Not too long ago, the Lexus ES 300 emerged from a week of my not-so-tender mercies with the coveted Detroit Free Press four-steering-wheel rating, reserved for vehicles we judge to be best in their classes.

A few months after that, the 1999 Acura 3.2 TL came along. It was a preproduction model, so we couldn't award a rating. But I drove some production versions after that and walked away convinced that the new Acura has an edge on the Lexus and is arguably the best value among entry luxury sport sedans today.

And now here's the new BMW 328i.

Not as roomy or as quiet as the Lexus. Not as attractive a buy as the Acura, which comes loaded with extras.

But in terms of sheer driver gratification, the Lexus ES 300, Acura 3.2 TL and all the other cars in this class -- we're talking about some very attractive cars here -- just ain't in the hunt.

So how new is new? Considerably more than you might guess after a casual appraisal.

Even though the previous generation of 3-Series sedans dated to 1992 -- a long lifespan for an automotive design these days -- the new one doesn't look startlingly different.

The front end has been rounded a bit, similar to the 5-Series sedans, and there's a bit more arch to the roofline, but it takes a practiced eye to tell new from old.

The confusion will become more pronounced as new 328s populate showrooms, because coupe, convertible and high-performance M3 versions of the previous 3-Series body style will continue to be sold right alongside, an overlap that will take about a year to fully resolve.

Look for the new coupe to debut next spring, the convertible next summer and the various M3 models next fall.

In any case, BMW's designers just flat nailed the 3-Series look the last time around -- extremely short front overhang (the portion of the car extending beyond the front wheels), limited rear overhang, and a wide, aggressive stance. So there wasn't as much to do this time around.

Nevertheless, the word new really does apply here, starting right at ground level with the chassis. Although BMW hasn't made any radical departures from tradition, this is a new unitbody that's stiffer than its predecessor and bigger in every dimension.

The wheelbase, for example, has been stretched an inch to 107.3 inches. That's almost exactly the same as the Cadillac Catera, although the new Beemer is a foot and a half shorter than the Caddy.

That wheelbase-to-length ratio is the key to the BMW's tidy front overhang, and a long wheelbase is also helpful in achieving good ride quality -- more on that later.

Although the Beemer continues to be one of the smaller cars in this size, price and performance category, -- it's about four inches shorter than the ES 300 and almost 17 inches shorter than the Acura 3.2 TL -- it is nevertheless bigger than the car it replaces.

Overall length has increased by an inch and a half, width by 1.6 inches, and the curved roofline tops out almost an inch higher than in the previous model.

The track -- the width between the wheels -- has been increased even more, by 2.5 inches up front and 2.2 inches at the rear, which brings the wheel rims right out to the edges of the fender flares.

Even though the new 328 is taller than its predecessor, the wider track offsets the higher roofline, providing an even more action-ready appearance.

The practical net of all these dimensional increases is a little more living room inside, particularly behind the front seats, although rear seat legroom continues to be one of the very few so-so points for this smallish sedan versus its competitors.

However, there's a definite sense of increased elbow room, and you'd have to be equipped with exceptionally long lower limbs to find fault with the front seat legroom; this is one of the few cars with more front seat travel than I can actually use.

mething else that's been added to the new car is side air bags for front seat passengers, designed to provide a little extra protection for the head and chest.

All in all, you get more Beemer for your buck -- including, unfortunately, sheer mass.

Although BMW's redesign included a new aluminum-block version of the 328's 2.8-liter inline six-cylinder engine, the whole package weighs in about 60 pounds heavier than its predecessor.

I score any weight gain as a loss in the department of vehicle dynamics, but 60 pounds isn't much, and the truth is that it doesn't seem to slow this new car down at all.

Quite the contrary. The aluminum engine, enhanced by a new variable cam timing system that works on both the intake and exhaust camshafts, doesn't develop more peak horsepower, but its torque performance is distinctly improved, coming at very low engine speeds and maxing out at 3,500 r.p.m.

Since torque is what gets you launched when the light flashes the right color, the new Beemer is a smidge quicker to 60 m.p.h., getting there in 6.4 seconds. Pretty brisk.

I should add that the foregoing presumes a BMW equipped with a manual transmission, of course, a piece of equipment that's absent in most of the other cars competing in this class, including the ES300, Acura 3.2 TL, and Catera.

Is that important? Depends on who's scoring, of course, but to me, shifting for yourself is a key element of driver involvement, and I find it hard to take a vehicle calling itself a sport sedan seriously when it's automatic only.

In any case, BMW's excellent straight six obviously delivers gratifying propulsion, and -- a characteristic of the inline six-cylinder layout -- it's also supremely smooth.

However, I have to say that a number of V6 engines, the Lexus and Acura powerplants foremost among them, have pretty much rendered this long-standing straight-six advantage academic.

There's more to driving enjoyment than acceleration, of course, and that's where the new 328i really earns its pre-eminence in a class that's awash with temptations.

With its sharp reflexes and communicative, accurate steering, this new car -- like all BMWs -- enhances the sense of connection between driver and machine, which enhances the driver's sense of control, which is what sport sedans are all about.

I should add that this sense of athletic response and balance is not imposed at the cost of comfort.

Recent mainstream BMWs -- if that word ever really applies to these thoroughbreds -- have been noteworthy for their smooth ride quality, as well as their agility, a function of continuing chassis development and increasingly sophisticated shock absorber technology.

There's also some body roll in really extreme cornering conditions, because spring rates tailored for all-around comfort will inevitably be a tad soft for the demands of a race track. But in most if not all of the driving an owner i s likely to do on public roads, the 328's blend of ride and handling will probably rate as just this side of sublime.

And for those who want more authority, there's always the hard-edge M3 coupe and convertible.

Speaking of comfort, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention this car's bucket seats. Superb shape, plenty of adjustability, and outstanding lateral support. I wish BMW's seat supplier took care of the entire industry.

Of course, that's not really feasible, because seats such as these cost extra, something that applies to the entire car.

With a base price of $33,770, including destination charges, the standard 328i starts almost $700 higher than the previous version -- almost $4,000 more than an Acura 3.2 TL.

Leather seats ($1,450) and a $1,350 Sport package (slightly stiffer suspension, 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels, performance tires, sport seats) boosted the bottom line for my test car to $36,770.

You hardly need me to tell you that thi sn't cheap.

On the other hand, if you're willing to pay a bit of a premium to own the sport sedan that defines its segment, well, with the new BMW 328i, you get what you pay for.

SPECS

Rating: 4 wheels
Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-drive compact luxury sedan
Key competitors: Acura 3.2 TL, Audi A4 2.8, Cadillac Catera, Infiniti I30, Lexus ES 300, Mazda Millenia, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Saab 9-3
Base price: $33,770
Price as tested: $36,770
Standard equipment: ABS, traction control, dual front air bags, front seat side air bags, automatic climate control air-conditioning, AM-FM-cassette audio, power seats, power mirrors, power windows (one touch), cruise control, fog lamps, aluminum alloy wheels

Specifications:
(manufacturer's data)
Engine: 193-horsepower, 2.8-liter inline 6-cyl.
EPA fuel econ. 20 m.p.g. city 29 hwy.
Curb weight 3,197 pounds
Wheelbase 107.3 inches
Length 176.0 inches
Width 68.5 inches
Height 55.7 inches
Where assembled Munich, Germany