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2000 BMW 323Ci

Like designer label clothing that is meant to "make" the man

or woman, some automobiles aim to burnish the status of their

owners. Call it silly or superficial, but prestige auto brands

thrive on the glow of conspicuous consumption they bestow.

BMW has long made a point of backing up the cachet of its

white and blue propeller emblem with solid engineering and

thoughtful design. The Bavarian automaker has also been good at

packing a lot of good stuff into its cheapest models.

BMW's first modern compact, the 2002 coupe (sold here until

1977), combined an ever-eager rear-drive powertrain with elegant

lines and room for four adults.

At a time when the bloated Ford LTD II and Chevrolet Bel Air

ruled the road, the 2002 didn't have any competition. Where else

could you get such zest in such a tidy package?

Two decades later, the hot-selling Ford Explorer and Chevrolet

Blazer testify to our enduring love of excess metal, but people

who appreciate the pleasures of driving do have a lot to choose

from, too.

Among sporty coupes, the Acura CL and Cambridge-built Toyota

Camry Solara (recently paired in a Car and Driver magazine

comparison) are polished, reliable machines that lack the

performance edge that enthusiast drivers prefer.

The smaller Acura Integra, Mercury Cougar, or even the VW

Beetle 1.8T are more fun to drive, but they come up short in

luxury appointments and ability to impress valet parking

attendants.

Enter the fifth generation of Munich's compact coupe.

It is still driven by its rear wheels, has responsive

mechanicals and tight handling. It's interior and exterior are

stylish without being flashy. It has a back seat that will

accept two real humans, as long as they aren't much taller than

5'10."

And the entry model is not outrageously expensive, especially

if you add driving pleasure into the equation.

The cheapest 3 Series Coupe- the $38,900 323Ci- shares all

the basics with its $46,900 328Ci sibling.

Yes, at this price, you give up 23 hp and 25 lbft of torque,

adding one second to the 328's seven-second 0 to100 km/h

acceleration time, according to BMW.

But the smaller 24-valve 2.5 L inline six is vigorous and

sounds just as sweet as its longer-stroke 2.8 L cousin when

revved. Both engines are equipped with variable valve timing

that works seamlessly to boost oomph at either end of the rev

scale.

The other differences between the two models are minimal and,

to me, even welcome.

The base 323Ci omits the 328Ci's standard: glass sunroof

(benefit: more head room for my overly tall self); Xenon

headlights (benefit: cheaper repairs); front armrest with

storage (benefit: my right arm can work the gears unobstructed);

and indash single-CD player (benefit: I can get a multi-CD

changer for the trunk).

Two goodies I would like- heaters and power adjustment for

the front seats- are optional anyway, part of the expensive

Premium and Sport option packages on either car.

BMW Canada organized a tw-oday excursion for a small group of

auto journalists from its headquarters in Whitby to the increasingly

twee Niagara on the Lake.

A 300 km test route along the Grand River and the Niagara

Escarpment afforded a great test of the Coupe's road manners.

I extended my run by about 20 km, using extra-twisty and

unpaved roads from my personal test route repertoire.

As expected, my two 323Cis Steptronic five-speed automatic

on the voyage there, regular five-speed manual on the return

acquitted themselves beautifully.

BMW engineers have loaded these cars down with all the latest

electronic active safety gadgetry: a veritable alphabet soup of

anti-lock brake, traction, cornering and stability controls

that works so nicely that you forget it's there.

That's as it should be: the car makes you look like a good

driver and, if you really are one, it won't jump in and wrest

control from your hands and feet like an interfering parent.

I found a stretch of county roadway whose surface alternated

between lumpy asphalt and freshly laid white gravel on tar. If

anything was going to make the stability control (called ASC+T,

if you want to know) go nuts, this would be it. But, true to its

promise, the 323Ci held firm.

In one 100-degree curve where the surface changed to the

looseish gravel in mid-turn, the rear tires lost grip, but the

car caught itself immediately.

All else is drama-free, too. The ride is firm- on par with

the sport suspension tuning on the 3 Series sedans- without

being harsh or tiring. The interior is nicely isolated from

noise, while still allowing the driver to hear the seductive

straight-six hum.

The brakes feel grabby at first, but one soon appreciates the

ferocious stopping power and discreet anti-lock function (the

328's front discs are 14 mm and the rears 18 mm larger than the

323's).

I loved the shifter's short, precise throws and the long,

progressive arc of the five-speed manual's clutch pedal. I was

less taken by the Steptronic's manumatic gimmickry, although it

always found the right gear when left in D.

According to the trip computer, fuel consumption (premium is

required with either engine) was a respectable 11.4 L/100 with

the Steptronic and 9.8 L/100 km with the manual (my average trip

speed was also 10 km/h slower).

The sport seats on my testers were supportive and comfortable,

but I preferred the cool woven cloth over the leather, which

felt sticky in the muggy weather.

The nicely contoured dash, the low-pile carpeting, the

carefully lined trunk, all attested to style as well as quality.

There was only one thing about both test cars I seriously

disliked: the optional 17-inch alloy wheels shod with wide

performance tires.

Although BMW spokesperson Tobias Nickel said a number of tire

brands are fitted with the 17-inch wheels, both my testers had

Continentals that gave very little feedback when pointed

straight ahead and tended to wander over irregular pavement.

Stick with the standard 16-inch alloys and, as the ING

spokesman says, "save your money."

Although a BMW Canada spokesperson said there are no

restrictions on the number of cheaper 323s imported here, I

would suggest you speak for a 2000 model soon, because the '99s

were sold out by May.

There's no reason why the Coupe shouldn't get snapped up just

as quickly, since it can raise your social profile, your heart

rate and your aesthetic standards in one swell go.

