All the talk of platform sharing by the world's automakers hasn't raised many eyebrows at BMW. Two vehicles from one company sharing one platform? Piece of cake. Try nine.
Two generations ago, the BMW 3-Series platform gave birth to a two-door model, a four-door, a convertible, the first M3, a touring wagon (not sold in the U.S.), and a four-wheel-drive sedan. Indirectly, that platform also fathered the 318ti and Z3/M roadsters and coupes, mostly with DNA from its rear trailing-arm suspension. While the last edition trimmed down the range by a bit (sedan, coupe, convertible, M3, wagon), it still was light-years ahead of the "one car, one platform" that has nearly sunk many a manufacturer.
With the current 3-Series, the proliferation is just beginning. Last year came the cornerstones of the lineup, the 323i and 328i sedans. Soon, we'll see a convertible, a wagon (yes, here in America too) and eventually, a new M3.
But right here, right now, BMW is priming its Regensburg plant to deliver the new 3-Series coupes, a striking pair of two-door sedans (yep, by EPA interior-volume standards they're considered sedans, but we'll call them coupes) available in either 323Ci or 328Ci form.
The differences between the coupes and sedans are fairly striking. BMW says the two- and four-doors share virtually no body panels, although they share the same 107.3-inch wheelbase. The coupe's windshield cant, subtle chrome, and finer interior detailing set it further apart from the four-door. The coupes also add some standard equipment that's optional on the sedans, including a sport-tuned suspension, cruise control, leather steering wheel, a trip computer, and a front-center armrest. (Between the coupes themselves, the visible differences are limited to wheel designs, badging, and the chrome exhaust tips on the 328Ci.)
The 328Ci's interior, with optional GPS navigation.
2000 BMW 3-Series
The muscular stance of the coupes complements the real gem in the BMW family safe: the 193-hp, 2.8-liter in-line six. It's a powerplant that never fails to send a tingle to enthusiast fingertips, and in the coupes it's no less scintillating. Where the smaller 170-hp 2.5-liter six in the 323Ci seems a little thin on torque, the larger-displacement version grabs the ground with instant throttle response and better torque (203 lb-ft, versus 181) -- perfect for carving up a favorite mountain pass.
Both engines can be had with five-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmissions. BMW says they're virtually alone in that some 50 percent of their coupe buyers opt for the manual transmission. No mystery there: few makes have the consistent sharp shifter feel and progressive clutch take-up that characterizes BMWs. Interestingly, though the boxes comes from Getrag and ZF respectively, the 323Ci and 328Ci share that light touch. We did notice bigger fuel-economy steps in the lower gears than we'd prefer, but the action of the five-speed in our 328Ci couldn't be faulted.
For those who have to endure endless rush hours, the five-speed automatic is a capable gearbox too. Its adaptive controls take note if you're a leadfoot or a 'fraidy lady, and tailor shifts accordingly. However, you'll give up some speed: BMW estimates the five-speed 328Ci will rocket to 60 mph in about 6.6 seconds, while the automatic takes more than a half-second longer. (The variance in the 323Ci is even greater: 7.1 seconds to 60 mph for the manual, 8.2 for the automatic.)
As with the sedans, the BMW coupes' ride and handling are a near-optimum blend of resilience and accuracy. The control-arm front and multi-link rear suspension are set for a slightly more taut ride than in the sedans, but it's by no means harsh. Pavement ripples make short, almost-silent thumps that don't register on most rear-end Richter scales. The steering, which feels a little less precise and weighty than in the last generation, is nonetheless crisp, with good turn-in off center and progressive feel.
2000 BMW 3-Series
BMW's new Dynamic Stability Control is standard on all 3-Series cars for 2000. In the 328Ci we sampled, the system made itself invisible on winding roads leading from Spartanburg to the North Carolina mountains. As the turns grew tighter, DSC resolved the car's slight understeer: we could feel its intervention as speeds grew and radiuses shrank. Accomplished drivers could easily bring the Bimmer back in line with a simple flick of the throttle, but for the mass of drivers who buy these coupes for looks alone, DSC is probably a boon.
Inside, the coupes' ergonomically faultless cockpits offer some supportive front seats, handsome italicized gauges, and curvier door panels. A tilt and telescoping steering wheel is standard. We preferred the power seats found in the 328Ci's sport package for their superior shape and bolstering, to the 323Ci's six-way-adjustable manual seats and the standard-issue power seats.
As far as interior room, BMW has done an excellent job packaging a rear-drive coupe with enough room for adults. The seats tilt forward enough with an easy-entry level. Head and leg room are ample for six-foot frames, and the seats themselves are ideally reclined for high-mileage trips. The seats flip down for access to the trunk, and the rear windows flip out to provide ventilation for back-seat guests.
Safety and options
The 3-Series coupes' complement of safety features, including the anti-lock brakes and DSC, also features dual frontal and side-impact airbags, and pre-tensioning seatbelts, along with an inflatable air curtain Head Protection System (HPS). Hit something hard enough and the interior of this car will look like the Michelin Man's stuck inside.
A range of option packages is available on the coupes. The 323Ci offers a Sport package with bigger wheels and tires and a Premium package with power seats and a moonroof. The 328CI offers the same name packages with slightly larger wheels and tires, seats, and Montana leather upholstery. Stand-alone options include BMW's Park Distance Control, leather upholstery, CD changers, an in-dash GPS/navigation system, and a Harman Kardon audio system.
We're all in favor of this sort of proliferation. The 3-Series coupes, like their sedan siblings, are two of the finest cars you can buy, regardless if you're an enthusiast or an ordinary consumer. Prices have been held to reasonable levels, too: The 323Ci begins at $29,560, the 328i at $33,970, both including destination charges.