Miles Cook, Contributor
Neil Dunlop, Contributor
Scott Memmer, Contributor
It'd be safe to say that the marketing-types out there would categorize more than a couple of Edmunds.com editors as extreme automotive enthusiasts. Why? Because mention any model of car and instantly the fastest and best-performing derivative is the one we want. A C5 Corvette? We'll take the Z06. A Mustang? Give us a Cobra R. It's the same with imported models, as well. A Mercedes-Benz? The E55 fills the bill. A Porsche? We'll hold out for a 911 Turbo. And BMW, ahh BMW. The only car that really matters is an M5. But we're not talking a 5 Series here. The subject of this discussion is the Roundel's universally admired 3 Series and the story's the same for that model of car as it is for any other. Give us the soon-to-be-available 330i (or better yet the M3) and we'll be in automotive utopia.
For now we'll just have to be happy and enjoy the positive aspects of this handsome E46-platformed 323Ci Convertibleeven though it's more than a full second slower in the quarter-mile than the 328Ci we tested a while ago (Road Test: 2000 BMW 328Ci). The problem is, though, that we also have a 328i Sedan in our long-term fleet and the knowledge of that car's notable power advantage permanently taints our feelings for this car, its smaller engine and, as it turns out, significant weight disadvantage.
But before drowning in a sea of always desiring more go-to-jail power, we'll first sing the praises of this sexy drop top. And many of those glories have nothing to do with its relative lack of power compared to its bigger-brother 3 Series coupes, sedans, and ragtops. As is the case with most BMWs, how good the car feels in your hands as well as overall handling dynamics remain an area where these cars shine. Across the board, any new 3 Series BMW is simply a ton of fun to pilot on your favorite country back road. Coupe or sedan, ragtop or wagon, 2.5- (the 323's engine is a 2.5-liter six) or 2.8-liter engine, it's tough to beat how one of these cars feels once you get a little elbow room on a twisty two-lane.
This car was at the hands of several Edmunds.com staffers since our first drive of this model and the appreciative commentary was nearly universal in the area of over-the-road handling and feedback. During the week with our Titanium Silver Metallic tester, one editor had a ball driving home after a long 13-hour office day as he was "sliding and steering the 323 through turns with the flick of a wrist and jab of the throttle. The steering is razor sharp, the brakes are flawless in terms of feel, modulation and effectiveness, and the tires felt grippy with progressive breakaway at the limit." Another editor said the 323 had a "pleasing German heft, yet felt agile in the corners." And comparing the 323 to other vehicles of a less sporting nature, senior features editor Brent Romans noted, "I hate to say it, but all those BMW cliches are true. I've spent the last three months driving less-inspiring cars like a gaggle of SUVs, a Honda Insight and a Ford Escape. I hop into this 323Ci Convertible and all of a sudden, it's like an awakening. The car feels alive. Great steering, brake, and throttle feel. Even slogging to work in rush hour was fun. Let the inline six snarl away and get the wind in your hair." Clearly a good deal of credit must go to near-perfect weight distribution of 49.5 percent front and 50.5 percent rear. Interestingly, an automatic-equipped 323Ci Convertible has perfect 50/50 distribution.
Handling dynamics aren't the only reason to consider a 3 Series. Convertible-specific strong points are numerous and more than one editor commented on the lack of cowl shake in our test car. "Cowl shake is nonexistent in almost all conditions. Only when you drive over seriously rough road can you feel the chassis flex," noted Romans. Editor-in-chief Chris Wardlaw was also impressed. "Cowl shake was barely evident, and then only over the roughest pavement."
Most of us also really like the one-touch up and down for the top and that an LED light stayed on until the top was finished being fully stowed or raised. We do have some concern, however, about the reliability of the top's mechanicals. Compared to, say, a Miata, which is very simple, the BMW's power top, decklid, and all other pieces that go with it are quite complicated. We say this because we know of a '96 318i Convertible with a manual top and its owner sometimes has trouble just getting the decklid open to raise the top. Not fun when the sky is about to open up with a big shower. Nevertheless, we have one more pat on the back for BMW and its current 3 Series converts: a glass rear window is finally in place. For a car that lightens your wallet to the tune of more than 40 large, it's about time.
