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.
Many people believe that the E46 was the last great 3 Series BMW, deriding the subsequent E90 and F30 generations as too big and soft. Of course, which generation was the “last great one” varies widely, but any generation before the F30 seems to qualify.
I mention below that only the sedan was redesigned, while the coupe, convertible and hatchback will follow in 2000. There wasn’t a lot of interest in the 318ti (although I’d love to find one in decent condition with reasonable mileage today), so BMW decided late that the E46 hatchback wasn’t going to be imported. Coincidentally, it’s around this time that Mercedes chose to expand the C-Class with the introduction of a 2-door hatchback with an available manual transmission. It generated about the same amount of interest and also only lasted one generation here.
The following review was written on July 28, 1999.
Although direct competitors, in many ways BMW and Mercedes appeal to completely different people. For example, the Mercedes C-Class, available only as a sedan with an automatic transmission, seems to appeal to those people that lust after the bigger E- and S-Classes but can’t scrape together the requisite amount of cash. The BMW 3 Series, on the other hand, comes in a wide range of body styles and more than a few buyers actually choose it over the bigger Bimmers because they prefer its smaller size, available five-speed manual and sports car-like reflexes.
Not many companies can get away with having their loss-leader be an excellent car in its own right. So when it came time to redesign the 3-series for this year, BMW took an “evolutionary” approach. The “chiseled from a block of stone” look has been replaced with more curves, a steeper rake to the rear window, a larger twin-kidney grill integrated into the hood, and larger head lamps. Inside, BMW continues to refine the little sedan. Forget black leatherette and hard plastic, today’s BMW has soft beige leather, a suede-like material covering the dash, and optional wood trim. Only the 323i and 328i sedans have been redesigned for 1999. The coupe, convertible and hatchback will follow shortly.
One drive, however, will dissuade anybody who thinks BMW has gone soft. The 193-horsepower, 2.8-liter inline six-cylinder engine and five-speed manual work together in kind of a Bonnie-and-Clyde-like fashion to heavily persuade you to break the law. If you could close your eyes, driving strictly by the sweet sounds of the engine, the fine precision of the transmission, and the feel of four fat tires planted firmly on the road, you would swear that this is a sports car. Until you open them and realize that your ass isn’t two-inches from the pavement, you’re not staring at the exhaust pipe of the car in front of you, and, get this, you can actually carry four passengers (in a pinch).
So if you’re having trouble decided between the Mercedes and the BMW, ask yourself: Do I want a small luxury sedan or a four-door sports car?
For more information contact 1-800-334-4BMW
Type: Four-door Sedan
Engine: 193-horsepower, 2.8 liter inline six
Transmission: Five-speed Manual
EPA Mileage: 20 city/29 highway
Retail Price: $37,345