Liz Kim, Contributor
Scott Memmer, Contributor
When I bite into a York Peppermint Patty, I get the sensation of cool, frosty air tousling my hair as I race through the serpentine roadways of the Black Forests of Bavaria...hey, hold your kitties there, Jimmy; I don't have a York Peppermint Patty! Will a BMW 328Ci suffice?
That's an affirmative.
Although we have a '99 328i sedan in our long-term fleet, something about the two-door version that was ours for the week caused a mad scramble around the office for the chance to take a drive, resulting in hurt feelings and miffed editors (and if you know anything about automotive journalists, hell hath no fury like a miffed editor).
Perhaps it is due to the rakish good looks of the coupe, slightly more dangerous and naughty-looking than the more prim and proper sedan. The new coupe is completely different from the former iteration, foregoing the previous E36 platform to share the E46 structure with its 328i sister, but has none of the sheetmetal in common. In fact, the only parts it shares with the sedan are the nameplates, side blinkers and the door handles. The coupe is 1.8 inches lower to the ground, 0.67 inches longer, and 0.71 inches wider. The hood/rear deck ratio is discrete as well, and the windshield angle leans 2 degrees further back than in the sedan.
These numbers may seem trivial, but their overall effect contributes to a sportier, more menacing look. Furthermore, the fascia has been altered to have a wider, more aggressive stance, with the trademark kidney grilles altered to be wider and flatter. The rear reflectors are now mounted in the lower bumper, resulting in slimmer L-shaped taillights, and chrome-tipped dual exhausts complete that slick effect.
For what is the value of a coupe save for the fact that it shouts to the world, "This car is just for me and my hot date! I don't have to worry about kids or carting in-laws!" And heck, if that's the case, make it the coolest car with all the fancy gizmos you can get. And the coupe does have nifty doodads like the raised ridges on top of the side mirrors which effectively and noticeably reduce wind noise, as well as create a craving for Ruffles potato chips. While reversing, the mirror considerately tips downward to aid in parallel parking, but most staffers agree that this feature is of little help in other back-up situations.
The oblong rear windows are framed in chrome and controlled by automatic, one-touch buttons, but those in the back will have to ask pretty please to the driver and front passenger for any air, as the controls surround the shifter, a placement which caused the usual consternation with the Edmunds.com gaggle. The frameless front windows provide hours of amusement, for they automatically lower about three-quarters of an inch every time you open the door. Once you close it, FOOP! They raise again to form a tight vacuum against the weatherseal.
Can't wait to jump inside the dishy bad boy? Getting in is a bit of a production. Not only is the whole car lowered, the front seat is dropped by 0.39 inches. Due to the fiercely bolstered sides, it requires some contortion-like twists to get into the seat. If others insist on tagging along, ingress for rear passengers is more thoughtful, as even though they must face thread-the-needle crouching, the front seats, upon the release of the folding mechanism, not only scoot forward but upward, thus enlarging the space through which they must climb.
Once you're inside, double-jointed shoulders are also helpful in reaching for the seatbelt, which is further back because of the vehicle's two-door status - the doors are longer. It seems to us that BMW could have sprung for a little plastic loop to keep the belt close at hand. Strap yourself in, though, and it'll be easy to find a comfortable driving position with a multitude of seating positions available, further enhanced by the tilt/telescopic steering wheel. The leather-wrapped, three-spoke wheel is equipped with stereo and phone controls, neither of which are terribly appreciated since they're so small and poorly situated that it is necessary to take your eyes off the road to find them, which pretty much defeats the whole purpose of steering-wheel mounted controls.
The interior of our test car was swathed in black leatherette, which is as, if not more, attractive and tactilely pleasing than the real leather in some other cars. The dash was trimmed in a brushed aluminum that extended throughout the cabin and provoked remarks ranging from "modern, artsy and clean" to "too stark and futuristic."
The back seat can accommodate three full-sized, albeit cramped, adults, with sufficient headroom for those less than 5 feet 11 inches, good legroom and a nicely angled backseat. There are few amenities in the way of storage space, with no cupholders (the front passengers can commiserate about the cup space, as the console becomes useless after a trip to the Coffee Bean).
The split-folding rear seat is easy to manipulate, but the ski pass-through is like the chastity belt of a medieval nun - it requires you to go through five layers to access it. The trunk, while not cavernous, holds 9.5 cubic feet of you and your sweetie's Coach duffel bags.
Once everyone's comfy, a thrill ride is in order, for the coupe comes equipped with the world-renowned BMW sport suspension system (so shrouded in mystery that it's never been duplicated, especially by the folks at GM) that is optional in the sedan. No one will fail to notice the magnificent balance of the chassis achieved by means of the strut-type front and multi-link rear underpinnings, both with anti-roll bars, and gas-pressure shock absorbers.
The near-perfect weight distribution of 50.8/49.2 inspires enough confidence to throw the rear-drive 328 through the tightest of corners with nary a curl in the toes. The optional Sport Package on our test vehicle included 17-inch wheels, with performance tires that are chubbier at the rear, and which cling to the road as tenaciously as a Rottweiler to a mailman's hairy legs.
