BMW 323i Cabriolet

(Image not mine)

Summer 1999

Summer was here, the sun was shining and I had some miles to cover. Christine and I had planned a 10-day holiday in the UK, after which I had some business meetings in Paris and Brussels. Well, what else was there for it but to hire a nice fast European convertible?

First Impressions

Except that it didn't seem that fast. After driving a two-ton behemoth with not much greater power output, I expected the 323i to feel a lot quicker than it did. Perhaps it was just the disappointing exhaust note, or the unshakeable way in which it held the road, but I never found it exciting. I'm sure the auto gearbox (I hate it that so many rental companies insist on autos) had something to do with it, but I often wished I had the more powerful 328i.


Accommodation was another shortcoming. Despite it being a mid-sized car, there isn't much room inside a 3-series, and the boot in this one was tiny because of the electric hood which, incidentally, is excellent. Thank God for the back seats, we thought, as we heaved our luggage in there instead. But what little space there was, was full of smooth soft leather and the seats are actually very comfortable.


Weight is such an important factor in a car's performance, and so rarely mentioned. Well I'm going to mention it: this is a fat car. Most convertibles are heavier than their hardtop equivalent (I used to drive a Golf Cabriolet and that was definitely on the porky side, too) because of the extra reinforcing required to maintain some semblance of stiffness after you've lopped off part of the body. But this Beemer felt particularly leaden. 0-60 times are in the same ballpark as the Range Rover - around 10 seconds - which is unforgiveable for an expensive car with sporty pretensions. Top speed (125mph roof down, at least 140 with it up) was more invigorating but of course you hardly ever get the chance to use it - I only gave it a quick blast on the odd empty autoroute.


So what's it like to drive? Well, to be honest, not terribly exciting. Although the Beemer is supposed to have huge reserves of grip, and be a proper intuitive driver's car, I never got the feeling it was encouraging me to try harder; nor did it inspire huge confidence. But a couple of times I pushed my luck on corners and, well, it went round them. Nothing earth-shattering.


What is shattering is the image of the car: people assume you're either some city hotshot in red braces (there is still a national memory of the eighties in there somewhere) or someone similarly undeserving - like a crack dealer, or an NHS financial consultant. They cut you up, or they want to race you; they just dislike you on sight. A former colleague in London used to drive one and described it as the most gobbed-on car he'd ever had. Perhaps for different reasons, I can understand why - this is not a popular car, neither with other road users nor with me.

This is the only real practical limitation there is to this car, which is fast (enough), comfortable (if slightly snug) and should certainly be reliable.


A disappointment. Ultimate driving machine..? I think not.


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