Warren, Pennsylvania - The BMW 3-series has long epitomized the sport sedan, but that's a situation that rival carmakers are increasingly unwilling to live with. Most recently, Lexus has taken a blatant run at the genre with the very convincing IS300, and Mercedes-Benz has made the 3-series' traditional rival, the C-class, much sportier with its latest redesign. Meanwhile, as if to demonstrate how the auto industry often behaves like a dog chasing its own tail, the current-generation BMW 3-series edges away from the sport sedan ideal, as BMW has made it larger, heavier, more refined, and, in essence, more like a 5-series. These disruptions to the sport sedan order meant it was time for us to gather a 330i, a C320 Sport, and an IS300. We set out from Michigan for the back roads of Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest.
Even on the somnolent Ohio Turnpike, it quickly became apparent that these sedans stand at a convergence point of driving enjoyment and value. You can spend lots more for a car, but it won't provide much more driving enjoyment. Of course, they don't provide value in precisely equal measure. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese have a better grasp of the concept than do the Germans. To wit, the IS300 starts at a low, low $30,805, a price that, in addition to the expected power windows and locks, auto-temp A/C, ABS, and traction control, includes such niceties as a six-disc in-dash CD player, xenon headlamps, and seventeen-inch alloy wheels. With dual power seats, leather-and-faux-suede upholstery, seat heaters, a sunroof, and other minor bits, our test car came in at a still-reasonable $34,635.
You'll need $34,000 just to start the ball rolling with a 330i. Of course, you'll want the sport package (M-style alloy wheels, suspension tuning, performance tires, aero kit, sport seats, etc.), a sunroof, power seats, and a CD player. Metallic paint and destination pushed our total to $38,430, and we were still sitting on vinyl.
The C320 is more expensive still at $36,950. In addition to the $2950 Sport package (suspension tuning, five-spoke wheels with performance tires, leather, sport seats), our car had an integrated phone, a ski sack, and metallic paint, for a total of $43,390. Ow.
To see where some of that money goes (or doesn't go), peek inside the three cars. See how the IS300, for instance, makes greater use of hard plastics than the others, but skillful design saves it from looking low-rent. The Lexus interior tells you this car is aimed at a younger buyer. The sport-watch-style gauges, the chrome ball shift knob, the perfect black leather steering wheel--we love it all. The only question is: How long will it stay in style?
A newfound stylishness has found its way into the C-class cabin, formerly a repository of sober, blocky shapes. The new interior isn't exactly sporty--the smallish tach in the corner of the instrument cluster can be hard to see--but neither is it likely to look dated a few years hence.
The BMW interior is plusher than the Lexus's and more businesslike than the Benz's. The large, round, white-on-black gauges are an easy read. The philosophy driving BMW's interior design is not so much to entertain with neat details or interesting shapes but rather to aid the driver in his or her task.