The BMW 3 series has been called the archetype of the sport sedan, a concept invented by the German automaker more than 30 years ago and since copied by everyone from Mazda to Mercedes. So you can imagine the excitement at the debut of BMW’s all-new, fifth-generation 3-series sedan (we drove the 1999 328i, one of two new models).
However, the $37,245 sticker on our test car may disappoint those with high aspirations and no cash to back it up. And the car may not appeal to those who prefer their sedans slightly more warm and fuzzy.
She: The BMW 328i is like automotive castor oil. I know it’s good for me, but I don’t like it. I especially don’t like it where it hurts the most – in the cabin, where you’ve got to feel at home or you’re in trouble. I’m sorry, but that stark black look with the chunky aluminum-finish metal strip wrapped around the instrument panel is off-putting. I look at it and think “operating room.” Or maybe one of those new stainless steel, barren kitchens Martha Stewart is touting – you know, the ones where it’s tacky if you’ve got a cookie jar or a pepper mill on the counter.
He: Thank you. You basically just made my point for me. I look around the BMW’s cabin and I think “Thank God, not another chick car.” I mean, this is truly a man’s car, from the simple and subtle aluminum-on-black theme to such basic elements as the purposeful five-speed shifter and firm sport bucket seats. There are few frills in the 328i, and certainly nothing like you’d find on most domestic luxury cars or such faux luxury vehicles as the Lincoln Navigator. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a stunning ride, with the emphasis on performance, it’s pretty tough to beat the new 3 series.
She: It certainly is a man’s car, because no woman who’s ever been relegated to the Siberia of the front passenger side would neglect to include separate climate controls. I rest my case.
He: I think I would have really barfed if the BMW engineers would have added something goofy like a hook for your purse. I don’t think the 3 series pretends to be a luxury car, a family car, or anything other than what it really is, and that’s just a great sport sedan. In this price range, tell me what else comes close.
She: I’m so glad you brought up price, because I read the auto guys writing about what a great value the new 3 series is and I have to laugh. A great value is my friend, Bud, who just e-mailed me that he bought a used school bus for a couple hundred bucks. Go ahead, make the case that a sedan with a $33,400 base price makes sense – and I don’t care if you’re married or single.
He: C’mon now, who said anything about making sense? After all, this is a fantasy set of wheels for most people, even the ones who can afford it. It’s practical only in the sense that it has four doors, a relatively economical six-cylinder engine and fairly good resale value. Having said that, I doubt that anyone buys a 3 series for its practic al value.
She: The BMW is practical in one sense. It does give you the feeling that you’re glued to the road.
He: There are few other vehicles on the road for less than $40,000 that can give you the same feeling of sheer control and stability at the limit that the 328i imparts. I think we’re talking about two different things. I look at the BMW from the perspective of the pure driving experience. And I think you’re considering the whole environment and not just strictly performance.
She: Yuk, yuk, yuk. I’ve yet to encounter a “pure driving experience” going to Farmer Jack. So who will like this car? If you’re into intimidation, dress monochromatically and are into brand names, go for the 3 series.