Review and photos by Jil McIntosh

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Most of us, when we go car shopping, have to keep a certain budget in mind, and once we do, we tend to look only at manufacturers who hover around it. But if you’re in the mid-priced range — say, $32,000 to $40,000 — this raises a quandary. Should you go for a mid-priced company’s top-of-the-line model, or a premium marque’s entry level?

There are arguments to be made for both sides, and in BMW’s corner, there’s the 323i. You won’t get most of the toys offered on its higher-priced siblings, but for the price of higher-end models from mid-line manufacturers, you can get into the 3 Series, a line that many people consider the benchmark for sports sedans.

All-new for 2006, the 323i replaces the 320i of 2005. It’s the entry level in the 3 Series, followed by the 325i and 325xi, and 330i and 330xi (the “xi” designation indicates the xDrive all-wheel-drive configuration; like the outgoing 320i, the 323i comes only in rear-wheel-drive.) With a base price of $35,200, the 323i is $250 more than the 2005 model it replaces.

2006 BMW 323i
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That price also puts it in territory occupied by several upper-row models, such as the Buick Lucerne, Chrysler 300, Ford Five Hundred Limited, Nissan Maxima and — believe it or not — the Hyundai Azera. Of course vehicle upkeep plays a part in any car’s price, and you should do your homework on any model, whether you’re buying a Porsche or a Pontiac, but BMW does throw in no-charge scheduled maintenance for four years or 80,000 km, whichever comes first.

The 323i’s heart is a 2.5-litre inline six-cylinder that makes 174 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque, mated to a six-speed manual or optional six-speed automatic transmission. It’s much tamer than the 215 horses put out by the 325i, or the 255 ponies under the 330i’s hood; the entry level is more seductively smooth luxury machine than fiery sports car. It’s extremely quiet, and its ride is impressively comfortable. The 330 begs for twisty roads and a heavy right foot, while the 323 is the car you want to take to the theatre in the city core, where you can tune out all the noise and potholes around you, and just enjoy being in that seat.

2006 BMW 323i
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Active steering isn’t available, but that’s no great loss; the 3 Series is a small enough vehicle that it doesn’t need the system’s steering box step-motor to reduce low-speed effort. Active steering feels artificial to me on a BMW this size, and I much prefer the more organic relationship I shared with my tester’s front wheels. Steering is delightfully crisp, and when you do feel like stepping out and putting the 323i through its paces, it responds immediately to steering wheel input. My tester came equipped with a Sport Package that included performance tires; should you order this, you’ll also need to budget for winter rubber, as I discovered when I tried to turn my first corner following a hefty snowfall.

The 323i’s six-speed manual is a pleasure to row, and includes a hill-hold feature that keeps the car from rolling backwards for a few seconds after you’ve disengaged the clutch. I didn’t have a chance to try the six-speed automatic, but with maximum torque coming in at 3500 rpm, expect the autobox to tame this smaller engine somewhat.

2006 BMW 323i
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Features on the 323i include anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control, automatic headlamps, heated mirrors and washer jets, rain-sensing wipers, tire pressure monitoring system, side and curtain airbags, multifunction leather-wrapped wheel, manual air conditioning, tilt and telescopic wheel, “leatherette” upholstery, CD/MP3 player and six speakers; options include cruise control, heated seats, auto-dimming rearview mirror, sunroof and 60/40 folding rear seats. Standard or optional items on the 325i and 330i that can’t be added to the 323i include Xenon headlamps, fog lights, automatic climate control, and power-adjustable seats.

The 323i’s six-way seats are manually adjusted (although they do have electric bolsters, and pull-out thigh supports) and they tip forward and back like those on a tractor-trailer. It seems weird at first, but it’s quite easy to find a comfortable position.

2006 BMW 323i
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The interior is beautifully designed and boasts superb fit and finish, but I did have several quibbles with it. Having to push an engine start/stop button after you’ve inserted the key fob into the dash is just silly; the heater controls are easy to turn but feel flimsy; the radio is not intuitive and should be simpler to operate, especially when exploring the band or switching modes; and cupholders that swing out of the dash leave coffee cups dangling over the passenger’s knees. Small-item storage is at a premium, and CD cases will only fit in the glovebox.

On the pro side, all controls are backlit, including those on the steering wheel; the optional heated seats come with three temperature settings; the centre console box contains a cooled beverage holder; and the instrument cluster is elegant and easy to read.

2006 BMW 323i
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The 3 Series is not a large vehicle, and tends to be cramped inside, especially in the back seat; this is a driver’s car. Unless you order the optional folding seat, which includes a pass-through, the 323’s rear seat is fixed in place. The trunk is 98 cm long, and the props do not intrude into it, allowing for maximum capacity.

The 3 Series sedan has undergone a complete facelift, and it’s a very handsome one, with deeply sculpted sides drawing the eye from the nose to the haunches. The proportions are perfect, and the car’s long, low stance lets you forgive the slight reduction in headroom from the 2005 model.

2006 BMW 323i
Click image to enlarge

The tank fills with premium fuel, although not easily; I filled two 3 Series sedans at two different stations, and each time, it took numerous tries (and many words I can’t repeat here) before it would accept any fuel without immediately shutting off the nozzle, and then it had to be kept to a trickle. In combined driving I averaged a surprisingly thirsty 13.3 L/100 km, although I suspect the spinning I did with the summer tires when it got stuck in the snow was a factor.

So does it make sense to compare? As with all vehicles, you need to assess your specific needs and find the one that suits you. If you consistently carry tall rear-seat passengers, or prefer to swap driving dynamics for more options, then there are other vehicles in this price range that you’ll undoubtedly find more suitable. But the 323i comes to the table bearing considerable weight: a high-quality feel, superb handling, comfortable seats, buttery-smooth ride, and traditionally high resale value. If you’ve always discounted BMW because it’s a premium marque, this entry-level model may pleasantly surprise you.

Technical Data: 2006 BMW 323i Sedan

Base price $35,200
Options $4,500 (Premium Package of sunroof, auto-dimming mirror, heated seats and cruise control $2,200; Sport Package of three-spoke leather sport steering wheel, 16-inch star spoke alloy wheels, sport suspension and sport seats $1,500; metallic paint $800)
Freight $1,300
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $41,100 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives
Type 4-door, 5-passenger midsize sedan
Layout Front engine/rear-wheel-drive
Engine 2.5-litre inline 6, DOHC, 24 valves
Horsepower 174 @ 5800 rpm
Torque 170 lb-ft @ 3500 rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual
Tires P225/50R16 Bridgestone Potenza
Curb weight 1485 kg (3273 lbs)
Wheelbase 2760 mm (108.6 in.)
Length 4526 mm (178.1 in.)
Width 1817 mm (71.5 in.)
Height 1421 mm (55.9 in.)
Cargo capacity 460 litres (16.2 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 11.1 L/100 km (25 mpg Imp)
  Hwy: 6.9 L/100 km (41 mpg Imp)
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km
Powertrain Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km

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