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August 16, 1996

BMW 323i

Rating out of 5 ****

VERDICT: Fast, efficient and understated. An excellent alternative to a younger Japanese car such as a Honda Accord or Integra. GOOD: Beautifully engineered and built, fast, safe, fuel-efficient, durable.

BAD: Expensive spares, cramped and rather spartan interior.

Built to be distinctive - then refined even further - the 323i is a small but potent performer from the days of leaded petrol. John Wright appraises its character.

The first BMW 323i failed to live up to high expectations. Combining a powerful six-cylinder engine with a lightweight body and the BMW pedigree looked like a winning formula but the car was flawed, with spooky hand-ling on wet roads being the major disappointment.

But a new model introduced in 1983 built on the original's virtues and in the main combatted its failings.

The 323i was aimed at buyers looking for a high performance sporting two-door sedan. Those who wanted a cheaper way of displaying the BMW badge could buy the four-cylinder 318i which had the same styling.

Four-door versions of both models came in 1984. For some buyers the additional doors enhanced the practicality of this smallest BMW, but for others they detracted from the 323i's sporting image.

Superbly smooth, the 2.3-litre six-cylinder BMW engine gave the 323i outstanding acceleration (in the same order as a 5.0-litre V8 manual Com-modore) and great cruising ability, yet fuel economy was impressive.

A five-speed manual transmission was standard. For the first few months of production the automatic transmission option was an old-fashioned three-speed unit from the previous 3 Series model but a four-speed unit was introduced early in 1984.

Keen drivers loved the 323i not only for its acceleration but for its beautiful steering (power assisted, but with great feel and accuracy), eager handling with a greatly reduced tendency to slide the tail out, strong braking and that overall feel of having been engineered for the driver.

Remember, this was when BMW was promoted as "The Ultimate Driving Machine".

It was far from luxurious, but all materials were of obviously excellent quality and the finish was superb. No squeaks, rattles or groans were going to mar this particular ultimate driving experience and no nasty fake wood compromised the purposeful elegance of the dashboard. Unkind critics described the interior as austere, but it was more your no-frills, utterly functional (for which read: typical early '80s BMW) approach.

The downside of the car was that even routine servicing by the BMW book could cost a bomb. These models, however, gave less trouble than earlier BMWs (many six-cylinder models of the '70s had head gasket and overheating problems), but parts could be alarmingly expensive.

BMW Australia has trimmed the price of many spares which means, somewhat paradoxically, that owning a well-maintained mid-'80s BMW might be cheaper now than when the same car was younger.

The 323i had a short period on the local market, being superseded by the 325e late in 1985 when BMW made the compulsory switch to unleaded fuel for cars delivered in Australia.

It seems likely that the reputation of the 1983-85 BMW 323i was further improved by the arrival of unleaded cars which lacked its exuberant performance and overtly sporting nature. The 323i's engine thrived on high revs, while the unleaded 325e was more of a slogger than a revver.

Leaded fuel has lost some of its potency in the '90s, and this can affect the high compression BMW engine. Listen for any trace of "pinging" under heavy load because this can cause expensive engine damage. Solutions include using a quality octane booster, retarding the ignition timing and de-coking the cylinder head. Or buying another 323i that doesn't ping.

In the '80s BMW Australia's policy was to offer an extensive list of options but to keep the standard equipment list shorter than one expected in the price class.

Air-conditioning and alloy wheels were options and electric windows were on the special order list. Unsurprisingly, the fully equipped manual 323i is the most sought after on the used car market.

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The Sydney Morning Herald, 1996. This material is subject to copyright and any unauthorised use, copying or mirroring is prohibited.

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