Classic CARmentary: 1998 BMW 323is

Another in a series of my reviews that appeared in the online version of African Americans On Wheels, a now defunct automotive magazine that was included as an insert in the Sunday newspapers of major cities.

I was excited about this car since this would be the first BMW I would have the opportunity to drive since my roommate’s battered and bruised 1982 320i.  We drove it up to Connecticut for the funeral of a distant relative, and aside from the narrow seats being a bit uncomfortable for long trips, it wasn’t bad.  We did get a few, “Did you move to New Jersey and buy a BMW?” questions (New Jersey is the location of BMW’s U.S. headquarters, so BMW press cars have NJ plates).  I wanted to say yes just for fun, but I’m honest to a fault.

I don’t know if it was the automatic or all of the luxury features that made it feel more like a luxury car than an aesthetic driver’s car like the 320i, but it just didn’t move me.  I wonder if a 318ti with a stick would have left more of an impression since I’m partial to small, sparsely equipped cars. 

The BMW 323is, an entry-level luxury coupe, is almost in a class by itself. It’s nearest competitors are the Saab 9-3 Turbo and Acura 3.0CL, but the 323 is the only one with rear-wheel drive, a preferred configuration for most sports cars.

The 323is replaces the 318is as the base coupe, and is the first six-cylinder BMW in years with a base price less than $30,000. The 3-Series is also available as a sedan, convertible and hatchback in various four- and six-cylinder configurations. The current generation has been around since 1992 but is being replaced with an all new model over the next three years.

The rigid structure seems air-tight, and the frameless windows even drop a little to ease opening and closing the doors. Get inside and you find that the driving position is near-perfect, even without a tilt-adjustable steering wheel. The instrument panel is angled toward the driver, so all of the controls are within easy reach. The power steering gives just enough boost to ease driving while still providing a good feel of the road. On top of the excellent handling, traction control is standard (and it can be disabled if you’re feeling like a pro). The 323is accelerates strongly, and the four-speed automatic is a perfect match for the engine, although the standard five-speed manual would definitely be more fun.

Due to its small size and rear-wheel drive, the interior is cramped, with narrow seats in front (which made long trips difficult) and little leg room in the rear. Compared to a sports car such as the Toyota Supra, however, it’s pretty roomy. The trunk is also on the small side, but the rear seats fold to increase cargo room. Also included is the customary BMW tool kit – a nice touch.

The only major annoyance is the cruise control, which became very jerky when trying to maintain a constant speed downhill.

Although inherently less practical than sedans or SUVs, a proper coupe such as the 323is possesses two characteristics most other vehicles can only aspire to – style and substance.

For more information contact 1-800-334-4BMW


Type: 2-Door Coupe
Engine: 168-horsepower, 2.5 liter inline 6
Transmission: 4-Speed Automatic
EPA Mileage: 19 city/27 highway
Tested Price: $30,505