UK CAR Review

BMW 323i SE 2.5 

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To BM or not to BM?

Not much of a question there as most people would blindly pick a BMW given the option, they may never have driven one but they would take one anyway.


That is a little more of a question. BMW offer their saloon in a range of engine displacements. That was probably a bit much for the bean counters, working out the cost of offering a range of straight sixes. Easy answer? Hark back on the heritage, keep and use the 23 moniker but stick a 2.5 engine in it for free. Therefore, when I think of it, does it hark bark to glorious models of yesteryear?

Nope, it sounds like a MAZDA.

Never mind because that is where the similarity abruptly ends.


I have to admit I was not a fan of the very old 3 series with all it sharp edges and, seeing them run around now, they look very dated if in generally good nick.

The later, re-shaped softened versions did look good though. I even liked the late 90s curving effort. I'm not convinced that the latest version is a real improvement over that one though. To be fair to BMW they are probably forced into the shape and size by the market. The 3 series is a very compact little saloon by today's standards. Most people I know that have the 3 series option (most of them reps) hark on about its class and elegance in comparison to the more normal Mondeos and Vectras. But park them together and see that it's like comparing apples and oranges. Or should that be mouldy Granny Smiths and passion fruit? The A4 is more this sort of size but even that seems big by comparison.

The damn thing does seem more a sort of overgrown Escort in size, stick a 2.5 straight six in an Escort and I'm pretty sure it would go fairly well, so it's little surprise the Beemer does.

The eye-lidded front looks fine but the humpbacked boot does not quite delight the eye so much, though it does of course give an expanded boot area. Alloy wheels are de rigueur on a BMW and BMW alloys rarely look bad. I'm sure the option list includes various macho metal sizes and micro profile tyres which look and work fine and are less of a worry rubbing and bumping kerbs. Not that we ever do that kind of thing even by mistake do we?

Exterior finish panel shut lines and door gaps are, as usual, exemplary. The remote central locking opens the door with a flick of the fob to reveal the restrained interior.

I guess most reps have to make the choice between a fully loaded, allegedly lesser car and a slightly de-specced BMW, so it's no surprise, if a little disappointing, to find no leather trim but just some jazzy patterned black cloth seats. There is a plethora of adjusters on the seat so it is no less comfortable when adjusted. These are manual but still adjust the seat position so that’s fine. 

Jumping in, I'm immediately struck by the sensation of sitting on the floor as the seat is set right down low. It will come up for those who like the bus/MPV driving position but personally I like to leave it where it is. Trim includes the plastic metalised finish that I've met before in Audis, you may prefer plastic tree, but plastic is just plastic to me. In the soft glow of the dash the leather clad steering wheel hides its air bag as well as any other and has nice little shaping around the spokes to soothe the thumbs. It could be a little more pliant to the hands but that is just personal preference. The gear stick is almost hidden in its stubbiness but falls easily to hand.

It’s late winter, dry and very cold but the BMW has a good heating and ventilation system and it's almost a novelty as it lets you direct the warm blast in multiple directions at once so you don’t have to freeze whilst the windscreen defrosts.

In the back, accommodation is reasonable but, given the car's lack of size, four seater would be a more accurate description than five seater.



Okay, so the leather got lost in the deal but air con made it and so did everything else of consequence. I’m sure some of the fripperies of modern motoring are missing but if they’re not here I can live without them. I think it's described as a polychromatic rear view mirror which seems to me like a very long-winded way of saying it's got a blue tint. It gave me a couple of little moments as every time a pair of lights flashed across the rear I thought a Police car had turned its lights on behind me. Not that I was doing anything to warrant a pull, Officer.





Ah, the sweet straight six, the distilled base of BMW's attraction, one of its major selling points, its defining engineering focus and yet also its limiting factor.

What, you cry, how can such a beauty be a limiting factor? Well, for one it's long, oh so long, and two it’s long, oh so long. It really can only go in a car this small North to South and that means it sticks out the front and into the cabin. It's only really sensible to stick the gearbox behind it and drive the rear wheels via a prop shaft and a rear axle, thus pinching more cabin space and boot space. So it’s really way too difficult to stick it into the clone front-wheel-everything cars which pollute our roads. On the up side, rear wheel drive opens up a whole new world of handling performance, balance and grip. It’s a design decision that BMW are sticking with and it's repaying them in spades.

Ignoring the design factors of where you send the motion after you have created it, you can open the bonnet and gaze upon the engine which, whilst hardly a thing of beauty hidden as it is under the mountainous debris of modern emission and noise controls, is a sight to see when relieved of its covers. The immaculate crackle black block and head are as clean to the eye as a motorbike power plant, not just your usual rough cast block dipped in cheap paint. Long cams open lots of valves with clockwork reliability and no matter what revs are being made, do it with the straight six's natural trump card - vibration free smoothness.

