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by Dr. Iain Corness

BeeMmm 323iA - How good is it really?

Let me begin this test by saying the BMW 323iA has one helluva presence, even just sitting at the kerb side. While reminiscent of the previous 3 series cars, this current shape does not share panels with previous models, and it is a shape that certainly draws admiration from those around it. During the week long test I was bombarded with requests to drive it from “just around the block” to “just one night.” 323 and I left a trail of disappointment.

BMW has been one of the vehicle manufacturers in the forefront of the electronics movement in the motorcar industry and these days have products which are as much mobile computers as moving machinery. In fact, the 323iA’s on board computer was prepared to tell me the time, the outside temperature, my average fuel consumption, range before refuelling and my average speed.

Now that may be wonderful electronic micro computing, but I must say I sometimes wonder if we really need all these multi purpose functions? For example, my microwave oven tells me the time of day. That’s all very fine but I have a watch that does that for me perfectly adequately. I would not buy a watch that cooks, so why should I pay extra for a cooker that tells the time? So to the on board computer that tells me the outside temperature - perhaps important in Europe for icy roads - but for here? Paste the word “HOT” over the dial and you’re correct. Average speed and average consumption? Quite frankly, who cares? I certainly do not. Distance before refuelling - now that one I do agree with, but that is only one in five of the offered functions.

However, before you label me as old fashioned, there are some parts of BMW’s electronics package that are sensationally good. The little brain that watches your driving style and will alter the change point engine revs to suit the more sporty than sedate driver is called adaptive transmission control and works very well.

Automatic stability control (ASC) is another of the electronic aids to safer driving making it almost impossible to spin the rear wheels, but BeeEmm do warn, “Not even ASC + T/DSC (traction control) can overcome the laws of physics. If the limit speed is exceeded, the driver is responsible for the consequences... The extra safety potential of this system must never be understood as an invitation to take additional risks.” BMW also acknowledge that there will be times when you would like to turn it all off and it is possible to do this at the push of a button. I was reminded of this feature around ten years ago when doing an evaluation on a 7 series BMW with Boeries Von Breitenburg, BMW’s chief development driver at the time. I remarked that while the ASC definitely did work, it took some of the fun out of driving the car on the skid pan. He agreed and said, “But under here is ze switch to turn it off!”

While still on electronics, one feature that has again been a BMW item for many years is the memory for seating, wheel and mirror positions. I have always been miffed by the fact that every parking attendant and car wash jockey has to automatically move your seat from the position that took you days of fiddling to get exactly to your ultimate ergonomic position. With one button the 323iA memorizes the whole shooting match and at another touch of the said button the positions are returned to your settings. There are also two more setting memories if there are other regular drivers. For me, I can assure you that I would not allow others to drive my BMW - I am far too selfish for that!

The instruments on the test car were very easy to read, but again, BeeEmm gave me too much. The Energy Meter which shows whether you are driving economically or otherwise is a prime example. When you have spent over 2 million baht to buy this car, are you really worrying about driving economically? I’m sorry, but I don’t care if the fossil fuels will have run out because of my lack of thrift by the time my grandchildren want to drive to the shops. Alternative and better fuels will have been invented by then, but if we all pussy-foot around saving the stuff there’s no stimulus for them to get on with hydrogen power, or electro-gas or whatever. No, I am doing the future a favour by using as much petrol as I possibly can. Let’s break the Arab oil cartels as soon as possible! Throw the gauge away Herr BMW. We don’t need it.

While on the gripes, I personally do left foot braking when driving automatics, and the pedal on the 323iA was not extended to the left enough to make this comfortable. Perhaps next model?

Another small one - the doors fit beautifully and close with a reassuring “thunk”, but they are damn heavy. I honestly found the driver’s door a little bit of a hassle to extend fully open. Perhaps the price to pay for the satisfying “thunk”?

So to the drive. After getting the seat, mirrors and steering wheel in the right proportions (and memorized) it was off into the sparse Pattaya traffic. Visibility is excellent and I did not find the A pillars too intrusive. The engine is exceptionally quiet and even under hard acceleration could not be called noisy. The suspension soaked up the city’s roads without protest from the car (or the passengers). The 323iA was what you could call “very refined” in the way that it did everything asked of it around town, with no fuss and no foibles.

However, I am not one of those motoring writers who do comprehensive write-ups from the car park at Big C. The place to test any vehicle, to see just what it can or cannot do, is in the safety of a purpose built race track. Fortunately I have the Bira Circuit at my disposal and 323iA was taken there.

It was here that the true nature of the 323iA could be demonstrated. The lusty 6 cylinder 2.4 litre engine which develops 125 kW can propel this car with smooth, swift acceleration in the Drive mode, but by moving the shift lever to the left you enter the Sports mode. Here the change-up points are much further up the rev range and you really are becoming the “sporty” driver. But it doesn’t end there, because by now moving the stick, the transmission changes into a clutchless 5 speed sequential gearbox. I first met this transmission some years ago when it was an option on the M series BMW’s, and they have refined it further from there. While you are in control of whatever gear you want to be in, the central computer will shift out of it if it is inappropriate, or if it would send the engine RPM past the red-line. Clever little computer!

After performance, the other factor best demonstrated on the racetrack is road holding. Let me tell you that this BMW is so sure footed, it was very difficult to get it to slide, even at “silly” speeds. It took quite some doing to get it so out of shape that the ASC light would come on to say, “You’re doing it wrong - I’ll get everything back right again.” The speeds at which the car would become an off-road projectile would be phenomenal. This means just an incredible safety margin between the speeds at which you will attempt the corner, compared to the speeds at which the car is capable of doing it.

This car passed the track test with flying colours - it is a great sporting Grand Touring car which with no fuss will also dribble down to the supermarket with Mum at the helm and three children in the rear. The boot space will take the week’s groceries and the inherent safety in the design will get them all home in one piece. To say I was impressed would be an understatement. The 323iA was just a damn fine car.

The test car was supplied by BMW (Thailand) and costs 2.4 million baht. Like John Weinthal who tested the 330 coupe in Australia, I did not like handing this car back. If you have the money, BMW have the car you deserve! Check it out.

Autotrivia Quiz

Last week I wrote about Henry Ford, founder of the FoMoCo empire who held a Land Speed record in the early 1900’s. It was almost not allowed and I asked why. The answer was a wonderful one for the pedantic. The reason was that Henry F set the speed record on a frozen lake and there was great debate as to whether this could be called a “land” speed record! (I thank famous motoring writer Mike Lawrence for that wonderful snippet.)

So to this week. The great American racecar driver Barney Oldfield was given his start in motor racing in a roundabout way by the same Henry Ford. Ford had built two 18 litre monsters in 1902 and one of the drivers did not like the second car and Barney Oldfield took it over, raced and won at the Grosse Point fairground. What was so remarkable about Barney Oldfield’s first race?

For the Automania FREE beer this week, be the first correct answer to fax 427 596 or email [email protected]

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