Confidence is further cemented by the excellent performance of the ventilated disc brakes on all wheels; the ABS is unobtrusive and kicks in just in time and with just enough feel to communicate exactly what's going on and gives you enough clarity and calmness to maneuver in emergency situations. And as we performance-tested it, the 328Ci provided consistent, predictable results every time, achieving 60-zero in 121 feet with no pulling or wavering from side to side (side note: Our road test editor noticed a clicking sound emanating from the engine after whirls on the skidpad. He surmised that this is due to oil starvation, a temporary loss of pressure in the oil pump due to sloshing while putting the car through harsh paces. One solution is to overfill the crankcase by adding half a quart of oil if you know that you will be running hard on a track, then drain the excess afterwards; leaving the extra oil in will cause a frothy topping like a mocha latte).
Add to that a completely integrated Dynamic Stability Control system, standard on all 3 Series Bimmers, which seamlessly and instantaneously senses the steering wheel angle, applies the inside or outside rear brakes judiciously, and either reduces engine torque or applies the brakes to the misbehaving rear or front wheel, respectively. This all-encompassing system in effect keeps traction and stability intact so that it is nearly impossible to make a dumb mistake, and grants the illusion that you're a much better driver than you really are. However, in order to power out through those curvy canyon roads at a breakneck pace you must turn off the system.
The sensitive, communicative steering made it easy to get a good feel for the road and its effect on the car, but was never harsh enough to be intrusive. Universal praise was given to the shifting action, which was positive and silky-smooth. However, the clutch, while it has an intuitive engaging point, is stiffened for precision performance; it was a bit heavy for stop-and-go LA traffic; holding it in for a long time caused fatigue in the left leg.
The exterior may be packaged differently, but like every Matthew Perry movie, the innards remain the same. The 2.8-liter inline six-cylinder engine that foments 193 horsepower is so smooth and quiet that one editor noted that it's easy to "forget" to shift when in stop-and-go-traffic, as the noise and vibration that normally urge you to do so in other cars doesn't exist here. Rather, you find yourself saying "oopsie" as you look down to find that you're taching at 5,000 rpms.
However, you must rev to a high 3,500 revs before shifting at low speeds anyway, which is where the 206 foot-pounds of torque peak. Shift anytime before that and you get next to nothing. Nada. Zip. The engine even died a couple of times when we failed to give it enough gas to launch. We really wished for a bit less high-end torque and added low-end bandwidth to alleviate the problem.
All these factors added up to awe-inspiring heft, performance and surefootedness that instills in even the most mediocre of drivers the assurance that they aren't going to bite the dust. Front side airbags are standard for both front occupants with optional rear seat airbags. Add to that top-rated crash scores and you almost feel justified shelling out 40 grand (which is, after all, a reasonable price for a BMW) for the proverbial fountain of youth (Ponce de Leon had it all wrong!).
Coupes have a limited usage that appeals only to certain segments of the population - those who put a premium on sporty good looks over four-door functionality. If that describes you, you couldn't ask for a sportier, better handling sport coupe than BMW's version. Much like having Jack Tripper as the third roommate, the 328Ci is a little more difficult to live with, but has that extra bit of intrigue and interest to keep things fresh and new.
System Score: 5.5
Components. System consists of two 6" full-range speakers on the back deck, shallow-mounted in a funky fiberglass enclosure. Also, strangely-placed tweeters (or maybe they're mid-tweets) in the rear doors. The front doors contain 6" mid-bass drivers rolled off to some nicely positioned tweeters in the upper door panel. The radio has 12AM/12 FM presets, coupled with a single-play CD player. I found the radio layout so-so. Nice ergonomics, but the buttons are all similar, makings this radio hard to use on the road. True, the layout is logical and the buttons are well-spaced; still, I feel they could have differentiated the feel of controls for safer and easier use. The faceplate is a little too flat.
Performance. As far as sound goes, I found the system, like the faceplate, a little "flat." That is, the bass just doesn't sound right. Maybe this is the psycho-acoustic effect of me looking at the rear drivers before listening, but I'm certain the bass is off in this system. I found the attack in the mid-bass frequencies sufficient, but sorely lacking in the deeper regions. On Annie Lennox' version of Al Green's "Take Me to the River," my notes say, "something is missing in the deep bass region." Likewise, on other tracks with heavy bass signal. It's just impossible to get good deep bass the way these rear drivers are mounted; they're too cramped and don't have enough room to "breathe." another negative: the front door panels rattle with flat bass setting at about half gain. Very annoying. One other annoyance: the tweeters in the rear doors are poorly placed. Need to get them up in the doors, where the front ones are. As it is, they aim directly at the armpits, which, last time I checked, was not where our ears are located. On the plus side, the front tweeters are just right -- well positioned and creamy-smooth. And upper mid-bass attack is strong and well articulated.
Conclusion. This car should have a better stereo. It's not a cheap vehicle. The stereo in the Ford Focus, for crying out loud, was better than this! Some funky engineering and speaker placements cost this stereo performance. I marked off heavily for that, and for certain ergonomic miscues. Scott Memmer
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