It looks like a BMW. It handles like a BMW. And it performs like a BMW. Ergo, it must be a BMW.
But wait, it isn’t priced like a BMW — this vehicle sells for $26,400 MSRP.
Say hello to the 323i, BMW’s entry-level sports sedan.
BMW made its reputation in this category by building drivers’ cars. Over the years, it added the luxury cachet that has earned it an enviable position in the upscale market.
For BMW, the strategy of offering a designated entry-level car is clear: Sell a buyer on the 3-series and hope to have him or her move up to a 5- or 7-series down the road.
My move was a little different. After a week in the new Saab 9-3 Viggen (colleague Royal Ford promises a full road test of that soon), I jumped into the 323i and experienced culture shock. The difference in the driving feel from the front-wheel-drive Saab with its 200-horsepower 2-liter high-output turbocharged four to the Beemer with its 2.5-liter straight six and rear-wheel drive is obvious even to this auto-writing novice.
The rear-wheel drive lends a sedate feel, but once you throw it into a corner, the Beemer sticks like the road tar that always seems to coat my own car’s rocker panels.
Of course, this 323i was helped by the presence of bigger tires (225/50R-16 Dunlop Sport radials) — part of a $2,400 Sports package that adds the tires, stiffer suspension, nifty five-spoke wheels, fog lights, a multifunction leather sports wheel with fingertip audio, cruise control and telephone controls, and 10-way manually adjustable seats. (A word on the seats: comfortable.)
This brings us back to our starting point. Yes, it’s unmistakably BMW from its traditional vertically slatted cowl grille, recognizable roof line, and side “character lines.” New are the free-form headlight treatment and bigger wheel openings (for those bigger tires), and revamped-but-still-recognizable rear-deck treatment.
Certainly it handles like a BMW, especially with the above-mentioned sports suspension. Now here is where the “but” comes in. Money had to be saved someplace, and the most obvious is on interior accoutrements.
If you want the extra goodies, you have to pay. Add the Sports package ($2,400), metallic paint ($475), Xenon lights package ($500), and single-disc CD player ($200) and you’re hovering a few bucks below the $30,000 mark, $29,975 by my count. That’s the level where our test vehicle checked in.
Of course, I’d have liked to add a power moon roof ($1,050), onboard computer ($300), heated seats ($500), real leather instead of the tacky (by BMW standards) leatherette ($1,450), navigation system ($1,990), and upgraded sound system ($675). Total: $35,940. You get the picture. And you can call me Lord Plushbottom, because one does get spoiled by all these toys.
However, you get a lot for your money in the basic car.
Especially when you consider that the 323i is the vanguard of BMW’s redesign program for these 3- series cars. Coming are similar redesigns of the coupe and convertible. With BMW, buying early in the series means you might have a long relationship with your car because designs often last for eight years, and the marque has proven reliability.
The 323i’s 2.5-liter straight six definitely qualifies it as the little brother to the 2.8-liter six in the 328i. The 2.8 is slightly more powerful, slightly faster (0-60 in 6.6 as opposed to 7.1 seconds, according to manufacturer’s claims — it just didn’t seem that quick) and a little more expensive ($33,400 base).
But the 2.5-liter is adequate, with sufficient torque at low and medium engine speeds — familiar conditions indeed for us city-dwellers.
The 323i cleanly passed my off-hours commuting road tests.
It effortlessly hit 60 miles per hour coming off an on-ramp to merge smoothly onto Rte. 93. It also nicely handled Mass. Highway’s surprise lane shift where Rte. 93 north passes the Mass. Pike exit (if you can’ stay in your lane, your car flunks this test).
The BMW also charged straight through Mass. Highway’s across-the-grain bumps stretch that leads into the South Station Tunnel heading northbound. (Who says you need a hidden test track?)
This was a vehicle that lures you into taking the long way home or to drive an extra 50 miles for dinner. That tells me BMW has fulfilled its mission by continuing to provide driving pleasure.
The five-speed manual transmission’s gears are nicely spaced, and the clutch action is so smooth that you can engage first gear with no pressure on the accelerator pedal. Wind it up through the gears with the radio off and you catch a pleasingly understated whine from the drivetrain and exhaust.
The clutch is self-adjusting, a feature BMW promises will greatly extend clutch life and maintain continuity of performance. Finding reverse can be a challenge at first — until you become used to pushing through the spring-loaded gate.
Twenty-five years ago, only those in the country-club set knew the term Beemer (it was once excised from a Globe Sports section story in the ’70s because no one on the copy desk recognized it); now, BMW continues to appeal to the club set by boasting that the 323i’s trunk is “configured for two golf bags transversely; they don’t have to be positioned diagonally.”
If trunk room is good, front-seat space is sensational. A fair-minded person would say that some of that should be shared with the rear-seat occupants. There’s “some” space, but I wouldn’t want to be back there for an all-day trip with two other normal-sized folks.
I want to be up front at the wheel.
Because BMWs are all about driving. From the entry-level on up.