Civil service

It seems that BMW can do little wrong in the public eye at present. True, the 7-series is suffering from a worldwide aversion to buying European luxury cars in the Lexus's wake, and Mercedes-Benz's 190E 2.5-16 is giving the old-style M3 a fair old pasting in Germany's mildly depleted touring car series, but the overall future for an independent BMW looks brighter than ever.

BMW's US factory could even provide us with affordable sports cars in the MX-5 mould. (The Mazda is a lovely car, but it's nice to have a choice.)

Amid BMW's armoury, the 3-series is a particularly good piece of news. The 1990 four-door saloons took BMW's tiddler into the aerodynamic age (and not before time), whilst the recently launched coupe alternative has commercial cunning, competition pedigree and customer appeal on its side.

The overwhelming demand for the 3-series is expected to take BMW ahead of Mercedes in production volumes in the immediate future, the first time such a feat has ever been thought feasible. After all, in 1959 the German banks were ready to sacrifice then-bankrupt BMW, to allow it to be swallowed by a division of its bitterest rival...

The coupé cleverly positions the two-door BMW in a new niche. Instead of being the range starter, customers have been herded into the oldest motor industry con of all. Put simply, this means paying more for a two-door of reduced accommodation than you would for a more accessible four-door. BMW has played the game far more astutely than before. Munich ensures that engines such as the 16-valve dohc unit of the test 3I8is are not available in four-door format, a sales policy that will be repeated when the replacement six-cylinder 286 bhp M3 comes on stream later this year.

At £17,250 the 318is coupe slots between the four-door, four-cylinder, sohc, 113 bhp 318i (£15,570) and the 150 bhp, six-cylinder 320i saloon (£17,750). Performance was well up to BMW expectations.

Test track results matched factory predictions of a 132 mph maximum and it was easy to accelerate from standstill to 60 mph in under 10s (Munich claims 0-62 mph in 10.2s).

Our fuel consumption reflected little town use and a lot of country life. Running on 95 RON unleaded, we returned over 28 mpg; BMW quotes 25.9 in urban conditions.

Despite these statistics, which are impressive for a 140 bhp 1.8-litre shouldered with the task of shifting 2728 lb, the 318is did not quite live up to excitement expectations, which had been raised considerably after sharing wet weather track time (thank you, Brands Hatch) with the 318is racing coupes of Steve Soper and Tim Harvey, the latter of whom recently clinched the BTCC title.

UK range

Across Europe, there are three coupe derivatives on offer, the test 318is ('injection sport') being priced to provide a tempting alternative to the shoals of Japanese machines that dominate the sector.

All the coupés offered in Britain (and most other markets) share their own design of multiple alloy wheel, anti-lock brakes, central locking (with dead lock), leather rim steering wheel and firmer, lower M Technic suspension.

The traditions of a rechargeable glovebox torch and the finest tool kit in the business also feature, as does the treacherous German practice of offering 'radio preparation', including rear screen aerial and six speakers, rather than actually including anything which plays tunes within the price...

As ever, the options list on all models is a masterpiece of staged extortion, ranging from air conditioning (£1,505) to an M Technic steering wheel (£35 over the price of the standard tiller, which is unique to the coupe). The only extra on our test car was an effective, and superbly integrated, electric sunroof (£790).

Apart from this £17,250 'entry level' 318is, BMW also offers its usual 24-valve, six-cylinder powertrains within the coupe outline. The 150 bhp 320i is £18,950 (neatly below the chancellor's £19,250 company car tax threshold), and the 192 bhp 325i chimes in at £21,750 (without the inevitable options).

The coupe range is not yet complete, however. There has already been a static preview of the understated new M3, which also uses the two-door outline. This is a suave contrast to its chunky ancestor, and may meet the previously loyal demands of the market BMW vacated when it deviated from the 6-series coupe to the bloated 850i.

As a 286 bhp 3.0, with the variable valve timing system (VANOS) that will be widely used to boost low rpm torque curves on other BMW sixes, the latest M3 will be available for test drives at the end of this year. Unlike its four-cylinder antecedents, we expect the 155 mph in-line six to be available in rhd by September 1993. UK price is likely to be between 00-35,000; 0-60 mph acceleration is expected to occupy less than six seconds of your time.

Technical analysis

Compared to the existing 3-series saloons, the primary innovations are the coupe's dimensions and the partial redevelopment of the 16-valve motor.

Although the coupe body obviously springs from the same streamlined inspiration that conceived the saloon, we were genuinely surprised to find how many sheet metal changes BMW had made to achieve a very subtle variation on a theme. (Incidentally, the coupes are primarily built at Regensberg, rather than Munich, the latter being preoccupied with meeting four-door demand.)

The 0.31 Cd and very low aerodynamic lift figures emphasise that substantial changes did take place... aside from the insertion of two long doors. Aerodynamically, the biggest benefits came from a lower stance (down by 1.18 in) and the revised rake of front and rear screens, which are now more steeply inclined as the roof is also 1.18 in shorter.

Other key dimensional alterations are a wider girth (by 0.4 in) and a rather more significant 3.15 in extension to the section forward of the windscreen. Identification points are few and far between, but the bonnet is slotted for the coupe, and the lamp clusters at the rear are both extended and lowered.

To restore the same overall length as the saloon (a tad over 14.6 ft), an abbreviated luggage bustle is provided. The generous 106 in wheelbase is also unchanged, an important concession to ride comfort with the inevitable tendency toward firmer suspension settings on cars such as this. British specification coupes all come on the M Technic sports systems, which lowers ride height just over half an inch; customers can keep the softer standard ratings as a no cost option.

