successor to BMW's well-respected 1602/2002
sports saloons of the 1960s/70s, the latest 3-Series
models continue the company's tradition of providing
family motoring in a dynamic, attractive package which
is rewarding to drive as well as practical to live with.
The most recent
3-Series cars bear visual similarities to their immediate
predecessors, but have been completely redesigned. Just
slightly larger in external dimensions, the latest models
offer improved interior space, while a longer wheelbase
and wider track contribute to greater stability. The body
shell is torsionally stiffer, and this, combined with optimum
front/rear weight distribution of 50/50 and rear-wheel-drive,
is intended to impart safe handling and a 'solid' feel.
The new cars feature a host of electronic aids
to enhance safety and dynamic performance, including anti-lock
brakes, Automatic Stability Control with Traction and Cornering
Braking Control to correct excessive oversteering/sliding
when cornering 'on the limit'. Further
safety features include six airbags (driver, passenger,
front door side units, plus side head airbags), height-adjustable
seat belts, belt latch tensioners and belt force limiters.
Aluminium suspension components are employed
to reduce unsprung weight and improve ride quality. Power-assisted
steering is also standard equipment across the range.
BMW take very seriously the security of their
vehicles; so it is worth noting that the 3-Series recently
won the Upper Medium Class in this year's tough and highly
respected British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association
of the new models can choose between a 118 bhp, 1.9-litre,
four-cylinder petrol engine (318i), with balancer shafts
to enhance smoothness and cut noise, or two six-cylinder
petrol units (2.3-litre, 323i or 2.8-litre, 328i), both
of which benefit from infinitely variable valve timing to
provide greater torque output at low engine speeds as well
as more flexible and useable performance in real life road
Diesel aficionados will (from the summer) be
able to opt for the 320d, with an all-new 136 bhp two litre
direct injection power unit, which produces a thumping 206
lb-ft. of torque at just 1,750 rpm and with which around
50 mpg should be achievable in everyday use. A four cylinder
316i will also be available soon.
Service intervals have been extended for reduced
long-term running costs, and the signs are that the low
depreciation rates of the previous 3-Series models will
be repeated with the new cars, so that eventual trade-in
values will be relatively high.
Our test car was a 318i, in 'SE' guise.
In addition to the comprehensive standard specification
for all 3-Series versions (incorporating, for example, a
remote control alarm system, immobiliser, electrically operated
front windows, stereo system - pre-wired for a CD player,
and a host of other items), the 318I SE featured 15 inch
aluminium alloy wheels, automatic air conditioning
(or alternatively, an electrically operated glass sun roof),
an automatically dimming rear view mirror, front fog lamps,
a front centre arm rest, and heated washer jets/exterior
mirrors, are all standard. Options
include an on-board trip computer and a satellite navigation
system with visual and audio prompts.
touches seldom encountered these days include the provision
of a toolkit and a rechargeable torch.
Leg room is generous throughout (although tall
passengers would have preferred a little more headroom in
the rear) and the seats, although comparatively firm, proved
to be far more comfortable on long trips than first acquaintance
would suggest. In addition, the car's inherently good ride
quality meant that the cabin was well-insulated from road
shocks. Our test car was also a quiet, refined performer
- at all speeds - making for relaxing travel for all occupants.
On long journeys at night, rear seat passengers appreciated
the additional interior lights, built into the rear quarter
panels; these lamps did not distract the driver!
Although the boot opening is not huge, the
compartment itself is long, wide and fairly deep, enabling
holiday luggage to be swallowed with relative ease.
It is out on the open road where the new 3-Series
really excels. The engine is lively and a willing performer
and high cruising speeds are soon attained. For the record,
BMW figures show a nought to 62 mph acceleration time of
just 10.4 seconds with a top speed of some 128 mph. However,
the bare figures alone cannot convey the manner in which
this car performs, for it is truly a joy to drive. This
is helped by the delightfully smooth, slick-changing five-speed
manual gearbox, although automatic transmissions is available
as an option.
engine pulls strongly at all speeds and is quite happy in
town use at low rpm. When optimum acceleration is required,
changing down a cog brings instant and eager acceleration,
and a slightly louder, yet still subdued purr from under
the bonnet is the only indication that the motor is working
Most drivers should see better than 35 miles
per gallon when touring; indeed the trip computer on our
test vehicle showed an average of nearer 37 mpg during one
140 mile trip from south Dorset to north Somerset and back
again, taking in minor lanes and villages, as well as main
I felt that the car's ride quality, steering
and braking characteristics were exemplary for a sports
saloon; it goes where it is pointed, with ease and without
fuss. The 'chassis' design is accommodating of road surface
imperfections without being too soft, and a safe feel is
imparted to the driver and passengers alike, even on the
tortuously twisty roads encountered in this part of the
world. The car's poise and adhesion through a series of
fast curves has to be experienced to be truly appreciated;
simply first class. For those who are
interested in what goes on under the bonnet, the in-line
engine/gearbox and rear wheel drive layout means that there
is plenty of space around the power unit, and access space
for routine checks is far more generous than in most modern
cars. To sum up, we were highly impressed
by the latest version of the 3-Series. The 318i tested proved
to be a thoroughly competent machine in virtually every
respect, and I found it genuinely fun to drive, both in
town and on the open road. Quibbles? Visibility to the rear
is restricted (due to the car's high rear quarters) and
perhaps the interior treatment could look more opulent,
but these are minor points in relation to the overall excellence
of the vehicle.
But how much does it cost? The 318i costs £19,745;
the SE version, £21,045. Our SE test car was equipped with
the optional computer and navigation system, together costing
an additional £1,650 (the computer alone is priced at £250).
If you prefer six cylinders, the 323I SE will set you back
£24,745; the 328I SE, £28,145 (all these figures are 'on
the road' prices).