By Jeremy Cato
In 1998, they called it the car the old BMW 3-series would go to bed dreaming about becoming in the morning – “they”, being BMW officials.
So here we are three-plus years later and it turns out “they” knew what they were talking about. The first total re-make of the 3-series in eight years has proved to be something pretty special. It had to be. The 3-series will not likely be completely re-styled and re-engineered for at least three more years. During that time rival automakers will continue to take aim at a car that has become the standard among executive cars priced new from the mid-$30,000s to the mid-$40,000s.
Interestingly, back in 1998 when I reviewed the changes to the ’99 model I said I’d love to own a 328i, but I also said I wasn’t sure this car was as brilliant as the previous 3-series was when it arrived.
So much for critics. BMW Canada had a record year for sales last year in Canada, most of it driven by the 3-series. What buyers have approved in this car is a body structure made stiffer by 50 per cent for the ’99 model year, as well as six-cylinder engines offering broader, smoother power, a slick five-speed automatic transmission and a dreamy five-speed manual.
Drive a three-year-old 3-series and you’ll experience a quiet sports sedan, one with more room than its predecessor (pre-’99 cars), not to mention being more supple on the road, safer, and reasonably cost-effective to maintain.
That last point is an important one. BMW owners will tell you that their cars are beautiful to drive, but pricy to keep serviced. One thing BMW has done in recent years is pay for regular maintenance for the first three years/60,000 km. That won’t help you if you’re buying a used car out of its maintenance warranty. However, it does indicate the likelihood the previous owner has taken care of business.
Point is, a nearly-new 3-series automobile is a more-affordable alternative to a new one. Take a 1999 328i. One that originally sold for $44,900 should be now around in the used market for about $28,500. Yes, maintenance and repairs will cost more than the average, but overall quality has been good. So in a general sense you should not be worried about big problems.
Okay, some facts about what BMW did for ’99 and has done since. The ’99 3-series looks quite a bit like a scaled down version of the 5-series which was re-designed in ’96. Certainly the ’99 car was less sharp-edged but more taut-looking than the older model. Inside, BMW gave the ’99 car a wider dash with near-perfect instruments. Alas, the radio controls proved unnecessarily confusing. Seats are BMW firm and well-bolstered at the side.
For safety, BMW offered front and side airbags, with optional sides for the rear. BMW also included a side airbag curtain.
Under the hood, the 328i came with a straight six that put out the same 190-horsepower as the previous year’s engine. But useable engine power was made available at very low engine speeds, right to the 6,300 rpm redline. The ’99 323, meanwhile, got a new-generation six-cylinder rated at 170 hp, versus its predecessor’s 138 hp.
Since launch day there have been some engine changes. For 2001, BMW expanded the 3-series lineup to include the 168-hp 320, the 184-hp 325 and a 225-hp 330. New convertibles, four-wheel-drive versions and the powerful M3 (coupe and convertible) have all joined the 3-series lineup in the last couple of years.
Regardless of model, all these cars “feel” great from behind the wheel. Credit the 50-50 weight distribution, rear-drive (or four-wheel drive) cars and smart engineering. The German magazine Auto Forum once noted that BMW historically makes radical design changes only every other model re-make. So a truly novel 3-series won’t arrive until 2004 or 2005. Thus, even a three-year-old 3-series will look current to the middle of this decade.