BMW has a reputation for various automotive achievements, not the least of which is the creation of the sport sedan over 20 years ago. In more recent years, this German automaker has honed its product offerings into a full line of razor-sharp sedans and coupes that are widely considered the industry benchmark in terms of performance, luxury and refinement. At the "bottom" of this lineup are the entry-level 3 Series coupes, sedans and convertibles; cars known as much for their outstanding road holding as for their (relatively) low cost, at least in terms of BMW pricing.
Last year a new 3 Series platform, dubbed E46, was introduced to replace the existing E36 platform. Rather than revamp the entire lineup, BMW decided to phase in this new platform by offering it only to buyers of the 323i and 328i Sedans. 3 Series coupes, convertibles and the ever-popular M3 would continue to inhabit the E36 platform, with each body style making its "E46 jump" separately over a 24-month period. In July of 1998 the sedans became available, followed recently by the coupes this past July. In the first quarter of 2000 we'll see a 3 Series sport wagon and convertible become available before the new M3 (rumored to make between 350 and 400 horsepower) appears in the summer of 2000. We'd love to regale you with tales of fun and functional wagons, carefree convertibles, and power-pulsing M3s, but because BMW allowed us to drive only the coupe at a recent press intro, we'll restrict our comments to their newest two-door model.
As with the previous-generation coupes, the new 323Ci and 328Ci are not simply 3 Series sedans with fewer doors. Sharing only door handles and side marker lights on the outside, the coupe models are .67 inches longer, 1.8 inches lower and .71 inches wider than their platform sharing, four-door brothers. Frameless side windows and aerodynamically shaped side mirrors further differentiate the coupe from the sedan. To ensure a proper seal with the frameless glass, the coupe's side windows lower slightly when the doors are opened and raise to seal firmly when the doors are closed. An unexpected surprise, standard on all coupes, are the power-operated rear-quarter windows that swing in or out at the touch of a button (previous-generation coupes had only manually operated rear windows). Additional appearance features, common to all coupes, include chrome-outlined side windows, chrome vertical grille slats, aluminum doorsill trim with BMW lettering, roof-seam trim strips and a body-colored cowl air intake. Chrome exhaust outlets, along with different wheel selections and trunk script, differentiate the 328Ci from the 323Ci.
Upscale touches continue inside, where every 3 Series coupe comes with a four-function onboard computer, automatic recirculation control (which senses outside air-pollution levels and adjusts the climate-control ventilation accordingly), italicized gauge cluster script, a three-spoke sport steering wheel with cruise-control functions and "leatherette" upholstery. It should be noted that BMW's leatherette seat material looks and feels as good as (if not better than) the real leather seat covers found in many of today's high-end luxury cars. Of course, if nothing short of authentic dead-animal flesh will suffice, leather seats can be ordered as an individual option or as part of the 328Ci premium package. Remote keyless entry, a tilt/telescopic steering wheel, illuminated visor vanity mirrors, dual power/heated outside mirrors, a remote trunk release, a split-folding rear seat and elastic storage nets on the front-seat backrests are also standard on every 3 Series coupe.
The majority of our seat time was spent in a bright red, base 323Ci without a single option. While moto-weenies at a press intro often scramble for the top-end models like hogs chasing down fresh slop, we welcomed the opportunity to see what the most basic coupe had to offer. After all, part of BMW's latest pitch for the 3 Series focuses on "value for the money." We wanted a chance to see how the poor man's 3 Series measured up and whether or not it was worth the price of admission.
At $28,990, the new 323Ci costs $1,290 more than the previous model but, according to BMW, includes $3,300 worth of additional standard equipment. The 328Ci, which starts at $33,990, is $790 more than the coupe it replaces but has $3,000 worth of additional equipment. Besides the above-mentioned items, every new coupe gets Dynamic Stability Control (all 2000 3 Series sedans have this standard, as well), 16-inch wheels and tires, a Sport Suspension, and BMW's Head Protection System. Pop the extra five grand for a 328Ci and you get a more powerful engine (193 horsepower versus 170), larger brakes, standard power front seats with three-position memory, differentiated 16-inch wheels, and the aforementioned chrome exhaust tips.
