For everyone who’d hoped BMW would have suddenly gone nuts and had these two 3-Series variations engineered by three drunk Spaniards using a crayon and a cocktail napkin, sorry. For the rest of us, it’s more of the same usual wonderfulness from Bavaria.
The news about BMW’s new 3-Series sport wagon and convertible is how utterly lacking in news they are. They are exactly what they appear to be; the wagon is the 3-Series sedan with some extra cargo room and the convertible is the coupe with less steel and more fabric.
Both the wagon and convertible are 2000 models and in showrooms now. Both are also available only as 323i models with power coming from the 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter, DOHC, 24-valve straight six backed by either a gorgeously precise five-speed manual or nearly-as-luscious five-speed automatic.
The 193-horsepower 2.8-liter version of the engine used in the 328i coupe and sedan is doomed after this model year, and will be replaced by a new 3.0-liter six BMW promises will produce power comparable to the old M3. However, while the 2001 convertible will be available as a 330i, the company has no current plans to offer that engine in the sport wagon. For wagon lovers (whose numbers seem to be growing), that borders on the inexcusable.
The Sport Wagon
From the B-pillar forward, the Sport Wagon is indistinguishable from the 323i sedan, and really why shouldn’t it be? From the B-pillar back, it stretches out a whole 3/10ths of an inch longer than the sedan, though it runs the same 107.3-in wheelbase as all 3-Series. The second seat splits and folds down with three head rests and the center section can be lowered into a cupholder, which is vast by the stingy standards of German cupholders. With the second seat up, there’s 24 cu ft of space in the Sport Wagon’s cargo area, which is more than twice what’s available in a 323i sedan, but nowhere near the vast expanses in wagons like the Volvo V70.
2001 BMW 3-Series
2001 BMW 3 series sport wagon
The thoughtfulness of BMW shows clearly in the wagon’s tailgate, whose rear window opens separately and shuts with the authoritative thud one gets dropping a 40-pound sack of hominy onto hard-pack Georgia clay. The cargo area itself has all the expected cargo nets and a cover, along with 12-volt power plug. A standard space saver spare rests under the cargo floor, but a standard tire can be specified though that will intrude upon the space. When the rear seats are folded flat (and they do fold flat), the cargo volume doubles.
As long as the driver doesn’t look in the rear view mirror, driving the 323i Sport Wagon is virtually identical to driving the sedan. The engine’s output is modest, but the powerband’s sweet spot is long and the wagon’s 198 extra pounds don’t seem to affect performance excessively. The all-independent suspension is slightly re-tuned to deal with wagon duty and the front brakes are upgraded to 328i-spec 11.8-inch diameter discs. Adding the $1700 "sport" package ups the wheel and tire package from 205/55HR16 all-season rubber on alloy wheels to 225/45WR17 performance tires on even better-looking alloys.
With all the safety bits BMW builds into its cars (including their inflatable head protection system) it’s possible to look at the Sport Wagon as a safety machine. But it drives with the passion of any other BMW, and that makes it unique among all other wagons, except its 5-Series brother. The 323i Sport Wagon’s $29,770 base price is a bargain, but that’s for a rather thoroughly stripped car. Expect the cars on BMW dealer lots to have stickers closing in on $40K.
2001 BMW 3-Series
BMW has been selling 3-Series wagons through the previous two generations of 3s. It’s about time North America got it too. And when Europe gets an M3 Sport Wagon (as they did in the last generation) we’d better get one too, or we’ll kick someone’s ass. This time we mean it!
It’s impossible to find a current 3-Series convertible on the roads of Southern California whose driver isn’t yakking on their cell-phone while driving. That this car is so popular among Generation Distraction is somewhat dispiriting, because one gets the feeling they never appreciate what they’re driving.
The new convertible 323i is thoroughly better than the outgoing one, but somehow BMW has managed to actually lower the base price to $35,560, which isn’t likely to attract a lot of buyers on fixed incomes and food stamps, but makes it an even tougher competitor against cars like the Volvo C70, Mercedes CLK and Saab 9-3 convertibles. Still, once the options are ladled on, few — if any — of the new convertibles will leave dealerships wearing price tags under $40K.
It’s rather subjective, but the new 323i convertible looks even better than the outgoing model which itself was prettier than any car has a right to be. The most apparent improvement over the old convertible top is the adoption of a heated glass rear window in place of the old car’s plastic embarrassment. Otherwise the top is a paragon of convertible virtue; easy to use, triple insulated and well-sealed. Adding the $1400 "premium" package also adds one-button convenience to the top’s operation.
Like the sport wagon, the front brakes on the convertible are upped to 11.8-inch diameter to deal with the convert’s extra 347 pounds of weight over the coupe, the suspension has been tweaked a bit, and a 3.46:1 rear-axle ratio has been adopted to help move the bulk off the line. But otherwise, the convertible remains very much a 323i Coupe. However the extra weight is felt more profoundly in the convertible than the wagon; climbing hills especially, the convertible feels more strained than other 323s.
The interior is also pure 3 Coupe with the notable addition of Lear-built belt-in-seat front thrones. The new belts are easier to access than the old ones, more comfortable than before and easier to move aside when accessing the rear seats. In other words, better in every way.
|2000 BMW 323i
Sport Wagon Convertible
Base Price: $29,770
Engine: 2.5-liter in-line six, 170 hp
Transmission: five-speed manual, five-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 107.3 in 107.3 in
Length: 176.7 in 176.3 in
Width: 68.5 in 69.2 in
Height: 55.5 in 54.0 in
Weight: 3351 lb 3560 lb
Fuel economy (city/ hwy) 20/29 (manual) 19/25 (manual) 19/27 (auto) 17/24 (auto)
Major standard equipment:
Review continues below