Evolutionary BMW 3-series

IF they were not so obviously coining cash in a manner unthinkable in their bankrupt fifties period, one might feel tempted to feel sorry for BMW. They are flat out making some 400,000 cars in 1982 and searching hard for a third factory site in Bavaria, yet our colleagues from the financial and industry press forecast doom, gloom and inevitable take-over for such a small scale independent in an age of multi-national giants.

Cars like last year’s 5-series and the latest 3-series, both gradual changes — conservative to the point where those uninterested in BMW ask plaintively “What’s changed?” — do not make the headlines, or good gloom copy, for 5-series sales are better than even BMW expected. Yet BMW continue to make more cars, investing in robots and future power plants such as the diesel version of their M60 six-cylinder. Such diesels are a common sight chez BMW, developed within Ford Thunderbirds now undergoing final trials for Ford of America.

BMW are piling their profits into research and development at such a rate that one senior executive from a rival German company told us at the Motor Show, “As a percentage of their resources BMW are investing more in new technology currently than Audi and Mercedes — it looks as though BMW are very much in a catch-up situation.”

On the surface at BMW’s Osmaning track launch of the latest E 30-coded 3-series, technical director Karlheinz Radermacher and his sales equivalent Hans Erdmann Schonbeck are unruffled. Questions asking if they have done enough aerodynamically, or whether they should pay more attention to their Bavarian neighbours at Audi with their four-wheel-drive mania abound. The BMW directors point out that they have produced a practical all round improvement at 0.37 to 0.38 Cd — any further aerodynamic improvements toward the 0.30 Cd level quoted by Audi for their 100 might result in a car that is not recognisable as a BMW — an argument supported by some of the wind tunnel rejects lying in the yard. So far as 4-WD goes, one gets the feeling BMW feel it is a fad, “although it would be useful in the Alps where we have many customers,” they concede. A later, quiet conversation with a senior executive establishes that 4-WD is indeed in BMW’s mind, but now that Audi are seizing the initiative at the lower price end of the market (the forthcoming Audi 80 Quattro will be priced to compete with the 323i) BMW intends to produce the boggling combination of the M1 sports car’s 3.5-litre / 4-valve engine and 4-WD installed within the mid-eighties 6-series coupe!

So far as the 3-series is concerned, the technical specification hopefully supplies the facts and figures regarding a car that is fractionally longer on wheelbase than its predecessor (7 mm.) yet is 25 mm. shorter overall with some much-needed, but still niggardly. extra rear passenger space.

However, since BMW sold 350,000 odd of the 02 series (1602 , 2002 etc.) and over 1.3 million of the E 21 3-series, this cramped accommodation akin to a coupe is obviously acceptable to the public behind a BMW badge. The only real concession will come approximately six months after the late November sales launch of the new cars. That is when the four-door version of the 3-series will be available, a neatly executed body change that was available for inspection in prototype form. Sales in Britain are scheduled to commence with two-door models in March 1983. Also scheduled for future production are a simpler version of the notoriously complex (but effective) BMW on-board computer, an ABS brake anti-locking option and the further spread of fuel injection across the range, so that even the forthcoming 1.6-litre derivative will have such fuel delivery sophistication.

For the present only the 1.8-litre “316” has a carburettor, the 318i using K-Jetronic and the sixes Bosch’s L-Jetronic. The latter system incorporate the fuel system cut-off on over-run that is a feature of bigger BMWs — and the 3-series also shares the Service Interval Indicator and the later version of the test/warning panel that first appeared on 6-series coupes.

Test track impressions

We were allowed several hours with a 318i 4-speed, a 320i (which has the choice of ZF or Getrag 5-speeds with fractional ratio differences) in 5-speed trim, and a 323i automatic. Full road impressions from a Moroccan venue are being gathered by the press as this is written, but in the meantime a few debut memories suffice.

In the flesh the cars have the same slight rounding of previous angularities and raising of the bootlid line that 5-series predicted last year. Although scarcely a panel is left untouched, the visual effect is of the previous 3-series in a plumper (35 mm. wider, 19 mm. taller) guise.

Inside, there is the same feeling of familiarity, although the fascia and seats have been changed. Convenient controls, crystal clear instrumentation and a near-15 in. steering wheel diameter remain.

A look underneath the car and a determined assault on the variety of 25 to 105 m.p.h. test track corners tell the story of suspension that is improved — and it needed to be in respect of rear end breakaway and poor traction at very low speeds, compared to less prestigious rivals. The wider track and the use of Pirelli P6 low profile tyres have certainly helped the six-cylinder 320i / 323i to go round curves faster. Ultimately the tail does swing out and traction disappears: the recipe as before but delivered seconds later. . . .

The sixes certainly deliver lower noise levels and remarkable pace. Checking against the km. posts, nearly 120 honest m.p.h. was available from a 323i auto, while the 320i was a delight at 75 m.p.h. and 2,900 r.p.m. with 35.3 m.p.g. displayed on the sophisticated fuel economy indicator that has now made a 3-series debut. Flat out, the 320i certainly seemed capable of 120 m.p.h. with 124 indicated on the long straights: this cost 12.8 m.p.g. in fourth or 17.6 m.p.g. in OD fifth according to the meter. Acceleration claims seem well-founded with a test 323i showing just about 10 sec. dead against a claimed 10.8 sec. for 0-62 m.p.h.; figures for manual cars are in the specification panel.

Yet, although the handling is better and the brakes more positive on all models, thanks to the servo change and a slight increase in front disc diameter, plus the use of single piston callipers, I didn’t really enjoy 3-series motoring until I got into the plucky little four-cylinder 318i. Like the other test cars it had a rear spoiler (optional on lesser models) but unlike the others it had 340/60 Uniroyal tyres and 537 kg. over the front wheels instead of 580 kg.

This near-onc cwt. difference was apparent through the responsive 318i steering straight away. Together with a keen Swiss Porsche Carrera owner / driver in a 320i we explored the differences between four- and six-cylinder BMW 3-series motoring for much of the appointed lunch hour and came away exhilarated and impressed with the 318i. It was very little slower than a 320i in a straight line — some 114 honest m.p.h. unassisted and obviously capable of keeping up with the aid of a slipstream. As soon as a corner came up the 318i started making ground to such a degree that it could crawl alongside the 320i on at 80 mph. exit and draw ahead for the next 200 metres before the bigger engined six would gradually re-establish an advantage. Rated at 11.2 sec. for 0-62 m.p.h., the 318i could cast this second or so aside on the slower handling course, where its sheer “sling-ability” outweighed the six’s still rather ponderous responses.

I am sure BMW GB will bring in the two senior six-cylinders and probably the carburated 316/1.8 to start the range, but for sheer driving joy in the old 2002 style (rather than the even quicker 2002 Tii) the 318i put a gleam back in my eyes.

As to the 3-series in general one has the feeling that BMW’s six-year development was thorough and that they will probably make their two million target (are these cars still to be sold on the basis that they are exclusive?) but the truth is that rnany mass producers make more responsive front drive machinery of the Golf GTI / Alfasud / Escort XR3i-RS1600i mould. By and large these BMWs are for the more discerning motorist, biased toward affordable quality rather than the ultimate in cornering power and sheer elan now offered elsewhere. Nice, but rapidly becoming dated. J.W