2000 BMW 323Ci Convertible
By Larkin Hill
I was fourteen and in love. A spectacular collection of vintage cars was circling the makeshift racetrack at Jack Murphy Stadium (renamed Qualcomm in 1997) in San Diego. But my eyes were glued the shiny white 325i convertible pace car that was leading the pack. Top down with flags flying, I wanted to be that pretty blond in the driver's seat more than anything else in the world.
I didn't know much about cars when I first saw it, but that 325 convertible seemed to represent everything I wanted to be --sporty, sophisticated, intelligent, and fun. Now, over ten years have passed and I've had other loves, but like all first loves, the 3-series has held that tender spot in the heart reserved for first loves.
Needless to say, I counted the days until I flew to San Diego to drive BMW's third vehicle based on the E46 platform (the sedan and coupe were introduced last summer). Upon first glance I noticed how much larger and more solid the 2000 323Ci looks -- compared to its predecessors.
With an emphasis on horizontal lines that stretch from the kidney grille to the slight lip of the trunk, the 2000 323Ci convertible's styling looks more streamlined than any previous model. The hood gently bulges up and forward from its signature eagle-eye headlights, and flows back to the heavily raked windshield. The wheel wells share the same potent flair as the rest of the E46 sedans and coupes, which enhance the bowed shape of the car and emphasize the sturdy stance.
Structurally, the 323Ci is an art form, and true to BMW custom it's a very sturdy art form. In fact, when pressed on the issue of structural rigidity, the engineers at BMW gleefully perched the previous model right on top of this year's E46.
Every detail, from the horizontal lines, to the ridges on the rear view mirrors, and the varying thickness of the body panels have been carefully engineered to provide the best ride and handling possible. The pressed lines reduce vibrations by strengthening and stabilizing the body panels. The small ridges on the rear view mirrors deflect the wind -- sending away from the rear facing glass surface and side windows. The body panels or "tailored blanks" are pieced together and differ in thickness in order to improve balance and performance by providing ideal rigidity and weight proportions throughout the car -- thus producing the lightest and strongest combinations possible. Such careful attentions to detail in the engineering and design of the convertible have certainly paid off.
Unlike many convertibles, the 323Ci has the appearance of a sports-coup, as opposed to a convertible-with-the-top-up -- meaning the top's not a distraction or utilitarian device that should only be used when it rains.
It's bigger -- taller (1.5in), longer (2.2 in) and with a wider wheel base (1.0 in) than its 1999 predecessor, the 2000 Ci also weighs more (187 additional pounds). However, despite the larger proportions the 323Ci gains more horsepower and gets better gas mileage (both freeway and city).
The Driving Test
A firm press of the top control on the key fob gently folds soft top and stores it under a plastic covering within a matter of minutes -- or, at least that's what is supposed to happen. I press it -- nothing. I'm told I have to hold it. I hold it -- nothing. I'm told I don't have to hold it so tightly. I press gently --- nothing. I click it a few times and the doors remain unlocked. Frustrated, I relinquish the keys to the anxious technician who presses the button -- and the top comes down. I'm given no explanation other than it's temperamental.
While the top eventually worked, I noticed that it was very inconsistent throughout the week of testing. Sometimes it would take a few minutes, other times it performed flawlessly, and occasionally I'd become inpatient and simply get in and press the button manually.
On the plus side, when it worked on queue it impressed all that were present -- a definite bonus for the image conscious. Plus, I never had a problem putting the top up, however, the key fob controls weren't used in this process -- instead the key is inserted into the door slightly turned to the left. The fully automatic system is part of the premium package.
The most striking style statement was the black and beige contrasting dash. The result was a sporty yet roomy sensation. Light beige panels of the same texture surrounded a large matte black dash that housed the air conditioning vents and encased the steering column. Black also wraps the stereo and air conditioning controls, door handles, and center console. Separating the black from the beige and spanning from the steering column to the passenger door is a high-gloss Myrtle wood trim. It also accented the gear shift and door panels. The matte finish on the dash provided better visibility by deflecting glare, and the beige seats, carpeting, and passenger compartment enhanced the roomier cockpit.
Overall, passenger seating was impressive. According to BMW, there's 10% more front passenger space compared to the previous model. The rear seat legroom was practical. I found that four full sized adults did, indeed fit comfortably.
In typical BMW fashion, the 323Ci is as versatile as a pair of dark denim jeans -- dress it up for a night on the town or skimp out for a sunny day on twisty mountain roads. The same 2.5-liter DOHC in-line six-cylinder engine as the rest of the 323's, made navigating the mountains behind San Diego and the streets of Hollywood a pleasure. The double variable valve timing, aluminum engine block, cast iron cylinder liners, dual resonance intake system with a third intake passage produced a smooth, powerful, and perfectly pitched performance.
Most notable was the improved handling over its predecessors thanks to a more rigid body structure and a superior weight distribution (49.5 front/50.5 rear for the manual transmission and 50/50 for the automatic). The steering was tight and there was minimal body roll. Second gear had superior range and was my preference -- it providing great control and power through the varying grades and abundant curves.
Freeway driving was also enjoyable. With the top up wind noise was minimal. With the top down, the side windows provided significant protection. However, while I think a convertible should be driven with all windows down -- at high speeds it's just too windy for comfort and the glass provided substantial protection.
The next week provided rain, so I was able to spend a significant amount of time with the top up. When buying a convertible, most people think that they'll drive it topless most of the time, however, in reality the top typically stays up for a variety of reasons: messy hair, climate too hot/cold, takes too long, etc. For whatever the reason, the driver shouldn't have to be stuck with inferior canvas protection. In times prior, the only option to avoid poor visibility and road noise was to buy the additional hard top -- traditionally used for foul weather. While this 323Ci also has this option, it's not a necessity, since the top is triple layered and has a huge defrosting glass rear window. Visibility and insulation are superior -- almost comparable to a coupe.
Safety's traditionally a weak spot with convertibles because of the obvious lack of a solid roof, but the 323 comes standard with numerous of passive and active safety features. Equipped with 4-wheel anti-lock brake system (ABS), daytime running lights, front and side driver and passenger airbags, the 323Ci also takes advantage of BMWs DSC (Dynamic Stability Control) system, that corrects improper steering technique to maintain control and avoid accidents. In the event of an accident, the fuel system cuts off when the airbags are deployed and the rear-seat adjustable headrests have pop-up roll-bars that activate within milliseconds -- thanks to a sophisticated sensor system. Heavier and stronger seats provide additional security and an integrated belt system and redundant seat adjustments improve driver and passenger comfort and convenience.
In the week of testing, I fell in love all over again. I can now rationalize the physical attraction by referencing the 323Ci's aerodynamic styling, firm yet comfortable everyday ride and handling, and plethora of safety features.
The 2000 323Ci is BMW's most complete convertible to date -- it compliments everything from a Bisou-Bisou dress to a BCBG bikini and backpack. It's perfect for a jaunt across town or a night on the town, a road trip for two or a day trip for four; the 323 convertible is smoother, roomier, and more powerful than any of its predecessors are. It's a practical alternative to the roadster, and more versatile than a coupe. The 2000 convertible is value oriented, with more standard options than previous models at a highly competitive price, and the styling is energetic and fashionable. BMW's 323Ci Convertible has earned its number one position in the luxury four-seater category, and I don't foresee it losing it anytime soon.
(Pricing, Crash Ratings, Recalls, etc.)