Cruising home on back roads is fine and profiling with your hot date on the local boulevard is fun, too, but hard test numbers factor in more with a car like this than they do with a big pickup truck or SUV, for example. At the track, the 323Ci put up some respectable numbers, but they're naturally less so when compared to any 328. Still, Wardlaw loved our test car, pointing out one irritating fact in his praise of the 323Ci. "I don't care if it's only the 2.5-liter inline six with obnoxiously short gearing designed to make it feel faster than it is. How many pennies must I save to buy this car?"
During testing, the issue of gearing also came up while road test editor Dan Gardner made acceleration runs down the quarter-mile. "The car is well into fourth gear at the end of the quarter-mile," he noted. Times on the dragstrip were acceptable at 16.0 seconds at 85.6 mph given that the 323 drop top is no lightweight at more than 3500 pounds. The car got up to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds, more than a full second behind the last 328 we tested which hit 60 mph in 6.5 seconds. That car also dispatched the quarter in 15 seconds flat at 92.2 mph.
Braking for the 323 was noted as being slightly off the mark for a BMW. Still, the car halted from 60 in 126 feet. Our 328 Coupe stopped from 60 in 121 feet. Besides the engines, it should also be noted that the 328 Coupe is dramatically lighter, checking in at just less than 3200 pounds. We think that alone should make the bigger 2.8-liter motor standard in all convertibles. As it is, the 328 isn't available in convertible form but, thankfully, that'll change with the 2001 330Ci available as a ragtop.
While the BMW-like goodness of the interior was on par with the other Bimmers we've driven, there are still a few nits that apply to any current 3 Series cabin. As noted in our first drive, the one-touch window switches that surround the gearshift lever make it nearly impossible for the driver to reach the switch for the front-passenger window when in fifth gear. Wardlaw also noted, "...the dumb automatic climate control system that requires you to push-push-push the fan speed control to shut it off."
Loaded with all kinds of high-value standard features like Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), a Rollover Protection System, dual side-impact airbags, remote keyless entry, and double VANOS infinitely variable intake timing for the 2.5-liter engine, any 3 Series BMW is clearly one of the value-laden buys in this segment. If you must have a convertible, though, and like a car that has some real Wheaties, then the wait for a 330Ci won't be too long provided you've got the extra bucks. Otherwise, it'd be tough to go wrong by signing on the bottom line for this entry-level 3 Series convertible.
Oh, gawd. I need one of these," my girlfriend, Catherine, said when she saw the BMW 323Ci Convertible.
Need is an interesting way to put it. But, a car this fine does that to people's perspectives, even someone as rational with money as Catherine. But it's hard not to look at the German-engineered beauty and become completely irrational. Especially when it's finished in midnight blue on beige leather and accented by real wood trim.
Push a button to drop the black cloth top and it's like choreographing a ballet. It is 25 seconds of mechanical fluidity and grace. Most hold their breath when watching it perform for the first time. No movement is superfluous and all occur in perfect chronology. Best of all, there are no levers to flick or latches to unclasp - it's fully automatic. An engineer must've spent years developing the convertible roof system and he was obviously a poet or at the very least a patron of the arts. We all know, however, that physical impressions can be fleeting. Not to worry - what's inside this automobile is just as compelling. What, you say, gorgeous and a great personality?
The 2.5-liter inline six-cylinder engine is smooth like pulling silk over polished marble. BMW's manual five-speed transmission does little to blemish the experience. Revving the engine between 4,000 rpm and the 323's 6,000 rpm redline produces a sweet surge that should please all but the most hardcore speedster. And it does this without complaint. The engine never whines when taxed, but only purrs a little louder. No, the 3 Series convertible's performance won't give you cold sweats like dating a rebel, but it will deliver goosebumps like the touch of an attentive lover.
Even if you wanted to it would be hard to get in trouble in the front engine, rear drive 323. Like a vigilant chaperone, the 323's exceptional handling outperforms the engine. Even on the standard 16-inch wheels and tires, you'll never be wanting for grip. You'd need about 40 more horsepower to break the wheels free on dry pavement. Equipped with BMW's Dynamic Stability Control, four-wheel ABS disc brakes and front and side airbags, the 3 Series convertible is as safe and steady a date as Ed Begley Jr. or Marie Osmond.
