We all strive for success. But once we reach that goal, we are presented with a whole new set of problems. For instance, if you have a popular product, do you simply stick with what works, or try to improve it? For BMW, and its successful 3-Series sedan, the answer was easy. Build a better 3-Series. But considering how fine and well received the previous model was, some may wonder if BMW could improve the 3-Series enough to make it worth the effort.
Well, those folks need to wonder no longer. Because it didn’t take that much time behind the wheel of a new BMW 328i to convince us that any effort taken to improve the already superb 3-Series was well worth it.
Take the 328i’s engine, for example. The new 2.8-liter, in-line six still has the same torque output, 206 pound-feet, as the previous car. Horsepower is up slightly from 190 to 193. But, like the 2.5-liter 6 in the 323i, the 2.8’s cylinder block is now aluminum. That shaves off 51 pounds of weight. The new Double VANOS variable valve timing system, which now controls both camshafts, brings access to the broad, linear powerband down to 3,500 rpm, versus 3,950 before.
This helped us launch our compact cruise missile to 60 in 6.8 seconds, on our way to a quarter mile run of 15.4 seconds at 92 miles per hour. Although after several enthusiastic send-offs, we did detect a bit of clutch slippage. Which is now self-adjusting, and designed to keep pedal effort constant and increase clutch life. It connects a 5-speed transmission that several of our drivers found the shifter to be a bit on the rubbery side. A new 5-speed automatic is also available.
Definitely not rubbery is the suspension. A wider track, 2.6 inches in the front and 2.7 inches in the rear, improves the 328i’s already impressive cornering capabilities. The strut-type front suspension is still in place. But now features forged aluminum lower arms and hydraulic cushions. In back, the Central Link set up comes with twin-tube gas shocks, and new cast aluminum upper transverse links.
On the track, this translates into a nearly neutral handling car that offers up razor sharp turn-ins, with very little understeer. Directional changes are effortless, and side-to-side transitions are tightly controlled, with just enough body roll to keep the car from being overly harsh. Our drivers liked the feedback from the evenly weighted, engine-speed sensitive, variable-assist power rack and pinion steering, and its quick turning ratio.
Thoughtful upgrades to the braking system include larger, ventilated discs front and rear, and electronic brake proportioning. But we thought the average of 123 feet from 60 rather longish for a BMW. Although the more we used them, the stronger they got. ABS, of course, is a given, and straight-line stability is rock solid.
Out on the open road, ride and handling are nothing short of superb. Despite its modest 107.3-inch wheelbase, the 328i soaks up the bumps with the poise of a much larger car.
Hit the back country blacktops, and you’ll quickly find that with the standard All-Season Traction, and new, Cornering Brake Control, it takes some serious obstacles to throw this car off balance.
A fine sense of balance also applies to the 3-Series’ new evolutionary design. The most obvious changes coming to the front end, where the 3-Series now gets a grille set into the hood, like its larger 5 and 7-Series siblings, and larger 17x8-inch cast alloy wheels that come with the optional Sport Package.
Many of the 5 and 7-Series’ interior attributes have also percolated down to the 3-Series. Like the newly available Myrtle wood accents throughout the cabin. There’s now a standard tilting and telescoping steering wheel, and a new, more refined looking IP, and easier-to-use audio and climate controls.
Now, much has been written about the improvements in cabin space, and overall it is 5 percent larger in total interior volume. The 3-Series has moved from subcompact to compact size. But rear seat room improvements are minimal, and quite frankly, we don’t care. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again. Cars like this are driver’s cars. And if you’re that concerned with passenger space, buy a sport-ute.
We do care about price, however. The 323i begins at $26,970. Our 328i starts at $33,970, with an as-tested price of $36,770. This puts the 1999 328i within shouting distance of its rarer, and racier cousin, the M3. But life is full of compromises. And if we can’t have an M, we’ll gladly take an i. A new 328i, that is. And it’s worth it!
Engine: 2.8-Liter, Dohc, 24-valve, In-line 6 Cylinder
Torque: 206 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 6.8 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 15.4 Seconds @ 92 MPH
60-0 MPH: 123 Feet