I've had my 97 328i sport with 5spd manual since September 1999. Previously, I had driven a 93 Nissan Maxima SE, which I loved for it's sporty driving capability and bullet-proof reliability. I decided that I wanted a car with a more serious side to the sport driving experience. I wanted a rear wheel drive or all wheel drive car, because the Maxima's front wheel drive severely limited it's handling and cornering potential. I wanted a car that I could take to autocross events and race competitively in.
At first, I did not consider a BMW when looking for another car. I had heard that there were reliability problems, they were expensive to maintain, and there is the "yuppy" image that I didn't want to be identified with. After many months of researching and test driving various cars, I still hadn't found the one with the "magic". Then I broke down and test drove a 97 328 sport, on the advice of Bimmer enthusiasts on the Edmunds web site. It was love at first drive :-) The car's handling was spectacular. The acceleration, awesome. The car felt purpose-built for the kind of "at the limits" driving I revel in.
Now that I've had the car a full year, I am even more in love with it than I was at the beginning. What a car! It is such a joy to drive. It is so different from most Asian or American cars. The BMW's steering is very tight and responsive. There is very little "on center play". When you turn the wheel, the car changes direction immediately. It's almost as if your hands are on either side of the front end of the car, directing it exactly where you want it. The chassis and suspension are very capable; especially with the sport package. It remains fairly flat and controllable through corners. The inline six engine produces really spectacular acceleration, and sounds intoxicating while doing it. The manual transmission shifts smoothly and precisely.
There are only a few flaws to this otherwise perfect car. The quality of interior materials is not up to the high standards of my Maxima. German ergonomics are a little quirky. The car is a magnet for every loser and yahoo who feels the need to race a BMW. The manual transmission throws are somewhat long, as is the clutch take-up. It's easy to miss fast shifts from 2nd to 3rd gear. And the regular maintenance costs are definitely *much* higher than I expected. Oh, and I've learned to be *very* cautious of pushing too hard in a corner. The rear end *will* come around, and it can snap! Professional training in handling oversteer is needed to really extract the maximum performance from this car.
There is only one serious drawback to the BMW: the factory stereo. It is truly awful. I even got the Harmon/Kardon upgrade, and it's still awful. I had to have an aftermarket stereo, amp, and speakers put in. It sounds almost decent now, but my FM reception is still poor.
Knowing all of this, would I buy this car again? In a nano-second! None of this means a thing when I'm blasting through some twisties in my baby... effortlessly carving fast corners with that razor-sharp steering... listening to the hair-raising scream of a straight six howling near redline, with a maniacal grin plastered to my face. There is no thrill like that of driving a BMW hard and fast. Nothing else compares.