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BMW Unveils the New 3 Series Sedans

by Marc J. Rauch, Executive Vice President & Co Publisher

1999 BMW 3-Series Sedan 28.8 or 56k - Video Footage

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It was a hot and steamy day (to paraphrase the old writing cliche), when about two dozen journalists descended on Chicago to evaluate BMW's new 323i and 328i sedans (coded as E46 models). I had just left California where the temps in Sacramento reached 110 degrees, and was hoping for some relief. But when the United Airlines pilot announced that Chicago was experiencing dual ninety-fives (95 degrees and 95 percent humidity), I thought I was out of luck - it was the Midwest's turn to suffer through the heat wave that rolled through North America in mid July.

Fortunately, that night, thunderstorms hit the Chicago environs and by the time we awoke we were treated to very mild showery conditions, with very little humidity. The day's activity began with a bus trip to Arlington Raceway for some breakfast, a press conference, and to learn about a new BMW consumer program called the Ultimate Driving Experience. In preparation for the trip I racked my brain trying to recall what style of motor racing takes place at Arlington, and couldn't understand why it didn't ring any bells: Was it a sprint car track? A drag strip? A road course? I didn't know, and couldn't find any information about it on The Auto Channel (which of course upset me to no end, since I believe that we have everything in our online files). Well, as the entrance to the raceway came into view I had my answer: Arlington is a horse track. Proverbially, as one question was answered another was asked, "Are we gonna drive the cars around a muddy horse track?"

You might think I was having a case of the "stupids", but after having participated in a number of ride and drive media days at tracks such as Sears Point and Willow Springs, I naturally assumed that driving around the track would be a part of the performance test. In actuality, as it turns out, Arlington Raceway's huge parking lots were being used by BMW as their Chicago area location for the aforementioned Ultimate Driving Experience, a program designed to help the public improve their driving skills while giving them the opportunity to put the new 3 Series sedans through their paces. It was originally anticipated that 5,000 consumers would take part in the program. However, response to BMW's efforts to find the 5,000 was so great; that they were expecting to put almost twice that many through the experience, before moving on to New York, Atlanta, Houston and Miami. As part of our itinerary, we were given the opportunity to drive automatic transmission versions of the 323i on the provisional autocross circuits. It seemed to be a nicely designed and well thought out idea, from both a public service and marketing prospective - kind of a mini high performance driving school for free. BMW will add additional cities to the program next year. In addition, as I learned while traveling in England a couple of weeks later, BMW is also offering this program in selected European areas.

Meanwhile, back under the bigtop (the tented pavilions set up to house the press conference), Vic Doolan, President of BMW North America; and Chris Bangle and Wolfgang Ziebart, two members of the BMW AG design team; made their pitch. I have to tell you that I like Vic Doolan. In the few times that I've had the chance to meet and talk with him he has impressed me as being a very accessible regular guy - although with his full head of wavy blond hair he looks very much like an ex-movie star, especially after hearing his British/South African/maybe-a-little German accent. I kept trying to remember which war movies I saw him in.

In any event, here's Vic, President of his company's North American division (which, as Vic will proudly tell you, has become the largest importer of luxury cars to America), hobnobbing with the peons of the press. Why is this a big deal? Shouldn't corporate officers be available at press launches? Yes, absolutely! But I've been present at enough new product introductions to tell you that it doesn't happen nearly enough, and that in my opinion, part of the reason why so many manufacturers have had difficulty in developing product that fits the needs of the marketplace, is that they are out of touch with the marketplace (this has been especially true of the blue-blooded Detroit crowd). Vic knows his product, his market, the industry; and whether he's sitting next to you at the breakfast table, or addressing a group from behind a podium, his knowledge and sincerity comes across...ah, maybe one of the reasons why BMW has had so much success in the U.S. Vic stressed that BMW isn't interested in re-badging product for other purposes or market segments, as compared to other manufacturers. He feels that for BMW to continue to be successful they must retain the authentic look, feel, and ride of a BMW. In responding to a question about re-badging for a BMW sport utility vehicle, Vic admitted that they could easily do it with any of the Land Rover models (BMW owns Land Rover), but it would be against everything the company stands for. He insisted that the BMW SAV "Sport ACTIVITY Vehicle", when introduced, will be its own man, and not a knock-off. BMW uses the word "activity" instead of "utility" because the BMW vehicle will be for active use with all its creature comforts and not, in any way, a "utility" vehicle. This prompted the off-the-record question, "Then why did Mercedes use the term SUV when describing the ML320?", which brought forth this answer from an un-named source, "Because MINI-VAN was already taken!"

Chris Bangle and Wolfgang Ziebart are equally interesting, humorous, and knowledgeable individuals: Chris is an American ex-pat now living in Germany, and Wolfgang is a native of Germany, if memory serves me right. Chris gave an engaging discourse on how they developed the design for the 1999 3 Series sedan. It seems that they actually asked the previous versions what they wanted to be when they grow up, and the cars told them! They said they wanted a little more room, to be a little longer, a little wider, and a little taller. So the designers made the new 3 Series sedan about a "thumb" longer, a "thumb" wider, and a "thumb" higher. This of course inspired the title for my article, as I realized that the 1999 3 Series sedan shouldn't be called a "Bimmer", but a "Thummer".

