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Nashville Scene Stake and Sizzle

BMW's 3-series turns 33 in '99

By Marc Stengel

FEBRUARY 15, 1999:  The stakes couldn't be higher. BMW, long regarded the sporty maverick among prestige-brand autos, is watching the automotive landscape change before its very eyes. Mercedes-Benz is now a transatlantic multinational since the conglomeration of DaimlerChrysler last fall. Fiscal woes might be plaguing Japan, but they're also setting the stage for attractive exchange-rate advantages for premium Infiniti and Lexus models. And Audi is glorying in its new lease on life, thanks to parent Volkswagen's all-but-declared ambition to rule the automotive world.

For its own part, BMW is sullenly declaring that it has allowed much too long a leash to its Rover Group investment in the U.K. What's more, in a noisy shoot-out last fall for control of fabled Rolls-Royce, BMW only managed to outmaneuver VW at the last minute for rights to license the Rolls-Royce name--and even then, it will have to wait until 2003 before it can do so. Too shrewd and too plucky to await attack from all sides, the company has leapt forth from its Bavarian stronghold with a completely redesigned 3-Series sedan that it firmly declares to be a world-beater.

At first, the new 328i sedan and its smaller sibling the 323i look like predictable extensions of the four generations of "baby Bimmers" they supersede. The windswept profile and rounded, sloping corners give the entire silhouette the appearance of having been extruded from a single, giant envelope of sheetmetal. The stylistic cues that pay homage to BMW's big brother 5-Series and 7-Series sedans are obvious and intentional.

But the new 3-Series is far from derivative. The car's most radical departure for '99 is its self-image: Although the smallest sedan in BMW's lineup, the 3-Series is no entry-level car. Wearing a base price of $26,400 for the 323i and $33,400 for the 328i, these sedans make no pretense of attracting budget buyers. What BMW intends for '99 is to blur the identity of a car that is legally classified a subcompact. By growing the car in several important dimensions, the 3-Series represents a direct assault on Audi's cramped but comparable A4 sedan and Mercedes' C-Class. What's even more nervy, however, is the significant challenge this best-selling BMW poses to Mercedes' own sales champ, the E-Class midsize sedan.

The 3-Series had to grow up, of course, to justify an inherent price premium that can tickle the underside of $40,000 for a fully loaded 328i. Now, instead of a small car with a robust price, the 328i becomes a reasonably roomy car at a squarely competitive price. Moreover, because BMW cut manufacturing costs 20 percent, it had room to fill the new 3-Series with all manner of comfort amenities and techno-goodies.

Pristine as ever with its taut leather upholstery and myrtle wood accents, the interior of the 328i is a playground for the enthusiast driver. BMW has coaxed a few extra horsepower out of its venerable 2.8-liter straight six, but even better, the engine's torque curve has been beefed up and flattened for a much improved sensation of throttle response. The standard five-speed manual transmission is trademark silky between shifts. A new self-adjusting clutch is hypersensitive to pedal deflection, which can take a little getting used to. But once you find your rhythm behind the wheel of the 328i, this muscular little sedan sallies forth with unstinting exuberance.

The car's noticeably improved nimbleness belies its larger dimensions. You can thank the suspension designers in large measure. New, lighter, forged-aluminum control arms and links in the four-wheel independent suspension have saved 26 pounds in unsprung weight. The result is a responsive road feel that handles changes in driving surface without either hesitation or fuss. BMW's wizard-like traction control system returns for '99, of course. What's new, however, is an uncannily clairvoyant system dubbed Brake Cornering Control (BCC). Through selective and carefully timed application of individual braking forces at each wheel, BCC effectively counteracts the effects of panic braking during hard cornering.

BMW novices will still, perhaps, fume over the company's penchant for flat, crowded, and inscrutably labeled switchgear. But BMW's manner with knobs and switches does betray an indisputable logic, and learning this automotive Teutonic Braille is relatively painless...eventually. Then there's the intrinsic BMW-ishness of every car this company builds. It's a blend of self-confidence and poise that verges on hauteur, and it's not for everyone--nor is the new 328i. Beyond the bottom-line total on its window sticker, this is a car that requires a personal investment beyond the merely financial. "Let's do it my way," this snappy sports sedan seems to say, "and I'll treat you to the ride of your life."

Off the floor

Raw gold

As much fun as it is to watch as the world's major automakers court and conspire, all these fin de siècle merger maneuvers do have their personal costs. It's apparently not enough, for example, that BMW boss Bernd Pischetsrieder outwitted his Volkswagen rival to snare the Rolls-Royce rights out from under VW's acquisition of Bentley. Because BP, as he's known, is also being credited with the Rover Group's fiscal hemorrhage in the U.K., his head may be on the chopping block. At least that's what BMW spokespeople were at pains to deny last week. Yet even on mere hints of this news, blood-lusty investors pushed up the price of BMW shares by 6.5 percent last Thursday.

At least BMW can take comfort that overall sales for '98 are up a healthy 5 percent. Nissan, mired in debt and sullen sales, is growing increasingly desperate in its search for some Prince Charming to take it away from all this. It's bad enough that analyst Maryann Keller of the brokerage firm ING Baring Furman Selz was quoted last week by the Internet's "The Car Connection" as saying, "Nobody is going to buy Nissan unless they are completely out of their minds." At a breakfast conference attended by some of the auto industry's most influential executives, former Chrysler Corp. vice-chairman Bob Lutz shared this little nugget of advice, according to last week's Automotive News:

"I had suggested to some of my colleagues at DaimlerChrysler that if they really feel compelled to spend considerable amounts of money on Nissan, perhaps the best way to do it is to put $5 billion or $6 billion of gold bullion into a huge container, spray paint the word 'Nissan' on the side, tow it out to into the middle of the Pacific, and dump it overboard. That way only $5 billion will have gone down the tubes with the name 'Nissan' written on the side."

Dealer news and other views are invited via e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com, or by fax at (615) 385-2930.

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