Power compact

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In the public domain, Hartge is less well known, perhaps than Alpina or Schnitzer. But that doesn’t mean it can’t increase the pulse rate of those who submit their BMW for a course of treatment…

There are few tuning concerns which have earned their spurs in the middle to upper price sector in the UK. Germany tends to be the home for such extravagances. Here, we generally appear to have been content with the naffer end of the aftermarket styling world. Even so, there are few end products of such cosmetic surgery treatments which we’d felt compelled to feature in Motor Sport as a full road test.

The likes of Schnitzer, Alpina and AMG would certainly fit the bill, however, and so does Hartge, whose BMW conversions are imported to the UK by Birds of Uxbridge. And Birds wasted no time in getting the still rare Compact 3-series over to these shores, beating BMW counterparts Alpina and Schnitzer in the process.

Based on the standard 1.8 Ti Compact, which lacks the sleeker proportions of the coupe, the Hartge H3’s capacity has been enlarged to 2.1 litres. Its stubby appearance has been subtly improved by its lowered stance and by being dressed in the enormous monolithic wheels on ultra low-profile tyres which have become a Hartge trademark.

The 1.8 Ti Compact is the flagship of BMW’s bargain basement range, chopped from the longer wheel-based coupe and trading in multi-link rear suspension for the semi-trailing arms of the old 3-series.

At £15,650, the 1.8 Ti represents great value for money if having a baby BMW is your present goal. The aluminium alloy straight-four has two valves per cylinder and double overhead cams. Performance borders on the feeble, however, particularly the acceleration: it takes around 10s to reach 60 mph from a standing start, though it will strain its way to an eventual 128 mph if asked to.

Despite the retrograde suspension treatment, a fine balance between ride and handling is the Ti’s forte, with communicative steering and a responsive four cylinder engine providing solid back-up.

Although the H3-2.1 receives treatment across the board, it is the relatively weak performance of the donor car that commands the greatest attention, reflecting Hartge’s racing experience. Both bore and stroke have been increased. Special Mahle pistons and con rods are attached to a solid billet steel crank, which is most definitely not an off-the-shelf item. The combustion chambers have been reshaped for optimum compression and given both larger inlet and exhaust valves, while the engine management has been remapped to suit. To retain as much low-down torque as possible, the standard BMW cams are left untouched.

As a result, power takes a hike from 140 to 170 bhp, while torque likewise increases, from 129 to 162 lb ft at 4400 rpm.

Not only do we now have a real performer, but the engine’s response takes on another dimension. It revs sweetly from around 2000 rpm, though the engine doesn’t feel terribly torquey at this point. Beyond a momentary trough at about 5000 rpm, the unit finds its second wind and bursts into life once more, the crescendo of Hartge’s rear silencer reviving memories of the original — and unsurpassed — BMW M3.

Stopping some way short of that car’s 8000-plus rev limit, the H3 nevertheless feels at its strongest and sounds at its best near the top end. There’s a racing urgency in its voice that BMW’s lazier six-cylinder motors lack. The only other current ‘fours’ we can think of that sing this well are Honda’s little V-Tec and Alfa’s boxers. Super plus unleaded is recommended, but for some reason our test car ran better on premium unleaded.

‘Comfortable sport’ is how the press blurb describes the H3’s suspension, which is lowered by 30mm and graced with adjustable front and rear anti roll bars. The comfort aspect, however, is certainly compromised by the aforementioned very low-profiled 235/40 ZR17 tyres.

As far as ‘styling’ cues are concerned, Hartge has shown restraint in those areas where it is easiest to go overboard. Externally, only a front spoiler and the giant wheels give the H3’s game away, model inscription apart. And there is little more on the options list. Inside, the story is similar: aluminium pedals, leather steering wheel and gear knob on a shortened lever, and that’s your lot. Elsewhere the interior, like the rear suspension, is a carry-over from the old 3-series which, while still possessing more than acceptable ergonomics, clearly now shows its age, but the seats are comfortable, and well contoured.

The price of this complete conversion? Yours for £7700.

That sounds a lot at face value. The H3 is much faster than the standard item, but some may still find this price hike difficult to justify. It must be said that Hartge’s attention to detail is hugely impressive and that the conversion goes much deeper than sheer performance.

BMWs always offer a sensible driving position, despite the absence of steering adjustment in this case. The aluminium pedals may not be vital, yet they are a visible reminder of just how right this car feels. It begs to be driven, just as any of the more powerful 3-series range, because of the perfectly weighted controls and simplicity of the instruments.

Rorty though the H3’s exhaust is, it is just about unobtrusive enough in urban crawling. Step up the pace and things get a little rougher not from the engine, but in the ride department. A steeply crowned and poorly surfaced road fires home a few truths. Not only does the suspension fail to absorb the worst bumps and ridges, but the fat tyres tram-line over undulations resulting in a steering wheel which writhes and squirms in the hands.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, and certainly not intolerable – there are standard production sporting cars that ride worse, and at least the writhing tells you that the steering is alive – it’s simply a matter of taste. It certainly prevents your attention from drifting, though it did get a little tiring on occasions.

That the level of grip is enormously high doesn’t mask the H3’s inherent lack of rear body control. The relatively crude semitrailing arms cannot be disguised completely, and when traversing ridges across bends this inherent ‘liveliness’ is enough to cause minor concern.

Control at the front of the car is altogether tidier. Turn-in isn’t abnormally sharp, yet understeer is negligible and body roll is conspicuous by its absence, so the H3 can be driven round bends at fantastic speeds. A fair amount of violence needs to be applied to unstick the chassis in dry conditions and even when that’s achieved, usually out of hairpins, it more often than not tucks back neatly into line without protest. All of this suggests that the H3 is completely idiot-proof.

Wrong!

There’s little doubt that the chassis is one of the most confidence-inspiring to drive quickly. So much so, that one can be brainwashed into a sense of false security, at which point being too pushy will result in a highly modified pulse rate as the rear end becomes especially loose. Plenty of corrective arm twirling is one minor result of such insensitive acts.

Obviously, reaching this point when in the wet requires much less effort, and fast bends are definitely not for those of a nervous disposition. That said, the level of lateral grip in such conditions is almost astonishing for a car of this type.

If a little restraint is applied, you’ll find that there isn’t much else around that rewards so much for such minimal effort. If the roads are slow then you’ll literally be singing in the rain. It really is like being in a baby M3 easy to drive quickly while requiring your unreserved attention at its eventual limits.

Unlike the M3, however, you can’t really press on unless it is revved hard and if you’re not in the mood this too can become tiresome. Stopping the H3 produces no undue surprises or shocks. It pulls up hard and true, but perhaps discs should replace the standard rear drums to keep the braking performance in line with the rest of the package.

Verdict

In the H3-2.1 , Hartge has a fine conversion. The base car is a competent, and relatively affordable, BMW. Though the H3 is much faster when revved, it lacks the sheer effortlessness of an M3, and that’s where most questions should be asked. The £5000-plus price hike (for engine mods alone) is valid, however, as the car reaches 60 mph some two and a half seconds faster than the standard product, and an extra 13 mph is allegedly grafted on to the maximum speed.

The biggest question we must ask, however, is why anyone would choose to buy and modify their Compact when just around the corner lurks BMW’s barnstorming 328i, which will out-gun and under price the H3 by almost £4000.

The only reasonable responses are the head-turning looks and exclusivity, both of which the H3 has in abundance.

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