Want a little Brad Pitt or Tia Carrere? Click off the DSC and hit a twisty road. A word of warning, though: living in the fast lane creates a lust for super unleaded well beyond BMW's estimated fuel consumption figures. Though, if you've got this kind of money for a car, perhaps a date with a thirst for premium doesn't bother you.
The 3 Series convertible won't overwhelm you with unwelcome aural stimuli either. With the roof up, there's surprisingly little road and wind noise, though big truck engines and other loud sounds penetrate the cloth covering easily. With the top down, wind noise and buffeting are low for a convertible, making al fresco motoring pleasant in cool temps. Click on the heated seats and tune the electronic climate control to provide heat to your feet and you can still wave to jealous neighbors in comfort.
The optional 11-speaker Harmon Kardon sound system with in-dash CD player and subwoofer is sublime at medium to higher volumes, but it distorts when maxxed out. Steering wheel controls for the stereo, cruise and hands-free telephone are just part of BMW's trademark luxurious and considerate interior. Now, just so you don't think your new paramour is perfect, there are a few potential obstacles to complete love.
First, with the roof up, the cloth creates a blind spot at each rear corner about 30 inches wide. Next, BMW markets the 323 as a four-seat convertible. Well, not unless your rear passengers are little children or adults cursed with spaghetti legs will they have enough legroom in the rear. The rear is short haul or short people territory only. And last, there are times you might wish the 323Ci Convertible was a little faster. If that's enough to pass on a second date, you may want to look at the 330Ci Convertible, which sports a 3.0-liter, 225-horsepower engine. Of course, you'll have to pony up for those ponies - the 330 doesn't come cheap.
The 323 more than makes up for its lack of raciness with beauty, elegance, congeniality and luxurious comportment. And, if you choose the 323, maybe the fact that it hasn't been around the block too quickly will make your mother happy too.
Sounds like a match made in heaven.
-- by Neil Dunlop
Overall System Score: 5.5
Top Up Score: 6.0
Top Down Score: 5.0
Components. The system consists of an AM/FM head unit with 12 FM/six AM presets. It also includes a cassette player and a single-play CD. The radio is very widely spaced, and all the controls are easily available to the operator. As my notes say, "An exceptionally wide faceplate allows for easy man-machine interface." I also found the red-orange LED readout very visible, even in full sunlight with the top down. Overall, it's an attractive, feature-laden faceplate with great usability.
Speakerwise, the system offers some puzzling designs. A convertible always drives sound engineers crazy, since they lose the coveted back deck space (perfect for mounting speakers) to the convertible top. BMW has solved this (somewhat) by placing a two-way speaker setup into the rear quarter panel, which consists of a 4-inch midrange and a small tweeter. Unfortunately, this is a small space for a speaker to resonate within, and the resulting sound is less than spectacular. The front doors hold another two-way setup, this being a 6-inch mid-bass coupled to some nicely positioned tweeters in the upper doors.
Performance, Top Up. Overall, this system lacks a real solid sound quality. The midrange frequencies sound thin and muddled. For example, female vocals have decent definition, but they sound muted. Also, saxophone comes off as boxy and constrained. Things get a little better on the bottom end, with a rich and velvety string bass, and smooth strings throughout. As my notes say, "Bass is deep and rich, but a little sloppy." As with most BMW systems, the power amplifier is a little anemic and lacks juice. Also, even with the top up, the amp produces a fair amount of distortion at higher volume levels, causing the tweeters to get raspy and harsh. This is a sure precursor of more trouble when the cloth goes down. Top-Up Score: 6.0.
Performance, Top Down. Sure enough, with the folding down of the top, the system struggles to keep up. Bass is almost completely lost in the wind. The distortion problem, known as amplifier clipping, gets worse. Thank God for the excellently positioned tweeters, which allow the higher frequencies to cut through. It just seems this system needs a larger power amp to deal with fast top-down driving. And wasn't that what this car was made for?
Best Feature: Ergonomic faceplate.
Worst Feature: Weak power amplifier.
Conclusion. This audio system is just slightly above average, which doesn't jibe with the rest of the car. BMW continues to disappoint us in the audio area. Scott Memmer
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