It's probable that BMW found that the old 2.3 unit offered nothing that the 2.5 didn’t in terms of economy and smoothness, just with a touch less power, which is why the 2.5 now resides under the 23 badge. In terms of outright power it offers plenty, even if it's not exactly rip snorting, road ripping, rubber shredding. But BMW has other options on that. This unit is well within its design parameters which should mean a long and productive under-stressed life. What it doesn’t cut short on though, is the famous turbine-like delivery that’s easy to understand for even the most retarded non-mechanical brain. The more it revs, the faster it goes It’s as simple as that, until the rev limiter puts a stop to your fun. It pulls from low down with ever-increasing urgency with a single fluid rising staccato growl (very muted but just audible) and is similar to being pulled along like a giant elastic band.

Doesn’t that happen in all cars? Ha ha ha, not on your Nelly. The more exotic the car, the more exaggerated the power band it would seem. There are lots of cars about that do nothing until the revs hit 4000 or even 6000 or even more in a certain much-hyped sports car. This isn’t one of them; you’re never stranded in a gear too high with little forward motion.

And that’s just fine when you want to be lazy and not change gear and is sometimes used to excuse a poor changing gearbox. However, BMW need no such excuses because the gearbox shifts as well as the engine revs through its five speed gate so, should you want to rev the nuts off the engine to extract every last ounce of performance, you can do so without sweat.

That’s not to say you can drive it with the nonchalant disinterest of a Honda Civic or Audi A4. The pedals tell you that immediately as they all have a little weight behind them, even the long throttle. For those used to modern cars with feather-light controls it can be a shock at first but in reality they just tell you that input is required. They are not heavy in the way of rusty old British Leyland sheds, they just have a little meat behind them, just enough to tell you mechanical work is happening.

The Beemer also appears to have a very light flywheel and, for a car this small, an engine this big needs a few more revs than expected to pull away. It probably helps to explain the electric response to throttle application too.

Would a 328, 330 or 399 or whatever else BMW do be better than this? Well, if pure speed is your only method of comparison, yes it would. Would my licence last long? No it wouldn’t. Is the 323 plenty? Yes - under the current anti-car government and ever-increasing gaze of proliferating speed cameras it surely is.


Older BMWs were often cited for being a little, shall we say, tail happy. Mild oversteer on demand is one thing but swapping ends is another and BMW have slowly erased these traits from the 3 series cars.

I’m sure that, given a wide enough circuit and large enough testicles, you could still get the tail swinging around as physics can only be stretched so far. For many makers the easy option to deal with oversteer is to engineer in early understeer to put you off.

If BMW have done this then, frankly, I could not tell as this car holds its line without any fuss or drama. Get it well into a corner and press on harder and it seems to just tighten its line and grip harder. You would swear the tyres were made of some form of glue compound rather than rubber.

Getting it stuck hard into a corner is not difficult either, the steering feels a little woolly and vague around centre but comes alive with a little lock. This is probably a good thing as what you want is Merc-like stability in a straight line and fast responses in the corners. I've got to say, the wheel is not quite as responsive and alive as an older 5 series I once tested but still strikes a nice balance between response and stability. Some of the feel has to be down to the well judged power assistance which, as it should, assists the steering rather than overwhelms it.

Suspension-wise its nigh on perfect, it rides with aplomb without ever delving into sofa territory and the body control is excellent, allowing you to switch from hard right to hard left and vice versa without ever ruffling the feathers of the chassis.

The brakes, as ever, are superb and reward a good hard press with a good hard squealing stop.




Well, you've got remote central locking with some of the toughest locks in the business and the usual clever electronics to deter the casual scumbag. However, if it were mine I'd have some big, horrible visual deterrent at the top of the purchase list.

If you manage to lose one of these through over-exuberance you really are going way too stupid or should not be allowed near any car. Still, if you do, or get involved with other morons, then the air bags will help, although without actually crashing I could not accurately ascertain just how many balloons are fitted.

If the superb brakes can't help you out maybe the ABS will. If not, it's time to start praying.



So you want the best saloon money can buy. Is this it?

Well, that depends on your criteria:

Fantastic to drive it may be but if you really need a Mondeo-sized car, you are a bit stuck. Cos it's never going to be that big. It's also a saloon and they are never going to be quite as practical as a hatch.

BMW have tried hard; the car very much has a wheel at each corner with little in the way of overhang to maximise space within the confines of its length/wheelbase. The boot is a fair size and the back seats fold for more room although you are limited to what will fit through the boot lid. Some of the boot gets consumed by the battery which is displaced from the front. BMW probably claim this is for balance. If they can show me where under the bonnet it could have gone I might just believe them.

Why I would buy a 2.5 litre BM and then be overly-concerned about fuel bills beats me but one of those useless analogue consumption gauges sits in the dash. It's amusing for it to report 50+mpg when creeping along b roads at legal speeds but not quite so when it drops to 10mpg when pulling away from the lights. If it were mine I would put a piece of tape over it to stop it irritating me.

I assume you want four doors because you have some kind of family commitments and I suppose it does make a nice little family car so long as you have a nice little family. The only problem I can see is that most families with one would have two cars and, in that case, I would be trying to swap this for the coupe version and stitch her indoors up with a Volvo.

Still, if you've got one or two tidy children and a small non-moulting dog or, preferably a cat that doesn’t need to get in the car, you can have a 4 door saloon, appear to be New Age family man and still have your propeller badge on the key fob.

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