2000 BMW 323Ci Convertible

2000 BMW 323Ci Convertible 2000 BMW 323Ci Convertible
Road Test

Motown just got a brand-spanking-new baseball stadium. The 88-year-old Tiger Stadium, where Ty Cobb perfected the blood sport of spiking and Denny McLain pitched 31 wins in the '68 season, just wasn't fancy enough anymore. (Read: There was no room to add on silver, gold, platinum, and unobtanium-level club suites.) So, after years of legal and political jiggery-pokery, the new Comerica Park (hey, everything's for sale these days) opened in April to great fanfare. At a gala open house held one chilly, damp spring day, fans rejoiced at the unobstructed views, terrific replay monitor, and superb concessions. Detractors noticed the concrete already had cracks in it, there was standing water on the upper decks, puddles in the few remaining cheap bleacher seats, and a wind-tunnel effect that made the whole place feel cold and uninviting. But, while the crotchety old buggers continue to call for a return to "the Corner," "the Park" is here to stay.

Several of us in this office felt a similar crotchety reluctance to accept the new E46-generation BMW 3-series, which grew larger, gained luxury and weight, and had its crisp styling rounded off in a recent redesign for '99. These unwelcome developments were mitigated by the car's increased refinement and a slight hike in its performance relative to the former E36 car, helping it retain a spot on our 10Best list. Meanwhile, the old body style continued production in convertible guise through 1999, and it even won a comparison test in its eighth model year ["Four Showstoppers," December 1998]. We loved that car. And now BMW has made the convertible bigger and heavier, too.

First, let's affirm the indisputable improvements. The interior is now fit to deliver a couple of gold-, if not platinum-level, big shots and their high-maintenance wives to the park. The dash and the trim are upgraded to better suit the car's (and driver's) rung on the status ladder. All four seats are more coddling. With belts mounted to the front seatbacks, there's no annoying strap to flap in the wind when the top's down or to snag one's bouffant while crawling into the back. There's also a button on each seatback to motor the front seats forward double-quick for even easier rear-seat entry (the seats even know to return to their original positions).

The rear seat adds almost four inches of much needed legroom, and the 2.3-inch-wider rear backrest allows two pairs of shoulders to nestle in and fully face forward -- unlike in the previous model. Add in the new car's improved aerodynamics, which reduce the wind noise and draft (even without the $449 optional wind blocker), and it's clear that the E46 is a more civilized BMW.

Trunk space is increased -- at least when the softtop is up. The top well that hangs down into the trunk can now be raised to free up three cubic feet of space. Doing so brings total luggage volume to 11 (up from nine in the E36 ragtop).

The rear window is at last made of scratchproof glass, and it's heated. Although the blind spots are wider than in the old car, they're not dangerously so. The optional electrohydraulic power top ($1400, including wood trim, an auto-dimming mirror, and a built-in garage-door opener) works the same as last year's, but -- impatient sun worshipers rejoice -- it's seven seconds quicker.

Augmenting the 3-cabrio's already impressive safety résumé; (front and front side airbags, seatbelt pretensioners) are ISOFIX child safety-seat anchor points and the incorporation of last year's $1450 optional rollover protection as standard equipment. Within 0.11 second of sensing an impending rollover, two roll hoops spring out of the rear headrests.

Best news of all: These spiffs add only $290 to the 1999 convertible's base price, bringing the 2000 323Ci in at $35,560 to start -- a real bargain, considering that includes about $1700 worth of previously optional equipment.

Now for the less convincing progress. As with all new cars, this one boasts of improved torsional rigidity. BMW's numerical claim suggests that if you bolted the car to three jack stands -- two each at the front corners, and one at the center rear -- it would take a weight of nearly 2800 pounds set on a rear corner to twist the car one-degree. Sounds impressive, eh? But out on our wavy and imperfect 10Best loop, the 323Ci's steering wheel and dash seemed to quiver every bit as much as they did in the old model. These tremors read as static muddling the digital-quality communication between the suspension and wheel rim in most BMWs. Even on newly paved freeways, the rearview mirror keeps up a side-to-side shimmy that might provoke seasickness in those who keep a close eye out for coppers closing on their rear flank.