EXPERT REVIEW

KansasCity.com's view

Chris Bangle said it best. The new 3-series, he said, is the answer to this question: When the current car goes to bed at night, what kind of car does it dream of becoming?

It wants to be the ultimate sports sedan, he said, a car that says, “Drive me, don’t park me.”

Bangle, the 41-year-old American who is the design chief of BMW AG, whipped out sketches with a marker to illustrate his thoughts as he explained the genesis of this new model to journalists at a preview of the new model. This lanky, bearded designer has worked in Europe for 18 years and joined BMW in 1992 after being design director for Fiat.

The 328i and its kin, the 323i, have bloodlines that date back to the legendary 2002 model from the 1970s. They are an evolution of the current model because it was necessary to keep the car’s basic “3-ness” intact, Bangle said. He affirmed that redesigning an icon is difficult and requires great care.

So, what you see here is a car whose wheelbase is, in Bangle’s words, about a “thumb-width,” or one inch, longer. Overall length and width are both increased by about 1.6 inches. It sits more securely on the road with a track that is 2.6 inches wider.

The goals for the new car, according to Dr. Walter Ziebart, 3-series director, were as follows: to make it once again the ultimate driving machine, to make it the best in passive safety and to make it the best value for the money.

The 323i, which replaces the former 318i, starts at $26,970, only $250 more than the 318i. It has a 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter 6-cylinder engine.

The 328i begins at $33,970, $300 higher than the current 328i. Its 2.8-liter, 6-cylinder engine has 193 horsepower.

The 328i will begin showing up in dealer showrooms during August, followed about a month later by the 323i.

In terms of safety, the new 3-series has front, side and head-protection airbags. The head-protection system is a tube-like airbag that inflates across the window to protect the head in side impacts. Rear-seat side-impact airbags are optional.

In terms of driving, I spent the better part of a day and 200 miles behind the wheel of two different 328’s, one with the sport package and one with the premium package. BMW did not provide a 323i for comparison. The 7-spoke, 17-inch wheels of the sport package fill the fenders and create a wide-stance, road-hugging look. The suspension is firm and well-controlled, yet it doesn’t pummel the passengers with a harsh ride on rough and uneven pavement.

I expected the standard suspension to be noticeably softer, but it wasn’t.

One of the main complaints relative to the current 3-series is lack of rear-seat legroom. The longer wheelbase helps alleviate that complaint, and rear legroom is better, although incrementally.

A new one-piece dash, which looks much like that of the current 5-series, goes a long way toward eliminating a source of squeaks and rattles. The instruments reside in a large semi-circular hood that shelter s them nicely from reflection.

Switches for power windows and locks are mounted on the console, but to me, mounting them on the doors would be more intuitive.

Both cars I drove had leather seats. On the car with the sport package, a bright silver strip adorned the dash. The premium package, however, used wood, which looked warmer and richer. Fortunately, the 328i can be specified with both premium and sport packages, should that be your desire, whereas the 323i can only be equipped with one or the other.

The 2.8-liter, in-line 6-cylinder is now equipped with infinitely adjustable timing for both intake and exhaust camshafts. Called Double VANOS, this system broadens the engine’s power band, enabling it to pull strongly at low speeds or scream up to high rpms with equal fervor. It snarls up to speed so easily, and sits so firmly on the road, that it redefines your sensation of speed.

All of the cars we drove were equipped with 5-speed manual transmissions, but a brand-n 5-speed automatic is optional.

BMW brakes have always been first rate, but the ones on the new model are now ventilated front and rear. Of course, anti-lock is standard, but so is a new feature called Cornering Brake Control (CBC). CBC keeps the vehicle stable when the brakes are applied in a turn.

Both the 323i and 328i have all-season traction control standard, as well.

Until I get to spend a whole week with a test car I will reserve final judgment, but based on my one-day’s drive I have to say that BMW has been successful at expanding the 328i’s envelope while keeping its core qualities intact. And, they did it without a significant price increase.

That’s a tough job. Kudos all around.

Price
The base price of a 328i is $33,970, including freight. Equipped with options of metallic paint, leather seats and the sport package, the sticker price is $37,245.

Warranty
The standard warranty is for four years or 50,000 miles.

SPECIFICATIONS:
ENGINE: 2.8-liter, 6-cyl.
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed
WHEELBASE: 107.3 inches
CURB WEIGHT: 3,197 lbs.
BASE PRICE: $33,970
PRICE AS DRIVEN: $37,245
MPG RATING: 20 city, 29 hwy.

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