EXPERT REVIEW

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I’m going to do two things in this review to try to keep from looking stupid to BMW fans. I’m not going to call the cars “Beamers,” and I promise to try to keep the term “V-6” completely out of the article (BMW doesn’t have one).

Having said that, I must add this disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of BMWs, and I don’t come close to knowing as much about them as you aficionados. You who love these machines with a passion will have read all about the redesigned 3-series sedans in the car-buff books, so you’ll just be reading this out of curiosity. Please look the other way and chuckle quietly if I make a gaffe.

This review isn’t intended for you. It’s for folks who don’t know much about BMWs and who might want to learn a little about the 1999 328i sedan so they could add it to their shopping list when they go car-hunting this weekend.

For 1999, BMW has redesigned only the sedans in the 3-series. The coupe and convertible models carry over basically unchanged from last year. The last major 3-series redesign, in 1992, brought the E36 cars. The new sedans are designated E46 models.

There are two new 3-series sedans for 1999, and both have inline six-cylinder engines. The base 323i (list price $26,400) has a 2.5-liter engine, and the uplevel 328i (list price $33,400) has a 2.8-liter powerplant.

Although these sedans represent a new generation of the 3-series, BMW has taken a gentler approach to changes than it did when the E36 series was introduced seven years ago. The body is new, but it still looks much like its predecessor. BMW describes the changes as an “evolution” rather than a “revolution.”

The 3-series literature says the design “is not trendy,” because if it were, “it could not stay fresh” during the average eight years that a BMW design is expected to stay on the market. Of course, the other consideration is that radically changing the design of a luxury car immediately outdates the previous generation, making a whole bunch of loyal owners spitting mad.

That’s the reason most luxury-car makers seldom make radical changes from generation to generation. BMW owners should recognize the differences in the new 3-series sedans, but those differences will be transparent to the rest of the population.

“Refinements” to the E46 body include a grille similar to those of the 7- and 5-series models. It is set into the hood, and “sweeps right down to the front bumper,” to use BMW’s description. And I love this part: “At the same time, the grille now thrusts farther forward to symbolize the way this car moves ahead … ” Puh-leeeze!

Changes have been made in the headlights, the roof line is longer, and wheel arches are larger to incorporate bigger wheels (16-inch in the 328i and 17-inch in the 328i Sport models).

The engines have had “enhancements” but aren’t radically different from last year’s. The four-cylinder engine is no longer available in a 3-series sedan, and that’s great news. The four-cylinder is just too anemic for a BMW. (That was a change made last year, which leaves the 318ti coupe as the only four-cylinder BMW on the market).

Changes in the engines include a new, lighter aluminum cylinder block, a new variable valve timing system, a thermoplastic intake manifold, newly configured fuel injectors, and electronically controlled engine cooling.

Our test car, the 328i Sport model, came with a five-speed manual transmission. That gearbox is basically unchanged from the previous year, but there is a new self-adjusting clutch for 1999. A brand-new five-speed automatic transmission is available, but if you’re going to buy a BMW to have some fun driving it, why bother with an automatic?

With the manual transmission, the 328i goes from zero to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds. With the automatic, that climbs to 7.2 seconds. Top speed is electronically limited to 128 mph.

Road handling is typical BMW: These cars like curves, and they show it.

The new body is more rigid than before, and I believe ride comfort has improved slightly. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. BMWs in this class never have had a true luxury feel, because they are designed to be drivers’ cars, not passengers’ cars. These are among the few cars left that retain a feel for the road through the steering wheel and suspension system, rather than keeping the driver fully insulated in a cushy package. If BMW ever changes that, the company will be in trouble.

This isn’t a roomy car; the EPA designates it a compact based on its 90-cubic-foot interior volume. The front bucket seats are comfortable enough, but it’s difficult to get into and out of this car, and the rear seat is not really suited to full-size adults. The trunk holds just 10.7 cubic feet of stuff.

The brakes have been extensively upgraded, BMW says, because company engineers weren’t satisfied with those of the previous-generation cars. The discs are now ventilated front and rear, and a new system called “electronic brake proportioning” has been introduced to even out the braking pressure on all four wheels. That helps overcome the tendency of a vehicle to put the majority of braking pressure on its front wheels when the brakes are applied. In most cars, because the weight of the vehicle shifts to the front while stopping, the front brakes do about 70 percent of the work.

Standard features on the 328i include four-wheel anti-lock brakes, all-season traction control, speed-sensitive power steering, dual front and side air bags for the front occupants, automatic climate control, keyless entry, anti-theft AM/FM/cassette stereo with 10 speakers (prewired for compact disc changer), six-way power front seats, power windows and door locks, cruise control, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.

Our car came with the gray leather interior package ($1,450), titanium silver metallic paint ($475), and the sport package ($1,350), which included 17-inch star-spoke alloy wheels, as well as the sport suspension, steering wheel and seats.

Total price of the test vehicle was $37,245 (including $570 transportation charge).

EPA fuel-economy ratings are highly respectable: 20 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway. The tank holds 16.6 gallons, and premium fuel is recommended.

BMW 328I SPORT SEDAN

THE PACKAGE: Compact, four-door, five-passenger, inline-six-cylinder powered, rear-drive sedan, completely redesigned for 1999.

HIGHLIGHTS: Changes are subtle, but the front end now looks more like a 5- or 7-series BMW. Road handling and pickup are excellent. The car looks great.

NEGATIVES: Tight fit through the doors for front and rear passengers; back seat and trunk space are limited.

MAJOR COMPETITORS: Saab 9-3, Mercedes C280, Acura 3.0 CL, Audi A4, Lexus GS 300, Mazda Millenia S.

EPA FUEL ECONOMY: 20 miles per gallon city, 29 highway.

BASE PRICE: $3 3,400 plus $570 transportation.

PRICE AS TESTED: $37,245, including transportation.

ON THE ROAD RATING: B-plus.

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