There's a market in America for cars that were designed for a kind of driving we never do on roads we don't have -- and BMW has done well here tapping into it. The new coupe version of the 328 is another of BMW's almost perfect driver's cars that require some imagination to enjoy -- especially in crowded metro areas -- without committing a vehicular felony, anyway.
Imagine yourself, for example, on a nearly deserted stretch of perfect six-lane somewhere, with no speed limits -- instead of on an expressway, caught behind someone in an SUV simultaneously yakking on a cell phone, weaving, tailgating and clogging the passing lane.
Got a good imagination? Good. Got $34,000 to spend on a car? Better still. Got another car for when the whole family travels together? If so, your coupe might have arrived.
Think twice, however, about ordering it with my tester's $1,200 ''sport package,'' whose extra-hard tires can get to be a bit much on long trips and whose very supportive but very confining sport seats constituted my only serious dislike.
This coupe has a firmer suspension than the comparable BMW 3-Series sedan (along with a higher price, more standard equipment and a smaller trunk).
Otherwise, I think you'll find this to be a lot of car for the money -- with handling, power and amenities that carry on the BMW tradition of competence at super-legal speeds, which inspires confidence at the speeds the law and traffic congestion force us to drive.
Introduced as a 2000 model to join the previously introduced 3-Series sedans, this redesigned coupe has a 2.8 liter engine that delivers 193 hp. It's a smoothie, with variable valve timing and enough torque to make second-gear starts without a shudder and deliver quick acceleration without a downshift almost always with ease. Peak horsepower is at 5,500 rpms, and peak torque of 206 pounds feet is at only 3,500 rpms.
''Premium Fuel Only,'' says a warning on the fuel gauge.
BMW says getting from zero to 60 mph should take only 6.6 seconds out of your busy day -- or just 7.2 seconds with an automatic transmission.
Standard is a black leatherette interior tastefully trimmed in brushed aluminum (which I'd prefer any day over wood inside my car, even real wood) along with a five-speed stick that's just as good as you'd expect in a Beemer; side-impact air bags in the front doors and tubular air bags in the door pillars and forward sections of the roof rails; four-wheel disc brakes with antilock and ''Dynamic Stability Control'' (BMW's name for a system that takes antilock braking a step further by helping prevent sideways skids as well as straight-ahead skids) and traction control.
A five-speed automatic transmission is available for $1,275.
Under the convenience heading are the usual amenities like automatic heater/air conditioning; memories for the power seats, power windows and locks (the latter with remote control and an alarm); leather-covered tilt and telescoping steering wheel; plus an onboard computer.
The split rear seatback folds forward, and there's a pass-through as well for narrow items like skis (or crutches for aprhs-ski).
BMW says the 328Ci costs less than its predecessor on a comparably equipped basis.
Besides the previously mentioned seats, the sport package includes low-profile performance tires -- 225/45R-17's upfront and 245/40R-17's on the rear -- and appropriately sized alloy wheels.
The sport seats are BMW-typical in their firmness. Both front buckets have power adjustments, but their backs' wide side bolsters tend to limit elbow movement -- particularly in stick shifting. The bottom cushion's side bolstering makes climbing in rather like dropping oneself sideways, butt-first into a shallow hole. And it makes climbing out such an undignified process that you end up feeling like your grandfather.
A decent sized glovebox and door pockets comprise most of the otherwise-limited inside storage space.
There's some glare over the gauges, and the set lacks readouts for voltage and oil pressure -- absences not easily excused in an ''ultimate driving machine.''
Besides the $1,200 performance package, the tester's $37,010 price included freight, a power glass moonroof for $1,050 and an upgraded stereo with an in-dash CD player for $200.
Finally, if everything but the 328's price sounds good to you, consider the 323Ci, whose six in-line displaces 2.5 liters (yes, not 2.3 despite what the car's designation suggests) and delivers a still respectable 170 hp. It starts at $29,560 with freight.
Data on the 2000 BMW 328Ci
Engine: 2.8-liter in-line six cylinder, 193 hp.
Transmission: Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Safety: Dual front- and side-impact air bags; 4-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock; Head Protection System (tubular air bags); Dynamic Stability Control; fog lamps, daytime running lamps
Place of assembly: Regensberg, Germany
Weight: 3,197 pounds
Trunk: 9.5 cubic feet
Price as driven: $37,010, including destination charge
EPA mileage: 21 mpg city, 29 highway
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