The BMW 323i reaches the UK

With 143 b.h.p. on tap, the six-cylinder 323i sounded an exciting prospect when we heard about it at the time of the 320 six-cylinder launch. But British customers—and the British press—have had to wait some months to find out whether or not this fuel-injected, 118 m.p.h. sports saloon, by then launched on the German market, would live up to expectations. Now the car is in British showrooms and we motoring journalists have thrashed it round the traditional BMW Concessionaires GB Press launch terrain in the South of France, this time on a 230-mile route even more arduous than usual. Yes, the 323i is good, very good, in most respects, a very fast and agile performer. It is also fussily noisy.

To extract an extra 20.6 b.h.p. out of the 320’s 2-litre small-six, BMW have stretched its stroke from 66 mm. to 76.8 mm., while retaining the same 80 mm. bore, to give a capacity of 2,315 c.c. Aspiration for the iron-block, alloy head unit is by means of Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection instead of the 320’s single four-barrel Solex carburetter. Maximum power of 143 b.h.p. is produced at 6,000 r.p.m. and maximum torque is 140 ft. lb. at 4,500 r.p.m. Interesting comparative DIN figures are: 320 six-cylinder-122.4 b.h.p. at 6,000 r.p.m., 118 ft. lbs. at 4,000 r.p.m.; 320i four-cylinder-125 b.h.p. at 5,700 r.p.m., 126.5 ft. lbs. at 4,350 r.p.m.; 2002 Tii-130 b.h.p. at 5,800 r.p.m., 131 ft. lbs. at 4,500 r.p.m. The 323i runs on a compression ratio of 9.5:1 and demands premium fuel. It exhausts itself through a twin-pipe system, one outlet each side of the car’s rear, which led a colleague to suspect V6 power when we spotted a prototype in the car park at last year’s Nurburgring ETC round. As with 3-litre Capris, this split exhaust system makes it easy to distinguish this fuel-injected six from the basic 320 from the rear. True, the boot lid carries a distinctive 323i badge, but some enthusiasts, particularlyin Germany, are fond of creating badge-less wolf-insheep’s-clothing cars. Without badges, only the exhausts will give the game away, for the 323i and 320 sixes share the same 5 1/2 J x 13 in. wheels and 185/70 HR 13 tyres. Our test cars in the South of France ran on distinctive and attractive alloy wheels, an optional extra.

The coachwork and interior trim is identical to that of the 320 six, which I tested in last February’s issue of Motor Sport. There are a few important changes beneath the skin, however, including the adoption of ventilated front brake discs and disc brakes—with solid discs—instead of drums at the rear. It inherits a few lessons from the 7-series in its more stiffly damped front struts, with lateral force compensation, and the anti-roll bars are stiffer too.

The familiar four-speed Getrag gearbox is retained, controlled now by a snore comfortably-shaped rubber knob. However, a 3.45:1 final drive ratio is carried astern, the extra torque allowing this higher ratio: the 320 six and both previous injection four-cylinder models use(d) a 3.64:1 ratio.

This latest injected car excelled in unexpectedly slippery conditions on the test route, which would have called for much more delicate use of the right foot on the old 320i. In spite of the extra power, the much improved suspension proved more adept at keeping the inside rear wheel on the deck out of mountain hairpins. The ride felt no stiffer than that of the road test 320 six, yet improved roll stiffness was obvious, the car turned into corners better, handled quick changes of direction more responsively and dipped its nose less under heavy braking. Hammering the brakes down mountains produced a suspicion of fade, but not enough to worry about, and this all-disc set-up responded progressively to the pedal, unlike the snatchy system of the 320i.

At last BMW have put back some of the sparkle which the 320i lost over the 2002Tii, although BMW’s own figures show the 323i to be a shade slower to 60 m.p.h., in 9.2 sec., than the Tii. The 118 m.p.h. top speed is identical. In fact the 323i had less bite than I expected from 143 b.h.p., which is easy to understand when you realise that it weighs some 3 1/2 cwt. more than the Tii and pulls a higher final drive ratio. Nor was the improved torque so obvious as might be expected up those mountainous roads and once again I am provoked into saying that a BMW would have benefited from a closer ratio five-speed gearbox in those conditions. Under less provocative driving the ratios were entirely adequate, the gearchange superbly light and positive. This new sports saloon showed its real forte on fast main-road and autoroute work, where it proved a very fast and stable car indeed, an easy 100 m.p.h. plus cruiser.

Much as I enjoyed thoroughly most of the 323i’s driving characteristics, I was disturbed by the amount of fussy, threshing noise, apparently from the belt-driven overhead valve gear, more magnified than in the 320 six. It seemed a very unsporting, tiring noise from an otherwise very sporting car.

The 323i costs £6,249, just £900 more than the standard 320, but Anton Hine, BMW GB’s Managing Director, expects most of them to be sold with luxury options. The two cars I drove in the South of France carried air-conditioning, electric windows, alloy wheels etc., over £8,000 each on the road. Other extras available include power steering. £8,000 can buy a lot of better value alternatives, I would have thought.—C.R.