If you asked the MotorWeek staff to make a list of the cars that they’ve enjoyed the most over the past decade, the BMW 3-Series would appear on it with great frequency. But the 3-Series Bimmer that we’ve enjoyed so much for years is about to go away, to be replaced by an all new 3-series for 1999. So we decided to spend as much time in one of our favorite sporting cars as possible, before it disappears forever. But if any of our staff were expecting to bid a quiet farewell to a mellow old retiree, they were in for a real shock!
Because, last year or not, BMW is far from finished with the current 3-Series platform. Proof of that is the 6-cylinder 323is coupe, which replaces last year’s 4-banger 318is as BMW’s high-value entry level model.
Borrowing many styling cues from more expensive and higher strung brethren like the M3, the 323is promises the speed and sporty attitude that 3-Series owners have grown accustomed to.
To back up that promise, BMW stuffed the engine bay with an updated version of its well-known 2.5-liter inline six, making 168 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque. The engine now features all the goodies: dual-overhead cams, 4-valve cylinder heads, and variable valve timing. And pumps its power through either a 5-speed manual, or for an extra $975, an optional 4-speed automatic. Surprisingly, the 5-speed in our test car was uncharacteristically rubbery in feel.
But rubbery or not, the manual drivetrain notched up consistent 0 to 60 runs of 7.3 seconds and a quarter mile run of 15.5 seconds at 90 miles per hour. Throttle response was crisp and immediate, with the engine revving quickly, and smoothly. A performance that comes close to equaling that of the larger 2.8-liter inline 6 that is still the mainstay of the 4-door 328i sedan.
Of course, power is nothing without handling. And to deliver that, our 323is came equipped with the optional M3-inspired sport suspension calibration.
The SP setup includes 16-inch alloy wheels, wearing Z-rated 50-Series Dunlop rubber. With sticky tires, and its tauter strut/front and central link/rear suspension, our car handled Georgia’s twisting Roebling Road Raceway better than any entry-level sport sedan has a right to.
Steering feedback was top notch, and turn-in rabbit quick, with mild mid-corner plow being its only real handling vice. And though the sport package corners flatter than the base suspension, still moderate levels of body roll and supple springs indicate that the 323is is definitely tuned for the street, though a lot more street cars would benefit from brakes like the 323’s over-sized, anti-lock equipped, 4-wheel discs.
And milder street driving was just as much fun as the track, the 323’s refined drivetrain, nimble handling and not-too-firm ride making it well suited to both highway traffic and twisty back roads.
While standard all-speed, All-Season Traction control helps keep everything together in the downpours we cruised through up and down low country roads.
And long afternoons in the driver’s seat should be no problem in the 323’s typically correct, and now richer looking, BMW cockpit. One that, once again, offers more than one expects from an entry level car. With a whole host of power accessories and standard door-mounted side-impact air bags.
There’s leatherette upholstery on the firm, supportive bucket seats with 6-way adjust including height, and automatic dual zone climate controls with pollen filter, plus a fine sounding 200-watt cassette stereo with unusually good fringe reception.
Rear passenger space is what we’ve come to expect over the years. Usable, but a bit tight for tall adults. Ditto the trunk space, a small but quite useable 9.2 cubic feet.
But the most popular feature of the BMW 323is may not be its performance, so much as the price that you pay for that performance. Base price is $29,270, the least expensive 6-pot Bimmer in 5 years. And our test car’s total tab was $30,735, even with an extra $990 for the Sport Suspension package, and $475 for metallic paint. That’s a real deal! And one that the next generation 3-Series will have a hard time beating.
We thought that our test of the 1998 BMW 323is coupe would be a farewell to an old friend. Instead, we’ve made a new one! One with looks, performance and value. Talk about going out with a bang!
Engine: 2.5-Liter, Dohc, 24-valve, In-line 6 Cylinder
Torque: 181 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 7.3 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 15.5 Seconds @ 90 MPH