Mention BMW automobiles, and you generally get one of two reactions: a curled-lip sneer from those who consider them symbolic of yuppie excess, or a happy nod from those who know them as athletic, enjoyable cars for people who like to drive.
Either way, BMW’s latest arrival in its 3-series family of compact cars should give both the critics and admirers reason to pause.
The fans can rejoice that the new 323is coupe and convertible come standard with a free-revving six-cylinder engine, ditching the previous models’ four-cylinder that was high on economy but low on spunk. And the coupe version, BMW notes, is the lowest-priced six-cylinder model the Bavarian automaker has offered in five years.
Ah, but there’s something for the yuppie-baiters, too. While BMW touts the value and affordability of its new spawn, there are those lurking among us who consider its nearly $30,000 base price tag just a bit much for a compact car.
But let’s chuck the political issues and get right to the point: The new coupe is a fast, fun, maneuverable, sporting little car that upholds BMW’s long-held image as a builder of thoroughbred machinery.
The 323 is also a practical, sturdy coupe with a supple ride that feels just as slick on a grocery run or commuting to work as it does on a stretch of winding desert blacktop.
The 2.5-liter, in-line six is an all-new engine for BMW, derived from the 2.8-liter version in the pricier 328 models. It’s made smaller by shortening the stroke, creating an engine with less oomph than the 190-horsepower 328 or the blistering 240-horse M3, but with better gas mileage and, of course, a lower cost.
For those wondering why the model number doesn’t match up with the 2.5-liter-engine specs, in BMW’s normal practice, the company didn’t want any confusion with the older 325 models or its previous 2.5-liter engine.
In the new coupe, the engine really feels more powerful than it is, delivering smooth, stirring performance that soars up to red line in a howling rush. Low-end torque is a bit lame, but that brief disappointment is forgotten once the tach needle climbs and the power builds.
Zero-to-60 time is just 7.1 seconds, fast enough for most drivers other than stoplight drag racers.
The well-balanced straight-six also is a far cry from the anemic 138-horsepower delivered by the 1.9-liter, four-cylinder engine, used in the 318ti hatchback and the 318i sedan. The latter cars are on a more practical mission than the 323 coupe, which needs to perform as well as it looks.
Strongly evident in the coupe is BMW’s customary handling prowess, flat and predictable in sharp corners and well-balanced in curves. BMW made its reputation with four-seater hardtops that maneuvered like sports cars, and the 323 carries on the tradition.
Our tester was equipped with the Sport Package, including a tighter suspension, spiffy alloy wheels, performance tires and fog lights. Despite being stiffer than standard, the sport susp ension remains supple enough to handle rough surfaces without punishing the occupants. That option package came in just under $1,000, as did the power sunroof.
The steering is particularly nice, seamless and direct with immediate response to all inputs, while imparting a good sense of what’s going on under the wheels.
A bit more subjective is the overall feeling of accommodation and civilized design, a sort of seamless, sophisticated behavior on the road coupled with the refined fit and finish of the dashboard and other interior bits.
This car is a pleasure to drive — one of those well-crafted creatures that quickly feels like an extension of yourself.
The styling is understated but well-proportioned and stylish, with BMW’s familiar flared-nostril front, followed by sleek, nicely sculpted flanks, all looking quite aggressive and poised for action.
Inside, you’llfind a businesslike interior in basic black that’s handsome and functional, with nice propo rtions and a feeling of quality and sturdiness. The front seats are roomy, but those folding themselves into the back seats need to remember that this is a coupe, not a sedan, and rear passengers are strictly an afterthought.
One aspect of the interior that seems out of place in a $30,000 automobile is the Leatherette (read: fake leather) surfaces on the seats. Some decent cloth upholstery would be preferable, especially in the summer, rather than coping with some hot, sticky petroleum product. The leather on the steering-wheel rim and shifter is genuine cow.
The 323is I drove came with a five-speed stick shift, an excellent change of pace in this season of automatics hyped up with various manual shifting systems. A 323 with an automatic would be a waste, thwarting the engine power and turning this fine-driving little coupe into just another trophy to show off to your friends and neighbors.
It would put the coupe solidly in the camp of the yuppie-baiters, rather than those who know a great driving little car when they feel one.
1998 BMW 323is
Vehicle type: Four-passenger, two-door coupe, rear-wheel drive. Base price: $28,700. Price as tested: $31,685. Engine: 2.5-liter in-line six, 168 horsepower at 5,500 rpm, 181 pounds-feet of torque at 3,950 rpm. Transmission: Five-speed stick shift. Curb weight: 3,075 pounds. Length: 174.5 inches. EPA fuel economy: 20 city, 30 highway. Highs: Slick performance. Engine power. Overall quality. Lows: Premium price. Fake-leather seats. Low-end torque lapse.