The first need is comfort. If a car isn’t comfortable, if it doesn’t feel right after 100 miles of travel, I don’t like it.
The 1998 BMW 323is Coupe was not comfortable.
The steering wheel did not tilt. I’m short. I don’t like reaching up to grab things, particularly something as important as a steering wheel.
The seats were hard. I don’t give a pahooty about leather — if the leather isn’t supple, soft, sensuous. The leather in the 323is Coupe was stiff, unforgiving. High-quality cloth would have been better.
And the size of those seats! Geez! Clearly, “BMW” does not stand for “butt mighty wide,” at least not in the 3-Series models, which are the company’s “entry-level” cars. Apparently, BMW assumes that buyers in the “entry” category — young affluents willing to spend anywhere from $22,000 to $46,000 — all belong to health clubs where they tighten rears before shifting gears.
It’s all part of the company’s well-honed performance image — “the ultimate driving machine” and all of that. It caters to a school of thought that says suffering in the pursuit of better 0-60 times is a good thing. Baloney!
Reaching 60 miles an hour two seconds faster doesn’t mean nearly as much to me as sitting in a seat that treats my back with respect, or holding onto a properly angled steering wheel, or using ergonomically sensible dials and switches — areas where the 323is Coupe could use some remediation.
Otherwise, it’s a good car — though not discernibly better than comparable models such as the 1998 Honda Accord V-6 coupe, which offers both comfort and performance at a considerably lower price.
The problem for BMW is this: Honda is a more efficient automaker, which means that Honda has lower production costs, which means that Honda can offer more for less.
Thus, BMW gets to brag that its 323is Coupe is its “lowest-priced six-cylinder model in five years,” while Honda steadily goes about its business of gobbling up well-employed, entry-level luxury buyers who believe that “entry level” should not appreciably exceed $25,000.
I say these things with some regret because the 323is Coupe does represent a genuine attempt by BMW to offer its customers a bargain.
The coupe’s new six-cylinder engine, for example, is a jewel. It’s a 2.5-liter, in-line six, 24-valve job designed to produce 168 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 181 pound-feet of torque at 3,950 rpm. Power flows easily from the lowest to the highest gears — no choppiness or errant downshifting.
And it doesn’t matter whether you get the 323is Coupe with the five-speed manual transmission or the electronically controlled four-speed automatic. Both transmissions are remarkably smooth. And BMW certainly deserves kudos for making side-impact air bags standard equipment, along with traditional dual-front bags.
But BMW simply is going to have to get over a bit of arrogance — this notion that a “driver’s car” should lack certain amenities, if that car is being offered at bel ow the company’s usually high prices. That’s not cost cutting. That’s customer cutting. And there are rival automakers out there that are willing and able to take advantage of that error.
1998 BMW 323is Coupe
Complaints: Enough said.
Praise: An exceptionally fine in-line six-cylinder engine that works extremely well with either the five-speed manual or the electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission.
Head-turning quotient: It’s a BMW. People either like or hate BMW cars. The test car drew comments from both camps; although the BMW haters were absolutely delighted by some of the car’s obvious ergonomic flaws.
Ride, acceleration and handling: Ride is affected by interior comfort, which was marginal in this case. Acceleration was excellent — 0 to 60 mph in about eight seconds with the automatic. Excellent handling and braking. Brakes include power, vented four-wheel discs with standard anti-lock backup.
Layout: Front engin e, rear-wheel-drive.
Safety: Dual front air bags; side-impact air bags; adjustable rear-seat head restraints; height-adjustable front seat belts, automatically tensioning seat belts, anti-lock brakes, rigid construction.
Capacities: The Environmental Protection Agency classifies the 323is as a subcompact. The car seats four people. NOT ideal for parents with babies. Installing an infant’s seat in the rear of the car requires the agility of a contortionist.
Mileage: About 24 miles per gallon. Fuel tank holds 16.4 gallons of required premium unleaded gasoline. Estimated range on usable volume of fuel was 380 miles in mostly highway travel.
Sound system: Ten-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette. Harman Kardon audio. Excellent.
Price: Base price on the tested 323is Coupe is $28,700. Dealer invoice on the base model is $25,260. Price as tested is $30,175, including $975 for the sound system and a $570 destination charge.
Purse-strings note: Compare with the Honda Accord V-6 coupe. Period.