The Morning Call and's view

Many automakers around the world claim to manufacture sports sedans. But to true enthusiasts, there’s only one that truly defines the breed: the BMW 3-series.

It’s the sports sedan that all automakers aim for, and after a weeklong test drive through good weather and bad, it’s easy to see why.

BMW remade the 3-series for the 1999 model year, available as the 323i and 328i sedans. For the 2000 model year, BMW introduces the coupe variants 323Ci and 328Ci.

Certainly, BMW has never faced stiffer competition than it does now, not only with longtime rival Mercedes-Benz and Audi. Upstarts like VW, Lincoln Cadillac and soon even Jaguar and Lexus will try for a piece of the entry-level sports sedan pie. BMW has responded by lowering prices, adding equipment and even gasp softening the ride.

But fear not, this is one sedan that is far from flabby around the middle, which is more than you can say about most automotive writers.

Whether coupe or sedan, most enthusiasts know the drill. The 323i gets a 2.5-liter in-line six cylinder, good for 170 horsepower. The 328i gets a 2.8-liter in-line six cylinder with 193 horsepower. That 23 horsepower difference accounts for a good part of the difference in price: $27,560 for the 323i vs. $34,560 for the 328i. Some will find the difference in performance isn’t worth the premium, because with either engine, you’ll get a driving experience that is uniquely BMW.

Other cars can match its performance, but few if any can match its feel of the car as machine and as an extension of the driver. The vehicle willingly and quickly obeys the commands of its captain. The steering is weighty, precise and quick. The engine responds with the sound of expensive machinery, gaining speed with an effortless grace. The brakes quickly and safely stop the car. Take your hands off the steering wheel at highway speeds: the car tracks straight. There aren’t many vehicles that feel like such a natural part of you. Amazing.

If you think a 0-60 mph time of 7.2 seconds is nothing special, keep in mind this six-cylinder car will do it while delivering almost 23 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway. Both figures are better than the EPA states.

Many would say, it’s good because it’s about the same size as a Toyota Corolla at about twice the price. What else makes it special?

Well, the value argument is one that BMW is sensitive to, so the new 3-series is a better value than before (although we’re speaking in relative terms.)

Anti-lock disc brakes, traction control and stability control are all standard, so are other safety features such as daytime running lights. Side impact airbags supplement the front ones. So this is a safe package for driving fast.

Other niceties include speed sensitive windshield wipers, which adjusts the speed of the wipers based on the speed of the car. Six-way power front seats with position memory, tilt/telescopic steering wheel, automatic climate control, and an on-boar d computer also are standard.

But, if getting the most features for the least money is your objective, look elsewhere. The standard audio system is an AM/FM/cassette, although leather trim is included when one orders the Premium Package, a $2,900 option that includes wood trim, a power sunroof, front seat lumbar support and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. The test vehicle had the package and went a long way to warming the interior, giving it a more opulent feel.

But a CD player is still an option. Okay, so a lot of little luxuries are an option. There are plenty of automakers that will provide the appearance of a sports sedan with lots of gizmos without delivering on that promise. BMW provides a truly transforming driving experience.

You’ll find your surroundings to be an excellent place to go about the business of driving. The leather-wrapped steering wheel can be tilted and telescoped to get an ideal driving position. Each side of the wheel has buttons controlling the a dio system and cruise control. While other automakers attempt this sort of thing, BMW’s solution is the best solution. It doesn’t require removing your eyes from the road. Ditto the turn signal and wiper controls, which can be used without removing your hand from the wheel. The seats are overly firm in the best German tradition. The rear seat is actually habitable for two very understanding friends. There’s more room than before, and the interior is tightly assembled with a total absence of rattles, something you’d expect in this price class. It was also hushed with little wind or road noise.

The only distraction that detracted from the joy of driving, was the in-dash navigation system. Besides relieving you of an additional $1,800, the system integrates with the radio. The result is you can’t have a factory-installed CD player if you order the navigation system. Why the famed German engineering can’t solve this problem is beyond me. What’s worse, it takes a long look away from the road to operate some radio functions, let alone attempt to disable the navigation system. It seems less user-friendly than other systems. My advice? Skip it and save the money.

While other cars come below this car’s $40,345 bottom line, few have the sporting manners that thrill an enthusiast’s soul with the sort of siren song that compels the driver to drive on.

That’s why BMWs really are the ultimate driving machine.

BMW 328i

Engine: 2.8-liter DOHC 24-valve in-line 6-cylinder

Transmission: 5-speed manual or 5-speed Steptronic automatic

Tires: H-rated 205/55R16

Wheelbase:107.3 inches

Length: 176 inches

Curb weight: 3,256 pounds

Base price, 323i: $27,560

Base price, test model: $33,970

As tested: $40,345

EPA rating: 19 city, 27 highway

Test mileage: 22.6 mpg

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