A recent survey showed that an increasing number of former new-car buyers are now purchasing used iron because the freshly minted stuff has gotten so expensive.
Clearly, affordability remains a serious issue for the auto industry. Clearly, we lowly W-2 schlubs need a champion.
And so, into the breach in our hour of need comes the caped crusader from Munich, Bayerische Motoren Werke.
BMW feels our pain, empathizes with our suffering. It knows how tough it is for us working stiffs to plunk down $33,200 for a 328is.
This is why it has come up with a more affordable version of the 328is called the 323is. The 323is weighs in at a mere $28,700, not including shipping. That price tag, BMW proudly informs us, makes the 323is the cheapest six-cylinder 3-Series car since 1993.
Hallelujah. Praises be. Wheels for the masses.
Seriously, taking $4,500 out of a $33,200 window sticker isn’t going to put a chicken in every pot and a Bimmer in every garage. But it doubtlessly will make owning a six-cylinder 3-car possible for people who otherwise would have to make do with one of BMW’s anemic four-cylinder models. And it probably will mean some more 3-car sales for the Bimmeranians.
The chief difference between the 328 and the 323 (which is available as a convertible as well as the sport coupe I tested) is engine size and power. The 328 engine displaces 2.8 liters and develops 190 horsepower. The 323 six’s shorter stroke takes the displacement and power down to 2.5 liters and 168 horses.
That means the 323 isn’t as fast as the 328, but it’s still lively enough to be fun. The acceleration numbers make the point: The 323’s 0-to-60 time of 7.1 seconds is a half-second slower than the 328. But it is still brisk business, and a world faster than the 318i. The latter, an entry-level machine powered by a 138-horsepower four with a distinct kennel cough, wheezes to 60 mph in a wake-me-when-it’s-over 9.3 seconds.
In addition to being able to get out of its own way when the light changes, the 323is, like its more muscular sibling, is a delight to drive.
The car handles beautifully, for openers. It stays flat and composed in a fast corner, and it goes where you point it. And there is no vertabrae-pounding trade-off for that athleticism. The ride is a European union of the firm and the comfortable, and remains unpunishing on bumpy pavement.
The car’s steering is another pleasure. It is responsive, precise and allows excellent driver rapport with the front wheels. You are always receiving accurate reports of what the front wheels are doing for amusement.
Beyond those obvious handling attributes is a more subtle BMW trademark. There is something very seamless and cohesive about the way BMWs work. People who enjoy cars find a certain sweetness in that.
The 3-car’s styling is also satisfying stuff. It is conservative, yet distinctive. Interesting, yet a paragon of clean design.
The interior is an exercise in clean, gra ceful design, and those aesthetics are joined by good functionality. The gauges are easy to read, and the various controls fall readily to hand.
On one hand, the test car’s leather-look vinyl upholstery is a rather jarring note in a car priced in ThirtyGrandLand. But it also is a good-looking leatherette that I much prefer to some of the velours I’ve seen in near-luxury cars like this.
In addition to the usual BMW social cachet and athleticism, the 323is possesses a comprehensive array of safety gear. The car’s front air bags are complemented by side-mounted ones for both the driver and front passenger. The seat belts are fitted with automatic tensioners, and the car is equipped with an impact sensor that unlocks the doors and turns on the interior and hazard lights in the event of an accident.
Assembled in Regensburg, Germany, the 323is boasts excellent fit and finish. Its equipment list is generous.
Fuel economy (it has EPA mileage ratings of 19 city and 27 highway) so-so.
Base vehicle: Rear-drive, 2.5-liter engine, five-speed manual transmission, variable-assist power steering, power disc brakes, antilock braking system, traction control, 15-inch alloy wheels, P205/60R15 all-season radials, full-size spare, driver and passenger front and side air bags, seat belt tensioners, accident impact sensor, theft deterrent system, heated power mirrors, car-speed controlled intermittent wipers, dual climate control, stereo/cassette player, central locking, power windows, split-fold rear seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift, cruise control, outside thermometer, service interval indicator.
Test model: Automatic transmission, fog lights.
Base price: $28,700
Test model: $30,505 (inc. shipping)
EPA city rating: 19
Test mileage: 19.8
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles bumper-to-bumper; three years/ 36,000 miles of free scheduled maintenance, and roadside assistance.