Other, more subtle differences between the coupe and sedan became apparent throughout our drive. For instance, the coupe's lower roof and raked windshield (2 degrees more than the sedan) combine for a shorter field of vision. If you like to sit high and upright, like we do, you'll likely find yourself staring straight into the sun visor--even in its "up" position. However, the six-way manually adjustable front seats make finding a comfortable position easy and the longer coupe has plenty of legroom (both front and rear) for drivers of varying size. Wind noise is almost non-existent at speeds below 60 mph. Above 60 a slight "whishing" can be heard from the lower A-pillar area, despite the coupe's ribbed exterior mirrors that are designed to cut wind noise.
After a day spent cruising through the mountains of South Carolina (including a brief stint on the world-famous Blue Ridge Parkway), it became apparent to us that these coupes are indeed a new standard in performance, luxury and value. Since each one of them comes standard with the equivalent of the sedan's sport package (except for the 17-inch wheels and sport seats) you can be certain that even the lowliest of 3 Series coupes is undeniably a driver's car. Front and rear anti-roll bars, a lowered stance and firm springs/shocks result in typically BMW (read: fantastic) road manners without being harsh or abusive. The perfectly weighted rack-and-pinion, variable-assist power steering sends all pertinent information from the front wheels to the driver's hands. Braking is progressive and easily modulated while shift action with the standard five-speed manual offers short throws and smooth clutch take-up. Though mechanically identical, our test coupe's five-speed transmission felt easier to shift than the transmission in our long-term 328i Sedan. Rev matching between first and second gear was never an issue, but we may have been working harder to keep our shifts smooth because of the BMW rep riding with us.
Acceleration with the 2.5-liter inline six is brisk and BMW claims a zero-to-60 time of 7.1 seconds. That number drops to 6.6 seconds with the 328Ci's 2.8-liter engine. Of course, both of these figures require a five-speed manual transmission, which BMW expects to make up half of all coupe sales (an incredible percentage for the American market). The Double VANOS valve-timing system used on both engines ensures a broad torque band from idle to redline. Taking a quick spin in a 328Ci after our daylong ride in the 323Ci revealed some extra power available at higher RPMs. Were those 23 additional horses worth five grand? Not in our opinion.
In the end, we found the base coupe with all-season 16-inch tires far more capable and fun to drive than many "performance cars" costing thousands more. On twisty two-lanes the 323Ci followed our every command with glee. Cranking into a long sweeper or a tight switchback did little to upset the car's demeanor and, if a problem did arise, the Dynamic Stability Control was ready to intervene with individual wheel braking used to correct excessive under- or oversteer. For those seeking additional road holding, a sport package, with 17x8.0-inch wheels and 225/45R tires can be specified. On 328Ci models equipped with the sport package, rolling stock is identical to the current M3 (17x7.5-inch wheels and 225/45ZR-17 tires in front, 17x8.5-inch wheels and 245/40ZR-17 tires in back).
Safety, a growing issue throughout the automotive industry, has been addressed in the 3 Series coupe with a total of six standard airbags. These include dual front and side airbags, plus BMW's patented Head Protection System, or HPS. If six just isn't enough, rear-passenger side airbags are optional on the coupe, bringing the total number to eight and making the Volvo folks very nervous.
In 1991 BMW sold 23,000 3 Series coupes, sedans and convertibles to Americans. That number was up to 57,520 in 1998 and will rise again in 1999. Even more startling is the increase in 3 Series sedan sales, up 110 percent, since the 1999 model was introduced last year. This makes the 3 Series sedan the most successful launch in BMW history, but we think the coupe might do even better. With a near-perfect front/rear weight bias (51/49 percent), the largest brakes and rolling stock in its class, and bragging rights as the quickest import coupe for under $35,000, the 328Ci establishes a new benchmark in the sport-coupe class.
And the 323Ci? Even in stripped form it's easily the best combination of performance and luxury on the low side of $30,000.