Since its last saloon car incarnation, the M42 engine has been substantially modified. The dohc, 16-valve principles remain intact, but the neatly packaged slant four has a replacement intake manifold. As with many Japanese manufacturers — notably Toyota and Honda — BMW has decided to let us have some four-valveper-cylinder pulling power beneath 4500 rpm. They have achieved this with (effectively) variable length intake tracts. Access to the shorter tract lengths, used beyond 4800 rpm, is via a butterfly flap which controls a system of primary and oscillating intake tubes to aid the generation of low-end torque.

On paper, the result does not appear to represent a great leap forwards (up 2 lb/ft some 100 rpm earlier and 4 bhp at the previous 6000 rpm peak). Yet the spread of power from 3700-6000 rpm was notably improved for the coupe, and that counts for a lot when kerb weight has increased by almost 8 per cent.

Mind you, BMW prices have accelerated just as fast: that old two-door 318is saloon was priced at £14,750 (without ABS or alloy wheels) to appeal to hot hatch graduates. Today, those features are included in the coupe, but the cost has risen by over 15 per cent...

Action

The kerb weight becomes most relevant at the test track, as do gear and final drive ratios that are shared with the 320i. The four-cylinder revs casually up to 6400 rpm, with the support of an electronic limiter just 100 revs away. That permits just under 52 mph in second gear, so there is always going to be one more shift than most spirited four-pots require on the 0-60 mph rampage.

When the change from second to third is made, the chasm between ratios is obvious, BMW's traditionally clear instrumentation recording a drop from 6400 to 4800 rpm...

Getrag has co-operated with BMW to supply a superb gearbox in which speed-orientated changes are kindly received and swiftly executed. The 'box is also one of the easiest units it has been our pleasure to use, and is mated to a progressive clutch, brake and throttle action.

Backed by excellent, though not foolproof, rear end traction, this BMW sauntered from 0-60 mph in some 9.5s and called for third gear at 80 mph, just before the standard quarter-mile elapsed (at an average just beyond 17s). From rest, it reached 100 mph in less than half a minute. Fourth was fit for 109 mph at the rev limit, and top was precisely chosen to give the claimed 132.

Impressive top speed apart, these are not figures to frighten the latest generation of 16-valve hatchbacks. Even the aged, but thrusting, eight-valve pace of the 1.9-litre Peugeot 205 GTI is distinctly more accelerative than the weighty BMW.

However, in a German context, where the 16-valve Volkswagen Golf GTi has still to debut and the eight-valve has been such a performance disappointment, BMW has not received many complaints about lack of performance from the whining, chain-drive, 16-valve unit. It has deliberately engineered a degree of mechanical muttering at lower revs, but from 5000 to 6400 rpm the traditional harder edge reappears, capacious catalytic converter notwithstanding.

Where the 318is does have a failing is in the constant fussiness of the unit during motorway use. To be honest, we were not at all bothered on this front: 90 mph, 4250 rpm and 29 mpg seemed civilised enough. Yet others that we respect, especially those who have had do undertake trans-European mileage in the current 318is, always complained first about the engine noise. This could be because you really do get a chance to use the excellent aerodynamics and sustain an average of 120 mph on the continent. This demands around 5300 rpm, and over prolonged periods the unit is a lot harsher when thus pushed.

Overall gearing is particularly accurately chosen. As previously stated, the maximum speed was recorded with the tacho needle nibbling away at the rpm limiter. Despite this frenetic activity, the 31 8is felt utterly unstressed as it strolled around Millbrook's bowl at over 132 mph. It was a convincing display of true high-speed ability. Thundering down autobahns at 130 mph in a 325i saloon was never this steady.

The M Technic suspension of the 318is provides a ride that is still amiable to the point of floating over crests, and we would not mind if some of that self-conscious understeer was removed to provide a more communicative and entertaining chassis. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the competence of the system, especially in the high levels of grip generated by Dunlop's second-generation D8 tyres, but it is very hard to get excited by a four-cylinder 1.8-litre hauling 1.2 tons when the chassis has been honed to the point of dead accurate efficiency.

BMW promised us that the teething problems of the 3-series interior were over with the launch of the coupe, and there have been detail improvements. However, our colleagues at Motoring News drove a 325i coupe down to Le Mans this year, and we regret to report that both door panels unclipped major portions of trim. If this had happened on a test Rover for a tabloid, we can imagine the headlines, but BMW has such an order bank of goodwill that it seems able to sail past such hiccoughs.

Our test car did not disgrace itself in any such dramatic fashion, but we are still not satisfied with some interior details. The heated rear screen button is so small it is hard to find, we find the side-mounted seat adjusters as ineffective to use as those of the later Escorts and the seats themselves could definitely do with offering a little more support to the occupants. The unique lights behind those haute couture panes are excellent, but the lens covers did suffer a degree of 'morning after' condensation that promises to be a nuisance in later life.

Verdict

Before we drove the 318is, we were excited by its combination of price, suave style and lines that do not exclude passenger and luggage accommodation. When the demonstrator was delivered and sat twinkling outside, shimmering through the deluge that signifies summer has arrived in Britain, we thought we were in for a memorable treat.

The first scribble in the notebook was the subjective analysis that the 318is was "the most beautiful BMW since the CS coupe".

The driving experience failed to match that initial enthusiasm.

Even though it costs less than £20,000, we had hoped for a bit more dash for our cash. However, price aside, the M3 is likely to provide a full excitement quotient, as it will be as powerful as an old M635CSi or M5 in a compact and attractive parcel.

The 318is is a civilised, refined (at low engine speeds) and practical coupe, but it does not engender the raffish excitement that a good two-plus-two should. We still search for the '90s European equivalent of the Alfa Romeo 2000 GTV or Lancia's Beta coupe, albeit built to German standards.