Wolfgang's portion of the introduction focused on the enhancements and "individuality" aspects of the 323i and 328i cars. The new 3 Series sedans have 40 programmable functions and options that can be adjusted to suit the owner. For example, although the 3 Series sedans are equipped with daytime running lights, you could have the dealer disable them. However, upon selling the car to someone else a few years down the road, the new owner could have a dealer re-enable the daytime lights. The electrically controlled driver's seat can be programmed for two different settings, and assigned to a specific key. This way, if you have a key and your spouse has a key, depending upon which key is inserted into the door lock, the seats will automatically adjust to the respective position.

Visually, the new 3 Series sedans are sleeker and slightly more swept back then the 1998 models, and the lines are more prominent. Head on, the exterior design has an ever so slight resemblance to the grill and hood of the Z3. This gives the cars a more aggressive, sportier look, and continues BMW's movement away from the "3 box" design of earlier years (low box in front for the engine compartment, higher box in the middle for the passenger compartment, and another low short box in the rear for the trunk). Almost imperceptible design variances in the break resistant headlight covers add another anthropomorphic aspect to the vehicles' look. The change in the headlight treatment also has a practical aspect, as the increased surface area make the headlights luminance about 30% more effective. Xenon low-beam headlights will be available sometime this autumn.

Comparatively, BMW puts the 3 Series sedans in the same class as Audi's A4, Mercedes' C Class, the Lexus ES 300, and Volvo's S70. Frankly, I think it's a mistake and an incorrect assignment, even though there just may not be any closer parallels. The 323i and 328i look much sportier and performance oriented. In fact, to me the C Class, ES 300, and S70 are simply small sedans (although I know that the ES 300 is available in a Luxury Sport design package). The A4 goes off in a different direction, following the angular contemporary appearance of the entire Audi line. From a performance standpoint, the 323i and 328i also have completely different characteristics than the competition. In essence, but not to make too much of this overstatement, the 3 Series sedans are in a class of their own.

For 1999, and the American market, the 3 Series sedans will be available only with 6 cylinder engines: a 2.5 liter, 170 hp motor for the 323i; and a 2.8 liter, 193 hp power plant for the 328i. Given that the 3 Series sedans are rather small vehicles, they pack plenty of punch. BMW has "value priced" the 323i, so that even with the more powerful 6 cylinder engine it is priced within the range of its competitors' 4 cylinder models. The 323i and 328i are both available with 5-speed manual or 5-speed automatic transmissions.

Our test drive followed a beautiful, twisting turning 130-mile course through the charming Southern Wisconsin countryside. BMW's route selection was obviously selected to showoff the performance and handling attributes of the 328i, and the gambit worked. The 328i is a nimble, spirited machine. No bend in the road was too sharp, no hill to steep to climb, and virtually nothing else on the road too fast to overtake. While I have to admit that by the time the drive was over, I had had enough curvy roads to last me till the end of this century, I had great fun. The 1999 328i is a worthy successor to all the 3 Series vehicles that came before it. It upholds the BMW standard as well built precision sport-luxury vehicles.

Although the 3 Series vehicles are small (BMW seems to like the word "intimate"), they're comfortable and ergonomically correct. A redesign of the instrument panel borrows from the look of the 5 Series. Various controls are easier to find and easier to use thanks to the additional panel space provided for them. The seats are not out and out cushy, but they do feel really nice - in case you didn't know, of the two, BMW is the luxury German car maker with the softer seats. The front seats also borrow from 5 Series refinements, most notably the internal ventilation system: cylindrical cavities within the cushions and backrests feed fresh air through the seats to help remove moisture and provide some cooling. On board navigation systems can be installed in both models.

On the safety side, the 3 Series vehicles offer a fairly impressive array of standard and optional features. There's dual front-seat airbags, of course, as well as standard front-seat side-impact airbags. Optional rear-seat side impact airbags are available. A front-seat Head Protection System (HPS), which is like an inflatable sausage, is also standard, and makes the 323i the least expensive car on the market with inflatable head protection for side impacts. The fuel tank has been relocated to a more protected area under the rear seat, in order to increase the distance from rear-end and side impacts. Enhancements to the standard All Seasons Traction control system help keep the 323i and 328i stable while cornering.

Lastly, BMW has addressed some of the issues relating to high maintenance costs by using longer-life spark plugs and lengthening the oil change intervals to about 15,000 miles. Manual transmission models use a lifetime fluid, which never needs changing. During one pit stop Wolfgang showed us a nifty little feature concerning the rear exterior lights. Should either side brake light bulb blow out, the vehicle's computer assigns the brake light function to the taillight, thereby never leaving the driver without two working brake lights. Simultaneously, an illuminated notification of the problem is displayed to the driver on the dashboard. Additionally, since most light bulb blowouts are caused by the initial shock of electricity flowing through the filament when a light is turned on, the 3 Series taillights have a feature that reduces the initial flow of electricity, and then increases to its full power. BMW expects that this will add to the bulbs' life expectancy by about 500%.

BMW's 3 Series sedans are not for everyone, no BMW vehicle is. Although they're relatively small, they are certainly not economy cars. But if you're a discerning buyer with a little money to spend, and you're looking for excellent performance, some luxury, safety, fun, and a bit of panache in what you drive, then you can't help falling in love with the 1999 323i and 328i.

Base prices for the 323i and 328i are $26,400 and $33,400, respectively. Equipped with the Premium Package the 323i lists at $29,560 and the 328i will run you $36,870.