This report was based on a two-day test arranged and paid for

by BMW Canada.Like designer label clothing that is meant to "make" the man or woman, some automobiles aim to burnish the status of their owners. Call it silly or superficial, but prestige auto brands thrive on the glow of conspicuous consumption they bestow.

BMW has long made a point of backing up the cachet of its white and blue propeller emblem with solid engineering and thoughtful design. The Bavarian automaker has also been good at packing a lot of good stuff into its cheapest models.

BMW's first modern compact, the 2002 coupe (sold here until 1977), combined an ever-eager rear-drive powertrain with elegant lines and room for four adults.

At a time when the bloated Ford LTD II and Chevrolet Bel Air ruled the road, the 2002 didn't have any competition. Where else could you get such zest in such a tidy package?

Two decades later, the hot-selling Ford Explorer and Chevrolet Blazer testify to our enduring love of excess metal, but people who appreciate the pleasures of driving do have a lot to choose from, too.

Among sporty coupes, the Acura CL and Cambridge-built Toyota Camry Solara (recently paired in a Car and Driver magazine comparison) are polished, reliable machines that lack the performance edge that enthusiast drivers prefer.

The smaller Acura Integra, Mercury Cougar, or even the VW Beetle 1.8T are more fun to drive, but they come up short in luxury appointments and ability to impress valet parking attendants.

Enter the fifth generation of Munich's compact coupe.

It is still driven by its rear wheels, has responsive mechanicals and tight handling. It's interior and exterior are stylish without being flashy. It has a back seat that will accept two real humans, as long as they aren't much taller than 5'10."

And the entry model is not outrageously expensive, especially if you add driving pleasure into the equation.

The cheapest 3 Series Coupe — the $38,900 323Ci — shares all the basics with its $46,900 328Ci sibling.

Yes, at this price, you give up 23 hp and 25 lbft of torque, adding one second to the 328's seven-second zero to100 km/h acceleration time, according to BMW.

But the smaller 24-valve 2.5 L inline six is vigorous and sounds just as sweet as its longer-stroke 2.8 L cousin when revved. Both engines are equipped with variable valve timing that works seamlessly to boost oomph at either end of the rev scale.

The other differences between the two models are minimal and, to me, even welcome.

The base 323Ci omits the 328Ci's standard: glass sunroof (benefit: more head room for my overly tall self); Xenon headlights (benefit: cheaper repairs); front armrest with storage (benefit: my right arm can work the gears unobstructed); and in-dash single-CD player (benefit: I can get a multi-CD changer for the trunk).

Two goodies I would like — heaters and power adjustment for the front seats — are optional anyway, part of the expensive Premium and Sport option packages on either car.

BMW Canada organized a two-day excursion for a small group of auto journalists from its headquarters in Whitby to the increasingly twee Niagara on the Lake.

A 300 km test route along the Grand River and the Niagara Escarpment afforded a great test of the Coupe's road manners.

I extended my run by about 20 km, using extra-twisty and unpaved roads from my personal test route repertoire.

As expected, my two 323Cis — Steptronic five-speed automatic

on the voyage there, regular five-speed manual on the return — acquitted themselves beautifully.

BMW engineers have loaded these cars down with all the latest electronic active safety gadgetry: a veritable alphabet soup of anti-lock brake, traction, cornering and stability controls that works so nicely that you forget it's there.

That's as it should be: the car makes you look like a good driver and, if you really are one, it won't jump in and wrest control from your hands and feet like an interfering parent.

I found a stretch of county roadway whose surface alternated between lumpy asphalt and freshly laid white gravel on tar. If anything was going to make the stability control (called ASC+T, if you want to know) go nuts, this would be it. But, true to its promise, the 323Ci held firm.

In one 100-degree curve where the surface changed to the looseish gravel in mid-turn, the rear tires lost grip, but the car caught itself immediately.

All else is drama-free, too. The ride is firm — on par with the sport suspension tuning on the 3 Series sedans — without being harsh or tiring. The interior is nicely isolated from noise, while still allowing the driver to hear the seductive straight-six hum.

The brakes feel grabby at first, but one soon appreciates the ferocious stopping power and discreet anti-lock function (the 328's front discs are 14 mm and the rears 18 mm larger than the 323's).

I loved the shifter's short, precise throws and the long, progressive arc of the five-speed manual's clutch pedal. I was less taken by the Steptronic's manumatic gimmickry, although it always found the right gear when left in D.

According to the trip computer, fuel consumption (premium is required with either engine) was a respectable 11.4 L/100 with the Steptronic and 9.8 L/100 km with the manual (my average trip speed was also 10 km/h slower).

The sport seats on my testers were supportive and comfortable, but I preferred the cool woven cloth over the leather, which felt sticky in the muggy weather.

The nicely contoured dash, the low-pile carpeting, the carefully lined trunk, all attested to style as well as quality.

There was only one thing about both test cars I seriously disliked: the optional 17-inch alloy wheels shod with wide performance tires.

Although BMW spokesperson Tobias Nickel said a number of tire brands are fitted with the 17-inch wheels, both my testers had Continentals that gave very little feedback when pointed straight ahead and tended to wander over irregular pavement.

Stick with the standard 16-inch alloys and, as the ING spokesman says, "save your money."

Although a BMW Canada spokesperson said there are no restrictions on the number of cheaper 323s imported here, I would suggest you speak for a 2000 model soon, because the '99s were sold out by May.

There's no reason why the Coupe shouldn't get snapped up just as quickly, since it can raise your social profile, your heart rate and your aesthetic standards in one swell go.



This report was based on a two-day test arranged and paid for by BMW Canada.

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