BMW 320i and 323i

Despite the general slump in car sales, BMW's production figures have been steadily increasing. A large proportion of this is the result of the popularity of the "baby" of the range which has accounted for something like 60% of recent sales. To maintain their hold on this "compact sporting" market sector, the company have just replaced the seven-year-old 3-series with a new model.

Our initial acquaintance with this car came during a demanding run over the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. which amply demonstrated its ability as comfortable cross-country transport. The steep and winding pass was rendered less arduous by the low noise levels, the well-controlled ride over undulating surfaces, the supportive seats, and a fine upright driving position. Overall room inside is improved although the exterior length is fractionally less, but we did bump our head repeatedly on the edge of the sun-roof opening until the seat was moved fully down and back, thereby reducing rear legroom. The cockpit layout must be close to ideal, although it was easy to accidently press one of the four horn buttons when twirling the wheel from lock to lock, and, more embarrassingly, to push the auto gear-shift through "D" to neutral when shifting up. Quibbles apart, however, it is a good environment from which to sample the improved road behaviour.

The 3-series has always been known for oversteering, and the Munich engineers have considerably modified the suspension so as to impart mild understeer, which is only really apparent in very tight bends. A sudden lifting of the right foot when surprised by a truck in mid-bend did result in a twitch from the rear once or twice, but so brief that it scarcely required correction. Larger wheels (14") have allowed reduced steering offset, so that even with two wheels on the sandy verge in order to pass a 'bus there was plenty of feel, but no uncomfortable drag to one side.

Three models will be available in Britain, all fuel injected: the 318i four cylinder, and the 320i and 323i, both of which are sixes. We experienced the two bigger engines, which are extremely smooth, but it did seem as if the 320i was a little highly-geared, a careful eye needing to be kept on the rev-counter to ensure there was enough urge for the next hairpin. There is no doubt that the cars are quick, even the 320i, but such is the lack of fuss that we had the nagging feeling that we were missing out on some of the excitement that rapid motoring ought to provide...

The larger brake-disks fitted are said to run cooler, and we certainly noticed no fade during the 7,000 ft. descent from the Col du Tichka into Marrakesh. Another point we appreciated was the revised short-travel gearchange, which was a pleasure to use.

The finish overall is of very high quality, with careful planning apparent in, for instance, the door trim panels which integrate handle, arm-rest, and pocket, or the way the rear seat belt buckles are recessed into little plastic housings. All in all, the 3-series is as sophisticated as many a larger executive saloon, which will undoubtedly remain one of its chief attractions, especially if prices (not yet finalised) are as competitive as before. — G.C.