1999 BMW 328 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Your passengers don't need to know how much fun you're having.
Ask a dozen professional auto critics to name their favorite sedan in the mid-$30,000 price range, and you won't get a dozen answers. A large percentage of those critics -- maybe a half, maybe two thirds -- will say the BMW 328i.
Sure, the critics are biased. They tend to put a high priority on performance, and BMW's 3 Series has always performed. The 328i's stock in trade is a sporting flair that few if any comparably priced sedans can match. For the price, the 328i comes about as close as you can get to a sports car with four doors.
But in today's competitive marketplace, 'sport' isn't enough. So with its redesigned 1999 model, BMW tried to make the 3 Series more comfortable for passengers. The new 328i is roomier, smoother and quieter than ever. Indeed, BMW has done such a good job making the 328i a pleasant place to spend time that a few of those critics might say the car has gotten a little too refined. Yet they'll still tell you it's their favorite sedan for the money.
The 3 Series is the smallest of BMW's three sedan lines. Over the next two years the company will roll out coupes, convertibles and an M3 -- the true hot rod of compact sedans -- based on the new 3 Series chassis. But for now the range is limited to two four-doors models: the 323i, with a revised 2.5-liter, 170-horsepower inline six-cylinder engine, and the more luxuriously equipped 328i, with 2.8 liters displacement and 193 horsepower. At a base price of $26,970, the 323i doesn't give up much to its more expensive sibling. But for the full-force kick in the backside that 3 Series owners love, the 328i (Base Price (MSRP) $33,875) is the way to go.
The 1999 3 Series is slightly larger than the '98 models. Its wheelbase is 1 inch longer, while its overall length has increased 1.5 inches, and its track nearly 3 inches. In practical terms, the change is most obvious in the cabin. Interior volume has increased 5 cubic feet, and the extra space translates into more rear leg and shoulder room. The 328i is now roomier than competitors such as the Mercedes-Benz C-Class or the Audi A4, according to the government's 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.
The styling is a fresh turn on a classic look. The traditional quad headlamps are enclosed in aerodynamic covers; the roofline is longer, and more gracefully integrated into the rear deck. Fitting a higher level of refinement throughout the car, the 328i looks a little more elegant, although its appearance is as striking as ever.
Along with standard front and front side-impact airbags, the 3 Series gets 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 -- a perk often reserved for more expensive cars.
The most frequent complaints about the old 328i centered on its Spartan interior, which, for the money, looked just a little too cheap. A new two-tone finish addresses that complaint. The dashboard and door panels are richer in appearance, and much more appealing to the eye. Different trim packages offer a choice of Myrtle wood inserts or plastic that looks like polished aluminum. The instrument panel still features the orange backlighting BMW enthusiasts swear by.
In design, the dashboard is less directly focused on the driver, and opened more toward the front passenger. Still, all the switches fall intuitively to the driver's fingertips. In short order, the audio and cruise control buttons on the steering-wheel hub become second nature to operate. The only real source of gripes is the shallow cupholders in the center console; they seem more like an afterthought for the North American market than a thoughtfully designed tool.
All '99 3 Series models feature most of the conveniences, including power windows and locks with remote keyless entry. Automatic climate control and a microfilter ventilation system are standard, and the 328i offers BMW's Park Distance Control for the first time. With an electronic beep, this system warns the driver of low objects that might be invisible from the cabin during parking maneuvers.
The 328i's standard seats are very good, providing fine support without feeling hard. The sport seats that come with the optional Sport Package are superb, adding more side bolstering for the hard driving this BMW thrives on. The back seat is roomy enough for two adults during a night on the town (three in a pinch), but bear in mind that this sedan is a compact. If rear cabin space is a priority, you can find more for the same money elsewhere.
Hang on, because it's the driving that makes the 328i worth the price of admission. BMW's straight six engines have always been among the world's best, and the one in the 328i is so smooth and free-revving that you'll probably want to keep it spinning near its 6200-rpm redline all day long. Yet for all its high-rev power, the 328i is surprisingly strong at lower engine speeds. BMW's new Double VANOS variable-valve timing means plenty of torque -- the power that makes a car jump when you hit the gas -- from idle to the far end of the tachometer.
Reverse on the 328i's manual shifter lies to the left of first gear, and it's a little too easy to engage reverse when you want first at a stop light. Beyond that, gear changing is a smooth, satisfying operation, and, boy, is this sedan fast. The 328i hits 60 mph from a stop in 6.4 seconds, making it a benchmark in its class.
The 328i is a very stiff car, in the instance where 'stiff' describes a rigid body that feels like it's carved from a single piece of granite. The stiff structure allows very little irritating vibration into the 328i's cabin, and even less in the way of squeaks and rattles. It also allows the suspension to work at its best.
As a result, the 328i delivers steering response that's more in line with a true sports car than the typical sedan. It handles curves with aplomb, and keeps its composure, always gripping, through the most aggressive cornering maneuvers. It also has two BMW trademarks polished to a luster: brakes that stop the car right now, and a high level of ride comfort for its cornering capabilities. The ride is anything but stiff. It's firm and well controlled, to be sure, but the 328i is never rough or jarring over typical bumps or potholes.
Enthusiast drivers prefer rear-wheel drive because, in a car with a good power-to-weight ratio like the 328i, they can actually steer the car by sending a burst of power to the back wheels. The payback for this added element of control can be a skittish rear end on slick surfaces, or a condition known as oversteer. Fortunately, the 328i's electronic traction control takes the stress out of wet or snowy conditions by automatically controlling rear-wheel spin for the driver.
One of the best things about the 328i is that passengers can ride in smooth, quiet comfort, nearly oblivious to the great time the driver is having.
The 328i offers a combination that's increasingly rare in sedans selling between $30,000 and $40,000: rear-wheel drive and an available manual transmission. That's the package true driving enthusiasts prefer, and BMW's commitment to this combination speaks volumes about the company's priorities.
Other cars in this price range surpass the 328i in significant areas. The Oldsmobile Aurora has far more room inside. The Lexus ES 300 is smoother, and as quiet as an attack submarine in stealth mode. The Acura TL has more equipment for less cash, and Audi's A4 offers the all-season advantages of all-wheel drive. Yet with a thorough redesign for the 1999 model year, BMW has closed the gap in areas where the 328i previously fell short, and eliminated any discrepancy in others. A 3 Series owner won't give up much of anything to be entertained by a true sports sedan.
If driving satisfaction is a top priority, the 328i should top your shopping list.
Options As Tested
Sport package (includes sport suspension, 245/45R-17 performance tires, sport seats and steering wheel, $1,350), black leather interior ($1,450), titanium silver metallic paint ($475).
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