New Cars - BMW 3-series

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Never Say Goodbye

The new BMW 3-series, which goes on sale in the Spring, represents a worthwhile advance over the outgoing model. The fresh body shape, showing a distinct family likeness to the Fives and Sevens, is more aerodynamic and more roomy, especially in the back where the old model felt cramped. It is a little heavier but the six-cylinder versions (320i and 325i) are a lot more powerful with four-valve cylinder heads, while at the rear end a new suspension system similar to that of the Z1 sports car allows a supple ride coupled with outstanding handling characteristics.

Initially the range will consist of four-door saloons, but the two-door due in the autumn will be sufficiently different to be regarded as a coupe. Touring and Cabriolet versions will follow, and eventually an M3 will top the performance aspect of the range.

Transmissions are new, too. A ZF 5-speed gearbox with torque converter and lockup should go a long way to quelling the last resistance to automatics, while BMW’s new 5-speed manual is unusual in having a direct fifth gear.

The Bavarian engineers point out with justification that ‘overdrive’ ratios were introduced to save fuel, but they made the cars seem sluggish and disappointing. Customers were therefore habitually using intermediate gears and defeating the object of having high ratios. Having said all that, though, we spent a lot of time on the test drive trying to change into a non-existent sixth gear, so the customers will have to adapt their thinking to the German way.

BMW has overhauled the entire range in the past four years paying due attention to styling, engines, transmissions and suspensions, and in Britain the investment is paying off with a greater share of the market, albeit with lower volume sales. The 3-series has stood up well to the recession, even though its replacement has been common knowledge for some months, and the newcomer looks set to continue BMW’s popularity in the young executive market.

The traditional kidney shaped grille is still in place, naturally, but the dual headlight system is now behind glass, and the aerodynamics are certainly improved. There is perhaps too much grey plastic below the grille, and rear number plate for everyone’s taste, but great play is made of the BMW’s improved safety levels and the massive bumper sections make their contribution.

For the British market, the four-cylinder 316i will be the entry model, from June onwards, at about £14,500. A month earlier the new 3-Series range will be launched with the 318i (111 bhp), and the six-cylinder, 24-valve 320i (147 bhp) and 325i (189 bhp).

In cars that weigh 30 kg more than their predecessors, on average, the engines allow brisk performances, the automatics a second slower to 60 mph than the manuals. The odd second is lost in the first few yards, and on the road the 5-speed autos feel every bit as quick as the manuals, though changing busily between the 2-3-4 ratios on hilly terrain. BMW’s engineers refer to the rear suspension as a “centrally guided, spherical double track control arm rear axle”, which is another way of describing a layout which the suspension arms are pivoted from the centre of a subframe, located either side of the differential, and with simple trailing arms located so far out that they are banana shaped to clear the inner rims of the wheels, which are now 15-inch diameter.

The system is extremely compact, and effective. The compactness allows a minimum of intrusion into the boot space and the installation of an intricately shaped 65 litre plastic fuel tank beneath the rear seat. As for effectiveness, the 3-series rode very comfortably on roads in southern France but handled like a sports car at Miramas, the pre-war race circuit now owned, and developed, by BMW.

The high speed, 5 km oval track has been retained, with a handling course alongside, but the perimeter is now marked by a 6.1 kilometre banked circuit still under construction, BMW’s own Nardo track where cars can be driven flat-out day and night. It was brave of BMW’s management to allow the world’s motoring press, 700 people altogether over a period of weeks, drive Threes, Fives and Sevens on the oval and handling courses, and as the launch neared its end the fleet was intact.

Impressive it was, and the Threes were actually more enjoyable than the Fives on the test track, being stiffer sprung and more responsive. In the same condition the big Sevens showed up surprisingly well, helped or hindered — depending on your enthusiasm for fast driving by the anti-slip control which reduced the power when there was a hint of wheelspin.

The new 3-series will be very popular, no doubt. We feel that the styling lacks the rather classical looks of its predecessors, which number more than 3½ million since the series was launched in 1976, but driving pleasure will compensate amply. MLC