Not all that number of BMWs come my way for testing these days, more’s the pity, but when they do I am invariably impressed. The range of different BMWs is large but basically they do not change all that much, but where they do it is for the better.
For instance, as soon as I got into the pleasantly hued alloy-green Series-3 fuel-injection 2.3-litre six-cylinder I was reminded of my now distant BMW days, when I drove this make regularly, by the rather awkwardly high-set ignition-key hole, which caused the key-ring to ding on the surrounds, the light clutch, the excellence of the gear change, of the lighter, revised five-speed gearbox, the commanding driving position (not quite as high as formerly, it seemed) and the hard but very comfortable seat, nicely upholstered in grey-green cloth.
Another very pleasing, and remarkable, aspect of the car is the way in which the high fifth gear, giving the very low engine speed of only 2,734 r.p.m. at a 70 m.p.h. cruising speed, can be retained in traffic-driving, so that this and top are used in lieu of the lower ratios for much of one’s driving, and this in spite of the very high-performance of this small-engined saloon. This, and the very acceptable fuel economy — 28.6 m.p.g. overall — which has become quite a feature of the smaller, modern, fast saloons, is indicative of real progress. In the case of this 323i BMW the performance is truly interesting, for its 0-60 m.p.h. time equals that of that high-stepper the 1.8-litre VW Golf GTi, being 8.1 seconds, and once in its stride the BMW is alongside the Golf. (The Golf is £2,847 less costly, though.) The BMW does all this with an uncanny smoothness of function, its engine notably smooth-running, the mechanical and wind noise extremely low, the whole car exuding refinement, which its interior decor, trim, and appointments reinforce. There must be an expanding market for small luxury cars, out-of-the-common-rut, both in performance and character, and the BMW is one of them.
The test-car was enhanced by electric windows for the two-door, booted body, electric sun-roof, headlamp wash-wipe, central-locking (which includes the boot), alloy wheels, etc., which ups the price appreciably from the basic £9,655 to £11,277. The instruments are very easy to consult but I could have done without the econ. or “energy” needle, and although the digital clock is non-dazzle and easy to read, its position means glancing down for a moment or two. The gear lever has that “mechanical” feel that obviates any rubberiness and reverse, right and forward, is easy to engage, as is fifth on the r.h. dog-leg, but first baulked at times. There is a very good and easy to operate heater, with the customary BMW rotary control, so simple if adjustment has to be made to suit conditions or car speed. The side and headlamps are controlled by a r.h. pull-out knob, turning it dimming or increasing the intensity of the instrument lighting, typical of the convenience of all the BMW’s controls, and the two stalk-levers are substantial and function nicely, indicators and head-lamp dipper on the left, wash/wipe for the screen on the right, with flick action for quick wiping.
The manual rack-and-pinion steering (power-steering is an extra!) is a trifle heavy for parking, light and self-centring on the move, but geared a bit low at four turns, lock-to-lock, for a 34½ foot turning circle, and with less “feel” than I had expected. Control is of a high standard, helped by chunky, low-profile 195/60 VR14 Pirelli P6 tyres, and only going into really fast corners does the rear-end feel too spongy, the coil-spring suspension, independent all-round, giving a comfortable ride, with just a trace of that floating feeling under some circumstances. The all-round disc brakes work admirably, although they felt over-servoed for the first few miles, and the body, amply spacious, is devoid of rattles. The quadruple halogen Hella headlamps provide generous night vision, and are very good in the dipped position. The nicely-carpeted but high sill boot has a capacity of 14.2 sq.ft. and the underside of its lid carries that acceptable BMW tool-kit, while the test car had a first-aid kit and a big BMW fire-entinguisher therein as well. A big, slightly flimsy drop-well, that can be locked, before the front-seat occupant, is immensely capacious and there are rigid pockets in the doors, and wells on fascia sill, and console, the formation of which is rather wide in the case of the screen sills, and “plasticky”, with its centre panel angled towards the driver. The two exterior mirrors are adjustable with switches very neatly incorporated in the dour grabs and the internal door handles are now safely above these arm-rests — I note that one tester thinks this a retrograde step but there was always the fear that a passenger might grip an arm-rest and open a door. . . No oil-gauge or battery-condition dial is fitted, but in BMW fashion there are numerous warning lights and service checks on the fascia and above the rear view mirror, with a flashing reminder light as you start off. The fuel-gauge for the 12.8 gallon fuel tank (non-lockable filler cap under a non-lockable off-side flap) is commendably accurate. The twin recessed roof-lamps and n./s. roof grab handles, and the prominent levers for moving forward the front-seat squabs to give rear-compartment access, are well contrived, and neat, like the rest of this impressive car. The test car had a Blaupunkt — Montreal SM21 radio / stereo, with automatic aerial retraction.
The refined if complicated-looking 80 x 77 mm., 2,316 c.c. six-cylinder, single o.h.c., alloy-head engine gives 139 (DIN) b.h.p. at 5.300 r.p.m. and is safe to 6,200 r.p.m. The fuel-injection is Bosch L Jetronic and the c.r. is 9.8 to 1. This gives a torque of 151 lb./ft. (DIN) at 4.000 r.p.m. and helps this 22.1 cwt. BMW to closely match the pick-up pace of the 1.8 Golf GTI, which is my yardstick.
The up-market BMW certainly is keeping in step with the times. Rather than analyse its handling and performance in great detail, let me say that it is essentially a convenient, beautifully made car to enjoy, and that in the dark and the rain it gave me one of my fastest runs yet, between Kington and Nantmel on the not-entirely deserted A44 road, although, of course, its top speed of 124 m.p.h. (eleven m.p.h. above that of that Golf) is of purely academic interest.
The rear-opening, self-supporting bonnet, with the BMW push-back action, reveals an accessible power-unit, the tubed dip-stick right at hand. The Autoflug seat-belts are easy to use. The little switches for the fog and rear-fog-lamps were masked by the rim of the steering-wheel as I had the seat adjusted — my apologies to those drivers, one in an MG, whom I inconvenienced on the M40 near London on February 17th before I realised someone else had left these switches on. . . The horn is sounded from buttons recessed in the cross-spoke of the steering-wheel, which is not 100% convenient.
For those who can afford it, the revised Series-3 BMW, retaining the Munich Company’s timeless shape, is an exceedingly good way of driving in comfort and economy. Whether lesser cars, such as Ford Escorts and Sierras and Vauxhall Cavaliers are closing the value-for-money gap must be in the eyes of the customers. BMWs offer more than a little extra in the view of their enthusiastic followers and this seemed valid to me, while using this well-equipped 323i, that goes so quickly, so effortlessly for a comparatively small-engined and compact car. — W. B.