New Car/Review

1998 BMW 323is

by Carey Russ

bmw

SEE ALSO: BMW Buyer's Guide


If BMW didn't actually invent the sports sedan, the German company has certainly made the genre its own. Its best-known models over the years -- the 2002, original 320i, and M-series Motorsport division factory hot rods -- have been shining, even definitive, examples of the sport sedan class. Even BMW's large luxury cars are more sporting in intent than is usual for that class, and meant to be driven, hard, by the owner, not a hired chauffeur.

Although some of the BMW sports sedans are two-door cars that technically might be considered coupes, the two-door Bimmers are more sedanlike in roofline, styling, and interior accommodation than most sports coupes. Practical room plus performance have been BMW two-door hallmarks from the days of the 2002 through the current 3- Series. There is a new addition to the BMW sedan/coupe lineup for 1998, the 323is.

The 3-Series cars are the spiritual successors to the cars that made BMW's reputation, the 4-door 1500 that rescued the company from disaster in the early 1960s and the 2-door 2002 that put it on the map in the U.S. in the late 1960s. The "323" designation has been used before, in the high-performance version of the original 3-Series in the late 1970s. That car was not available in the United States. Gray- market examples were highly sought after by BMW aficionados.

Like its namesake, the current 323 uses an inline 6-cylinder engine, in this case of 2.5-liters displacement and 168 horsepower. Unlike its namesake, the 1998 323 models are readily available at BMW dealerships in the U.S. The 323is coupe and 323 convertible replace last year's 4-cylinder 318 coupe and convertible.

A sport package-equipped 323is coupe sits in my driveway right now. I'll miss it when it goes away. It is a wonderful car that combines true sports-class performance and handling with a high level of comfort and convenience. It is the perfect small sibling to the ferocious M3, and continues the BMW tradition of small, nimble, sporty two-door cars started by the 2002.

APPEARANCE: The current 3-Series BMWs have been around in their current style since the early 1990s, but have aged quite gracefully. The 323is uses the coupe version of the 3-Series body style, and is a trim, athletic small car. The roof line is almost identical to that of the sedan. Two longer doors instead of four shorter ones are the primary difference. There is plenty of glass area, indicative of good visibility. If the 323is is more angular than some of its competition, its aerodynamic efficiency doesn't suffer. Four conservatively round headlights under glass, almost a BMW trademark by now, flank the twin-kidney grille. Sport package-equipped cars may be told by their authentic BBS basketweave-pattern alloy wheels and low-profile tires - - the right stuff.

COMFORT: The interior of the 323is is an environment for driving. It is logically designed and eminently functional, with good visibility and no distractions from the joyous task of driving. The six-way manually- adjustable front sports seats are firm and supportive for even the longest journeys. The leather-covered steering wheel is set at just the right angle and the shift knob "falls readily to hand" as the hoary old saying goes. The instrument pod is shaded from glare, and auxiliary controls including civilized amenities like an AM/FM/weather band/cassette sound system, dual zone automatic climate control, and a multifunction display are offset to the center of the instrument panel and angled towards the driver. Although it is a two-door coupe, the 323is's rear-seat passengers have easy access as the front seats move forward. There is a sedan-like amount of room in the rear seat, which folds 50/50 for extra cargo ability. The trunk is usefully large, with hydraulic struts to prevent crushed luggage. As is the BMW custom, a tool kit is found inside of the trunk lid.

SAFETY: The 1998 BMW 323is has dual front and front side air bags, an impact sensor to automatically unlock the doors after an accident, 4-wheel antilock disc brakes, and all-speed traction control.

ROADABILITY: Although there are many pretenders to the throne, BMW still is king in the sports sedan category. The 323is shows why, especially with the optional sport package which includes a sport-tuned suspension and larger wheels and tires. It is a near-perfectly balanced car with precise handling. The suspension is sportingly firm for control at speed and on twisting roads, yet compliant enough for comfort on the highway.

PERFORMANCE: BMW has a heritage of high-performance inline 6 cylinder engines dating back to the 1930s. An inline six has excellent mechanical balance characteristics for smooth, vibration-free power delivery. The 323's 2.5-liter, 168-horsepower six is not the 325 engine of a few years ago, but a new derivative of the current 328 engine. It has luxury-car smoothness with sports-car power. Variable valve timing gives it excellent torque characteristics for easy driveability. BMW's 5-speed gearbox makes shifting a sensory delight.

CONCLUSIONS: The BMW 323is coupe is a fine small sporting car in the tradition of the legendary 2002.

SPECIFICATIONS

Base Price              $ 28,700
Price As Tested         $ 30,735
Engine Type             dual overhead cam, 24-valve inline
                        6-cylinder with variable valve timing
Engine Size             2.5 liters / 152 cu. in.
Horsepower              168 @ 5500 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)          181 @ 3950 rpm
Transmission            5-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length      106.3 in. / 174.5 in.
Curb Weight             3075 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower   18.3
Fuel Capacity           16.4 gal.
Fuel Requirement        unleaded premium
Tires                   P225/50 ZR16 Dunlop SP Sports 2000
Brakes, front/rear      vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear  independent strut /
                        independent multi-link
Drivetrain              front engine, rear-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      20 / 30 / 23
0 to 60 mph                             7.1 sec
1/4 mile (E.T.)                        15.9 sec
Coefficient of Drag (cd)                0.30

OPTIONS AND CHARGES

Avus Blue Metallic Paint           $ 475
Sport Package - includes:
  16-inch BBS cross-spoke alloy wheels,
  225/50 ZR16 performance tires,
  foglamps, sport suspension       $ 990
Destination Charge                 $ 570

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