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2001 BMW 3-series coupe Review

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2001 BMW 3 series coupe 330CE(shown)

SEE ALSO: BMW Buyer's Guide

by Ted Laturnus

Nobody, it seems, is immune from corporate takeover rumors. Even BMW, arguably the most successful manufacturer of niche automobiles in the world, was the subject of speculation earlier this year. Both Ford and Fiat had apparently approached the Bavarian carmaker with money in hand, but sources within the company insist that the Quandt family, who own majority shares in BMW, have absolutely no intentions of selling it to anybody, the seemingly insatiable cash drain of Rover Cars - which BMW purchased last year - notwithstanding. BMW officials admit that Rover has been a financial headache from Day One, any many industry observers question BMW’s wisdom in acquiring the British carmaker. But consider this: BMW is one of only two car manufacturers in the world that have consistently turned a profit, year after year, for at least the past three decades (Toyota is the other one). “Why would they sell a company with that kind of performance?” says BMW Canada chairman, Hendrik von Kuenheim.

As if to reaffirm the company’s health, BMW hosted a worldwide press introduction of the new 3-series Coupe earlier this Spring. Journalists from all four corners of the globe congregated in Marbella, Spain to get a first glimpse of the new six cylinder 323Ci and 328Ci, both of which will be available in Canada by this summer. They came from all over the place: Thailand, Nigeria, Barbados, Ukraine, Ireland…easily the most cosmopolitan press launch I’ve ever attended.

The new 3-series Coupe - the 2nd generation - is longer, wider, and lower to the ground than its sedan stablemate. Although its styling cues are only subtly different, it has a much more powerful and muscular look to it. As is the case with the 3-series sedan, some traces of the 5-series are apparent, especially in the back end treatment. BMW designers are describing the 328 coupe as “an athlete in smart clothes.” Okely-dokely. But it is a different vehicle, both behind the wheel and from a stylistic standpoint, and the extra dimensions really add to the car’s visual appeal. BMW will also offer two different interior design themes, much as Audi does with their A6. In this case, they’ll be known as Maglia and Mosaico, both of which feature leather upholstery, state-of-the-art ergonomics, and, depending upon your choice, tastefully applied wood or fabric trim.

Power for both new coupes is amply provided by a pair of in-line six cylinder engines. A 2.5 litre developing 170 hp at 5500 rpm for the 323, and a very potent 2.8 litre developing 193 hp at 5500 rpm for the 328. Both of these powerplants represent the best combination of smoothness, power usability, and responsiveness on the market. Six cylinder engines simply don’t come any better, whether in-line or V configuration. Fuel consumption, although probably irrelevant for most people interested in this type of automobile, is decent: 9 L/100 km and 9.1 L/100 km, combined rating, for the 323 and 328 respectively…or 31 mpg. Performance-wise, the 323 is lively and well-behaved, with decent power, impeccable road manners, and ‘way above average handling, but the 328 is almost a European muscle car, with a tremendous power range and outstanding performance. A five-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission is available for both models, but the manual provides the most bang for the buck. The autobox features BMW’s Steptronic mode, which is similar to the Porsche/Audi Tiptronic. For those who don’t mind a slight drop in power, a 318Ci and 320Ci will likely follow later in the year.

As befits a top-end sports coupe, the 3-series is loaded with technological goodies and modcons. Dual control heat and ventilation controls, express-down and up power windows, power seats, anti-locking brakes, traction control system, and Xenon headlights all come standard, and options include a handling/stability system called DSC, which automatically applies the brakes individually on each wheel when and if you want to bail out during a badly-judged high-speed corner. As well, both the 323 and 328Ci will have an optional Global Positioning System, utilizing an optical display within a console-mounted monitor. At this point in time, only Toronto has been mapped out, but Vancouver and Calgary aren’t far behind….and will probably be ready when the car hits the market.

From a driver’s perspective, perhaps the best thing about the new 3-series is its sense of balance. This is the kind of automobile that inspires you with confidence. You just know it won’t do anything stupid….even if you do and you’ll be hard-pressed to come up with a more agile five-passenger car. It’s amazing how different a beast the new coupe is compared to the sedan. It looks better, runs better, handles better, and drives better.

However, it’s also more expensive. BMW didn’t release a Canadian price at the launch in Spain, but the 323Ci will start at $29,995 in the U.S. If you do the math, that’s around $42,000 in Canada before options and taxes.