enough to ensure comfort. It's a balance that BMW masters. The stiff chassis structure allows the suspension to dampen irritating road vibration, reducing the chance of squeaks and rattles.
Steering response is more like that of a sports car than a luxury sedan. There's little play in the steering and the feeling is one of directness. This car goes exactly where you point it. Unlike the over-boosted power steering found on many other luxury sedans, the BMW's steering provides feedback and you can feel the road. This car handles curves with aplomb gripping through aggressive cornering maneuvers. When the tires finally let go, it's fairly easy to control, though it requires a bit more skill than a front-wheel-drive car.
Brakes are even more important to going fast than horsepower and the 3 Series provides excellent stopping power. On a twisting, bumpy, gnarly road that's familiar, I slammed on the brakes both in a straight line and while turning, the latter a real no-no. The 323i brought me to a quick, uneventful stop. The anti-lock braking system was hardly needed on the dry pavement because the tires offer good grip and the suspension does its job, keeping the car stable and minimizing nosedive so that the rear tires can contribute. As a result, this car stops very quickly and it's easy to control in a panic braking situation.
While front-wheel drive has its merits, pure racecars use rear-wheel drive. Enthusiasts prefer rear-wheel drive because they can actually steer the car with throttle inputs. The payback for this added element of control can be a skittish rear end, particularly on slick surfaces, a condition known as oversteer.
For 2000, BMW has replaced its standard traction control system with Dynamic Stability Control on all 3 Series models. BMW positions this technology for its safety benefits: DSC helps stabilize the vehicle in severe cornering maneuvers by judiciously applying the brakes to individual wheels. In other words, it helps the driver maintain control when the tires lose grip. This can save your life by help.
There's more to this 3 Series line than just BMW cachet. These cars offer a truly satisfying driving experience. They are equipped with rear-wheel drive and an available 5-speed gearbox, and BMW's commitment to this combination speaks volumes about its priorities. So while drivers will love it, others will appreciate its road-going poise.
If driving satisfaction is top priority, one of the 3 Series models should top your shopping list.
323i Sedan ($26,990); 328i Sedan ($33,400); 323Ci Coupe ($28,990); 328Ci Coupe ($33,990); 323Ci Convertible ($34,420); 323i Sport Wagon ($29,200).
Options As Tested
Sport Package ($2,000) includes 16-in. wheels and tires, sports suspension, leather multi-function steering wheel, 10-way adjustable front sport seats, foglights, cruise control, heated mirrors and washer jets; power glass moonroof ($1050); Xenon headlights ($500); Harman Kardon stereo ($675); metallic paint ($475).
323i Sedan ($26,990).
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