Versus the competiton:
Evolution, not revolution, best describes the new version of BMW’s highly popular 328i.
There was no need for BMW to make drastic changes to this car, which can trace its roots to the classic BMW 2002 of the 1970s. That car, you may remember, firmly established the sports sedan in America.
Of all European automakers, BMW may be in the best position. Its vehicles are synonymous with performance. Its brand image is pure. Say BMW and you automatically think of fast, well-made cars that handle superbly.
The new 328i carries on that tradition. What few rough edges were present in the old model have been addressed in the new one.
BMW engineers stuck with the Bavarian automaker’s traditional inline arrangement for the 2.8-liter, six-cylinder engine, but almost everything else changed.
The motor in the 1999 328i weighs less and makes more power — a double shot of muscle. The cylinder block is made of aluminum and weighs 51 pounds less than the cast iron block in the 1998 model.
A new intake system and variable valve timing (which ensures that the engine runs at peak efficiency at all speeds) boosts horsepower to 193, up from 190. That might not sound like much of an increase, but don’t forget that the engine weighs less, so it has less work to do. Expect a 0-to-60 mph time of about 6.5 seconds.
Our test car sported a five-speed manual transmission — the best choice for any BMW. Because the car is so solid and well-made, you are tempted to doubt the speedometer. The engine runs smoothly and quietly — but not so much that you can’t detect any sensation from under the hood.
I contend that the precise whisper of the engine and the smooth meshing of European gears give the BMW a bit of character. For those of us who love the mechanical underpinnings of cars, shutting down the radio and listening to the drivetrain is a mechanical symphony just as satisfying as music.
Acceleration is strong and linear, with no peaks and valleys of power. Several times I revved the engine — unintentionally — into the red zone on the tachometer. The electric rev limiter cut in and forced me to ease off on the throttle. But that’s the thing about the new 328i. It is so refined that you can overdo it if you don’t pay attention to the instruments.
T he gearbox is easy to shift. The clutch pedal is fairly light. Because the engine makes so much power, it pulls strongly in all gears, so you may not have to shift as often. The 328i was not tiresome to drive in Orlando’s miserable traffic.
As for the suspension system, the four-wheel independent layout remains the same. But once again, BMW engineers made a series of small refinements. Some parts are made of aluminum instead of steel, and the width between the front wheels has been increased about three inches, making the car more stable during cornering.
To me the 1999 328i feels a bit softer than the old model — not that that’s a bad thing. The handling prowess isn’t affected. In the 328i, you can still punch through a tight curve as fast as you dare. The ca r doesn’ t lean much, and the power-assisted, rack-and-pinion steering is quick and tight.
Four-wheel, anti-lock disc brakes are standard. In the past, I have raved about BMW’s brakes. But this time, they didn’t feel as potent as I expected. In fact, the anti-lock system seemed to engage a tad too soon, and the car took a long time to come to a halt on the dirt road and on the grass field where I tested the brakes.
Fit and finish
Those paying attention to BMW know the company has been in turmoil recently.
BMW’s British subsidiary, the Rover Group, has been losing hundreds of millions of dollars. Earlier this year, Rover’s massive losses cost BMW’s chief and his lieutenant their jobs.
I couldn’t help but wonder if that influenced the content — make that lack of content — in the 328i. Plastic inserts, bordering on tacky, were installed on the dash, door panels and console where wood inlays were intended.
It’s as if some BMW cost cutter came in and said nein to the wood panels at the last minute. Now if you want wood, you have to ante up an additional $500.
I also recall that BMWs used to have little motors in the doors that would raise the windows slightly when the doors were closed. This feature sealed the windows against the body extra tightly and closed out wind and road noise. The little motors are gone too. And I never thought I’d see a $36,000 BMW without a sunroof. That’s now a $1,050 option.
This is not to say that the 328i comes poorly equipped. It still has a very long list of power accessories and luxury features. But I’d be willing to wager that many drivers would trade the power memory seats for a standard sunroof.
The leather bucket seats were firm, almost painfully so. They don’t flex much when you sit down — but that’s good. When you sink into a seat, blood circulation is impeded and muscle fatigue is the result. After several long trips, I never felt any stress or strain from BMW’s seats.
The 1999 328i has a bit more interior room in the back. It may be BMW’s smallest sedan, but average-sized adults will be able to travel in comfort.
Up front, BMW’s interior designers have simplified the dash a bit. I can clearly remember sitting in previous BMWs and feeling totally lost because my senses were bombarded with dozens of switches, buttons and controls. This time around, all you have to contend with are the push buttons for the air conditioner and the radio.
The analog gauges never seem to change. They look the same as they always have, white numbers on a black background. I guess any attempt at flashiness here would make it appear that BMW was trying to be trendy.
I’ve said that I feel BMW and Toyota make the best cars. But a Toyota has not been a wallet-buster come maintenance time. However, BMW has made strides to take the sting out of routine maintenance.
Oil change intervals have been lengthened, the clutch is self-adjusting, spark plugs can go 100,000-miles between changes and the optional five-speed automatic transmission has fluid that never needs changing. A ll other scheduled maintenance is paid for by BMW for three years or 36,000 miles.
The 328i is loaded with safety features, including side-impact air bags and traction control. If you’ve owned a 3-Series BMW before, the new model will be familiar and comfortable. If not, expect to experience a car with superb engineering, classy styling and best-inclass quality.
1999 BMW 328i
Base price: $33,400. Safety: Dual front and side air bags, anti-lock brakes, traction control and side-impact protection. Price as tested: $36,495. EPA rating: 19 mpg city/27 mpg highway. Incentives: None.