Lower and higher

“An agile, two-door automobile, quick, nimble, manoeuvrable and spacious enough for the whole family whenever necessary – a car which is also elegant and a bit unusual.” Dr Robert Buchelhofer, BMW board member responsible for sales, is not slow to promote the qualities of the significant two-door addition to the 18 month-old 3-series. Nor is he shy of predicting a profitable future for BMW as an independent that does not need to acquire a Rolls-Royce (cars) division . . .

For MOTOR SPORT readers the most significant aspect of the latest in BMW’s smallest offering is that the lower coachwork of the Coupé will serve as the basis for a new sports successor to the M3, one that will depend on six cylinders and 24 valves (2.5 litres and 250 bhp are the current showroom expectations). This machine will partially be premiered in the 1992 British Saloon Car Championship, albeit as a two-litre. RHD will be offered on any M3 successor, but it will take until 1993 to arrive on our market, following an autumn 1992 debut in LHD. The two-door Coupé will also serve as the base for a 1993 convertible.

For now we are offered an Easter 1992 arrival for the 318iS, 320i and 325i versions of the BMW 3-series Coupé at predicted respective prices of £17,500, £20,000 and £23,000.

The Coupé retains the overall length and wheelbase of its four-door parent, yet few panels survive from the saloon. There is an overall inch saving from roofline height, elongated doors and a drop in bonnet and boot lid heights, plus a rearward move of 3.7 inches in A-pillar location; the rear screen also carries a modified rake.

The usefully low drag factor is of less import than very low front and rear lift figures in the wind tunnel, crosswind stability proving exceptional in mild Spanish winter conditions. BMW representatives quoted a gain of 5 kg in Coupé kerb weight; its own press department specification sheets show the saloon as the lighter choice by 45 kg on the 320i and 35 kg on its bigger capacity 325i brother. Whatever the true figure, BMW apportions the gain to extra Coupé equipment (all have ABS, for instance). Most of the running gear is carried over from saloon to coupé, but the 3I8iS’s dohc 16-valve four has been substantially uprated (140 bhp and stronger low-end performance) via a flap valve induction system. It is also worth noting that the 16-valve motor is not available in the four-door saloon at present. That only has an sohc unit of 113 bhp. Only top-line, 192 bhp 325i Coupés were available for launch assessment, but the 318iS is scheduled to be available right from the start of UK sales. We drove two manual versions and the driving characteristics of these well-balanced machines (50/50 weight distribution) were close to that of the four-door saloon we drove around the 1991 Pirelli Marathon route. The centre arm axle has eliminated all the old tail-wagging traits and the car now has a far more grown-up feeling to its progress than its antecedents. You have to work the 24-valve unit audibly hard between 4000 and 6500 rpm to get the same feeling of eagerness that the old 12-valve units allowed at notably less rpm and decibels.

We averaged 24.1 mpg in use over mainly empty roads corresponding to British A-class tarmac, and came away particularly impressed with the low and pleasant six-cylinder hum at speeds up to our legal limit. However we were unconvinced that there has been a major cabin noise improvement at illegal velocities.

There is no noticeable handling benefit from the low-line body because standard, softish, suspension settings were selected (soft enough to allow wallowing over Spanish motorway ripples). All British market cars are said by BMW Bracknell representatives to be receiving the M-Technic settings that we have recommended from saloon experience. Such aftermarket parts do not destroy the marvellous ride of the usual, and generous, 106.3-inch wheelbase. Coupé cloth trims particularly in the door panels are not up to the reputation of the BMW badge, nor the previous 3-series. The glove box is still flimsy and prone to springing open after all but a two-handed closure. In short, the cockpit of a Vauxhall Calibra or Volkswagen Corrado is better bred, especially as the BMW coupé has rather nasty opening rear quarter lights with crude catches (or an electric option).

In a dark colour and obviously with any leather option the BMW Coupé has a passable air of class. Yet, in our second example, with light brown interior, you could have been forgiven for thinking you were riding in anything but a German quality marque. The apparent quality shortcomings are not fundamental, but visual. I am told by insiders that the newer 3-series saloon already has lower parts warranty costs than its predecessor.

Both our coupés drove without the rattles of which some colleagues conscientiously complained. They felt solid, until we passengered in an old 12-valve 325i, which had an undeniable quality bonus. If it was my £23,000 expended on a cloth trimmed 3-series Coupé, I would feel that I had been short-changed on cabin fittings, though not on driving experience. This remains memorable. They are quieter and more stable than the first of the new 3-series saloons proved to be but the factory efforts to fix perceived cabin quality do not go far enough. JW