Remember those little Beemers of the early-to-mid-'80s: They were petite boxes on wheels that became a status symbol for those just on the cusp of making it in the halcyon days of Reaganomics? I always viewed them as BMW's not-very-good answer to the surge of Saab and the endurance of Volvo. They weren't really an enthusiast's car but were more a rig built for those who wanted to at least play the enthusiast when pulling up for valet parking. Thankfully, they evolved. Got more powerful. Got better engines. Stayed boxy until recently, but nevertheless became better cars. Cars even an enthusiast could appreciate. So now comes the 323Ci, in a new generation that is the biggest of the little Beemers, a roomy, comfortable, rounded re-entry into the convertible field. And with it, BMW has built a car to run enthusiastically with the convertibles from Volvo and Saab. Own one of these and you're driving more than just a badge. Those 1980s Beemerettes, frankly, were not very plush inside. Lots of plastic, thin seats, noisy. Things change. In the 323Ci, the four seats are all deep buckets with great support beneath the butt and legs, lateral protection at the sides and up the seatback, and comfortable headrests. With leather and nice touches of wood, there is a sense of luxury you should expect in a BMW. And with that, you get lots of room. Wide seats, wide tunnels for the legs up front, great space between legs and the rear of the front seats for those in back. This is all because this is a longer car than the little Beemers used to be. But long and open-topped can pose problems with ride, given greater risk of torsional bending, and that is a price you pay to a minor extent with this car. It's set up with independent struts, coil springs, and antiroll bar up front, with the rear being independent suspension with a trailing arm and two lateral links on each side, coil springs, and antiroll bar. This combination does a good job of maintaining a smooth ride straight ahead over bumps and through smooth lane transitions. On sharper corners at high speeds, however, there is a distinct sensation of body twist - I swear I could see it in a shiver in the driver's side windshield post. It doesn't mean it handles badly. It just means you need to know what you are driving. And what that is is a car meant for smooth travel, top down, in some luxury. The engine is an in-line six-cylinder with chain-driven DOHC and four valves per cylinder. It delivers 170 horsepower and gave me just under 22 miles per gallon of gasoline in more than a week of driving. Again, it's not about performance, although it does whisk you smoothly along the highway once you are up to speed. But given what seems to be an increasing demand for horsepower and performance - and many companies stepping up to deliver just that even in cars that cost much less than this one - this car, with this engine, may find itself lagging on the h orsepower/torque curve. The stability control system, standard fare now, takes away too much verve from this rear-wheel-drive car. Step on it from a stop and it feels as if it is bogging the Beemer down. Turn the stability control off and you get a better feel for the car (though the stability control will certainly be good in snow). Shifting up and down was classic, clicking BMW, smooth and authoritative. It is certainly a unit that could handle more torque. And like the five-speed tranny, the brakes were solid German engineering, bringing the car to sudden, straight stops with no sense of drift, no dive at the nose. The roof - electrically controlled - took only seconds to raise and lower and the hard cover that dropped over the lowered roof gave the car a great look of class. For safety in a droptop, round rollover bars spring from the rear headrests when sensors determine the car has tipped too far. If you're looking for zip and spunk, this is probably t the car for you. If you're looking for subtle luxury, a stable ride, and quality engineering, then it very well could be just that. Drive the Volvo and Saab droptops, and then decide. Nice touch: - The scratchless glass rear window. No more etched or fogged plastic. Annoyance: - Too much convertible material back at the C-pillar. The view is blocked in a disconcerting way.
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