Bigger is Definitely Better (at least as far as engines are concerned)
B. Grant Whitmore, Contributor
We like em, but we know they arent cool. Were talking about the 4-cylinder Bimmers that used to populate the lowest levels of the 3-Series ranks. With the exception of the 318ti (hatchbacks are allowed to have 4-pot engines) the 318 lineup seemed like some sort of internal combustion rip-off. The cars looked like BMWs. They smelled like BMWs. They even shifted and steered like BMWs. They just didnt go like BMWs.
People buy BMWs because they like to drive. Sure, BMWs are also safe and luxurious, but lets face it, Volvo is the maker that we think of when safety issues come to mind, and Mercedes-Benz is the maker for buyers who value luxury over performance. This brings us back to BMWs target audience: drivers. One thing that drivers like to do is go fast. The previous 318is coupe isnt up to snuff in that department. Equipped with a 1.9-liter 4-cylinder engine that makes 138 horsepower and 133 lb./ft. of torque, the 1997 318is is fair game for any high school punk in a Dodge Neon. Equally embarrassing is the fact that the Neon, priced nearly $15,000 less than the 318is, is a match for the BMW in the stoplight drags. If you own last years entry-level BMW coupe dont even think about what that kid in a Camaro could do to your pride.
BMW solved that problem this year by dropping a 2.5-liter inline 6-cylinder motor into the engine bay of the bottom-rung 3-Series coupe and convertible. The sedan and hatchback still make do with the same 1.9-liter engine as last year. The two extra cylinders and added displacement make all the difference in the world for this car. Infused with 30 more horsepower and 48 more lb./ft. of torque than the 4-cylinder engine, the new 323is has earned the right to wear BMWs prominent propeller badge on its hood. BMW claims that acceleration times have improved by 1.5 seconds over last years car. That means it takes 5-speed models 7.1 seconds to reach 60 mph. An important note is that this engine is not the one previously used in BMWs such as the 325is coupe and 525i sedan. This engine differs from the earlier 2.5-liter engine of 1995. It uses the same bore as the 328i (84 mm) but a different stroke (75 mm). BMW departed from their usual scheme of using the engines displacement numbers to denote the cars trim level to keep customers from confusing this car with the earlier model.
The 323is got more than a new engine this year; door-mounted side-impact airbags and rear passenger adjustable headrests were also added. Additional standard equipment features include leatherette upholstery, split-folding rear seats, multi-information display with outside temperature gauge and freeze warning, cruise control, AM/FM stereo with cassette and 10 speakers, dual zone climate controls, central door and trunk locking, powerful 4-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock, and all season traction control. The only option on our comfortable 323is tester was the Sport Package which includes 16x7-inch alloy wheels shod with 225/50ZR-16 performance tires, a sport suspension, and fog lights.
Fun to drive does not begin to describe how each of our staff members felt about this car after spending just a few hours behind the wheel of BMWs cheapest 6-cylinder model. Greg Anderson, Edmunds newest automotive editor, liked the 323iss power delivery and clutch take-up, thinking that they were smooth as silk. He cites an occasion when he crested a ridge just outside of metro Denver and passed a Douglas County Sheriffs car headed in the opposite direction. As he sped past the peace officer, he looked down at the speedo to see how fast he was going. His eyes nearly popped out of his head when he noticed that the dial was registering triple digits. Fortunately the police officer had other intentions and did not turn around to ticket Anderson. Afterward, Anderson claimed that he had no idea how fast he was travelling and that the 323is felt as solid at 100 mph as most cars do at 50. Having been awhile since last driving a BMW, this writer had forgotten how easy it is to tackle winding roads at high speeds. With the traction control turned off the 323is hangs its tail out gently and easily, never threatening to send the car down the road arse-end forward. A magnificent strut-type front suspension and central link rear suspension combine to give the 323is one of the best rides on the road. Every dip and undulation of the road is felt in a manner that lets the driver know exactly what is happening to the car without causing any discomfort to the occupants. Perfectly weighted rack-and-pinion steering works well with the 323iss nearly ideal 50.2 front/49.8 rear weight bias to ensure effortless direction changes.
Our only gripes about the 323is concern its busy dashboard, cheap interior materials, and the contortions required of passengers trying to access the rear seat. The myriad climate and audio controls are piled on top of each other and create a cluttered center stack. Interior materials are also a bit lean in a car that pushes through the $30,000 price barrier. If Audi can fill their $23,000 1.8T with sumptuous faux-leather upholstery and nicely grained dashboard plastic why cant BMW do the same with their entry-level cars? Our final complaint is about the 323iss small rear seat further exacerbated by the difficulty that passengers have accessing it. Requiring a step-twist-plop sort of motion for entry, the back seat of this coupe is going to win few fans. BMW could address this concern for us by dropping the new engine into the 318i sedan. This wouldnt increase rear passenger space, the coupe and sedan have the same interior dimensions, but the extra doors would make it easier for rear seat passengers to get in and out of the car.
Nearing the end of its life in this iteration, the entry-level BMW coupe has become the perfect example of what a sports coupe should be. It is compact, powerful, fun, and well mannered. It does not pick buyers pockets at the dealership or at the gas pump. There are plenty of sports coupes on the market that offer a good ride at a reasonable price. We think, however, that this particular car is the one to purchase if you place more emphasis on fun than on luxury.
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