A textbook example of how to improve on excellence.

by Tony Swan

BMW may not be the best car company on the planet, but it's hard to think of one that's turning out a more consistent string of winners.

The new 328i, senior member of the 3-Series line, is a good example of how BMW works its magic: Brilliant vehicle concept, outstanding design, superb engineering and excellent assembly, backed by continuous improvement between major makeovers.

That's what the '96 328i represents. Although it's a modest update on its predecessor, the 325i, modest doesn't mean that updates aren't substantial. BMW doesn't do things just for show.

We had a chance to drive the 328i sedan and 328is coupe in the wide open spaces of Nevada and California, a trek that wound its way from Death Valley -- at 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in the country -- to the Mammoth Mountain ski area, some 8000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range.

Throughout these travels, which included high speed and high altitude, the 328s performed flawlessly.

We selected the 328i sedan as the focus for our report.

Walkaround

Since its 1992 redesign, the 3-Series has been a design pacesetter that's provoked a number of imitators, the sincerest recognition of a winner. The combination of trim dimensions, wide track and limited front overhang -- the portion of the car that extends beyond the front wheels -- gives the 3-Series family an exceptionally purposeful appearance, lean, mean and action-ready.

This is a large family. In addition to the 328i sedan and 328is coupe, it includes the 318ti hatchback coupe ($20,560), 318i sedan and 318is coupe ($25,950 and $27,700, respectively), the 318i convertible ($32,750), 328i convertible ($41,390) and, a close cousin, the two-seat Z3 roadster ($28,750).

An update on the 240-hp hot rod M3 coupe will be along later this year.

The biggest news in the new 328s lies under the hood, where a 2.8-liter in-line six-cylinder engine replaces the previous 2.5-liter version. Like other new BMWs, the slightly bigger engine is tuned for improved torque rather than peak horsepower, providing better response at low- and mid-range engine speeds, which is where most of us do most of our driving in this country.

This doesn't mean that horsepower isn't plentiful. The new engine generates 190 hp at 5300 rpm, compared to 189 at 5900 for the 325i, and it will propel the car up to 128 mph, which is where the electronic speed limiter kicks in. Getting from zero to 60 mph is a matter of about seven seconds.

But the improvement in torque -- 207 lb-ft at 3950 rpm vs. 181 at 4200 -- is what's really noticeable. The 328i provides impressive pulling power, even at high altitudes in fifth gear, and the in-line six-cylinder is smoother than ever.

Transmission choices are the usual -- five-speed manual standard, four-speed automatic optional ($975). Our test car was equipped with the manual shifter, which adds to the fun of driving this car, but performance with an automatic is more than acceptable, thanks to the engine's improved torque characteristics.

At 174.5 inches, the 328 falls into the relatively small end of the size spectrum, although its 106.4-inch wheelbase is proportionately quite long, a key factor in its ride quality and good looks. By EPA classification, it's actually a subcompact, but it's actually more spacious than that.

The Inside Story

Like other BMWs, the 328s provide a driver command center that conjures up images of light aircraft -- businesslike analog dials placed for optimum visibility, key controls placed within easy reach, everything illuminated in a reddish glow by night, to reduce driver eyestrain.

Audio and climate controls are mounted well up in the center of the dash, and in a car this size nothing is hard to reach.

The seats are typical BMW, which is to say sporty, supportive and long-haul comfortable. The snug feeling augments the sporty character of the car, and eight-way power adjustability makes the car tailorable for virtually any body type.

The basic upholstery material is a high-grade leatherette. Our test car's leather seating was part of a $2625 Sports Package that also included an on-board computer, 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels with ZR-rated tires, plus a sportier seat configuration, with more pronounced thigh and torso bolstering.

Front seat leg and headroom is ample, which is typical of most small sedans and coupes. Rear seat legroom is a bit tight, but there's more of it than you might expect in a car this size -- almost as much as a Honda Accord, a pleasant surprise.

Standard equipment is consistent with what you'd expect in a car with pricing that starts north of the $30,000 luxury frontier. In fact, it's more than consistent. Major comfort/convenience features like automatic climate control, an AM/FM/cassette sound system, power windows and mirrors, keyless remote entry, cruise control and even a power sunroof.

Passive safety features are current with the automotive mainstream -- dual airbags, side impact protection and height-adjustable upper seatbelt anchors. BMW has begun introducing side airbags in its more expensive models, but that technology hasn't trickled down to this level yet. Traction control is available as an $1100 option.

Active safety is a stronger suit at BMW. The 328's combination of prompt handling response and oustanding brakes give you a better chance of avoiding the crash to begin with, which, of course, is infinitely preferable.

Ride & Drive

BMW's focus on superb handling makes driving a treat, whether you're commuting, running errands, cruising the interstate or unwinding a set of curves on a country road. The power rack and pinion steering, which varies the level of assist according to engine -- rather than vehicle -- speed is on the light side in terms of across-the-board effort, but it's BMW-precise and enhances the car's excellent sense of control.

BMW has been making ride-quality improvements in all its recent cars, and that applies to the new 328i. The basic 328i sedan has enough suspension compliance to sop up small bumps and potholes without transmitting the shocks to the occupants. This comes at the expense -- a small expense -- of absolute handling limits, and there's a bit of up and down motion over larger bumps that might not please drivers who expect BMW sedans to behave like sports cars with an extra set of doors.

If you fall into that category, we recommend the Sports Package, which features firmer suspension tuning and wider low-profile high-performance tires (P225/50ZR vs. P205/60R) mounted on 16-inch wheels vs. 15-inch wheels on the basic sedan. This combination, which was part of our test car's package, limits the car's body roll in hard cornering and provides extra grip. Ride quality is firmer, and it's easier to feel those small bumps, but we prefer the enhanced crisper handling response.

The new 2.8-liter engine is a joy to live with. BMW has been building in-line six-cylinder engines for a long time, a corporate powertrain priority based on the inherently low vibration traits of this configuration. This latest update is as smooth as any that BMW has produced, and as we noted earlier it's got plenty of grunt in the lower rpm ranges, something that's not true of all small-displacement multi-valve power plants.

In addition to the near-absence of vibration and impressive power, the 2.8-liter six is also exceptionally quiet at most operating speeds. Allied with good aerodynamic traits and extra sound insulation, this adds up to a quieter passenger cabin.

The 328's braking performance is world-class. All models have large brake rotors at both ends of the car -- 11.3 inches front, 11.0 inches rear -- and all the rotors are ventilated for improved cooling. Stops are quick, sure and repeatable. Provoking brake-fade in this system would require a race track and lots of laps.

Final Word

Although the BMW 328 line has some worthy competitors -- the new Audi A4 comes to mind -- it's still the standard by which other cars in this class will be judged.

Its styling is compelling, its quality almost flawless, its list of standard features generous and its handling exceptional, particularly with the sport suspension.

The new engine puts extra power right where it's most likely to provide the most benefit -- in the low and middle part of the engine speed range -- and the well-appointed interior strikes a near-perfect balance between sport and luxury.

The price of entry isn't cheap. But the rewards that go with ownership of this car make it well worth the money.

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© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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