World Class Leader
When BMW were faced with replacing the two boxy generations of 3-series that had served from 1975 to 1990, with over 3.5 million sales, they knew their largest volume seller demanded a brand new body. Gone are the upright lines and air of quality that was the envy of the non-Mercedes manufacturing World: in came the aero generation 3-series, plastics to the fore.
The result was an enlarged 4-door 3-series, still firmly targeted at the market sector that the West Germans have made their own, albeit versus increasing Honda Accord intervention in the USA. This sector is largely a three cornered scrap between BMW, Audi and Mercedes. A 2-door BMW Coupé variant of the new 3-series (using the existing powerplants for the immediate future) will be announced later this year, not available in Britain until 1992.
It is worth recalling that BMW practically reinvented the smaller sporting saloon in the Sixties, taking away the mantle Alfa Romeo had earned as purveyors of compact roofed pleasures. Then the Manufacturing World and his Wife realised just how many juicily profitable sales BMW had recorded with the ’02 (1502 to 2002) and first (1975-82) 3-series. A 4-door option was available in the second 3-series set of 1982-90; that helped BMW record more than 2.2 million sales for this edition, which proved incredibly versatile. It hosted everything from 86 bhp diesel to 220 bhp M3 power in bodies of 2-door (saloon/cabriolet), 4-door (saloon) and 5-door (touring) configurations. It is worth remembering these variants, for we can expect more of the same in coming years, though it will be a long wait, for the old model is still in production with Cabriolet and Touring bodies.
There are signs that the public has not embraced the new formula “3”, and the factory has already heavily revised the interior in an effort to recover their reputation for solid worth. News of these changes came to us after more than 2200 miles through seven European countries, all at the wheel of the 141 mph 325i, negating one of only two serious reservations that we have of the latest “3”. Aside from that scrappy cabin — cheered on our test example by over £1000 expended on optional leather and a £200 (!) steering wheel — BMW have also dropped a perceptible brick over aerodynamic stability.
The 325’s ability to consume Europe in a 12 hour day (Como to Calais at 66.4 mph and 25.9 mpg) highlighted the constant weave that model adopts over autobahns tackled in the 70 to 130 mph range. It is not in any way dangerous, just mildly disconcerting. Possibly BMW will be pressured into some modest tail spoiler appendages to complement the extensive air management details (including vestigial air deflectors) found beneath the front air dam of the 325i.
Cabin content and motorway weave aside, the new 325i proved itself the worthy leader of a line that many will judge as the class of the sporting compact car classes.
It sets new standards for refined speed in this category and no longer can the clichés be spilt over its handling habits. Wet or dry, the new 3-series clasps tarmac so determinedly that the front-engine rear-drive format is vindicated.
The UK Range
The budget upset the BMW GB pricing plan very swiftly, but the British importers have stayed on the sales pace by broadening the original 318i/325i launch stock to accommodate a 316i of 100 horsepower from 1596cc to start the line at £14,250. The relentless logic of sequential four cylinder stepping stones takes us into the 318i at £15,285 and 113 bhp, a machine we have yet to experience but that others find a distinct class leader.
The six cylinder 24-valve developments of the Seventies small six (as were seen in 320/323i) are served up as the 320i of 150 bhp and £17,950. Then there is the “Special Equipment” (SE) British marketing exercise that packages up items such as electrically operated sunshine roof, computer and alloy wheels to a total listing of £19,190 for maximum business “user-chooser” appeal.
The 325i has almost 200 horsepower from its 24v six and costs from £21,695, or £22,615 for the SE specification offered for appraisal. More than £3000 was then spent on extras for this demonstrator to bring it to a total £25,645. So it pays to keep a severe eye (as ever) on option costs.
We would have been content with a straightforward SE specification, for the SE part saves hundreds of pounds over buying the nominated extra equipment as individual options. Driving pleasure options, such as £404 for a limited slip differential and £220 for M Technic suspension, would have been sufficient, taking the retail cost to £23, 239.
This is still a considerable sum when 1991 Sierra 4×4 Cosworths of 220 bhp are being openly discounted by Ford main dealers at £23,500. Our comments are made in that knowledge, since the writer has such a Ford (albeit to 1990 specification) and a 1991 “Cosworth” accompanied us for much of the higher speed Pirelli Marathon mileage that formed the bulk of our 10 days at the wheel.
BMW stayed faithful to their front-engine, rear-drive roots but moved into the Nineties with an aerodynamic body (0.29Cd for cheaper models on skinnier wheels; 0.32 for 325i) that can face Audi 80 (the 90 label has been dropped) and the Mercedes 190 rivals.
The Bavarian Motor Works of Munich have also transferred the 24v small sixes from 5-series to 3, and attended to perennial press and public carping over traction, handling and cornering grip. BMW radically overhauled the rear axle via a production derivative of the now obsolete Z1 back axle.
Most interest centres upon the replacement body, but in discussing this 4-door outline we have to preview the forthcoming two door coupés, for these will cater for the driver who wants that ultimate production expression of 3-series motoring: M3. The new M3 is on schedule for September 1992 production, utilises a stretched version of the 2.4-litre/24v 325i unit tested here and is expected to yield 270 bhp. We are told there will be a RHD version, unlike the deleted 4-cylinder. So the M3 could seriously enter UK enthusiast shopping calculations from 1993 onward.
The 4-door that we are offered has all the aerodynamic plusses of recent Audis, but avoids Audi’s small boot problem. We took ten days’ luggage for two, plus a mobile press office and still managed to clear enough space for occasional passengers.
The body appears well built, although the extensive use of exterior plastics in differing shades has a cheapening effect, even if their aerodynamic and dirt deterrent capabilities are entirely practical.
The BMW identification points of the “kidney” grille outline and the C-section finish to the rear side window frame are preserved. Innovatively BMW added an extremely neat headlamp solution to the vulnerability and untidiness of twin units, packaging them beneath tough glass panes, which blend into the swooping bonnet and rounded front quarters with aplomb.
The 24-valve engine has the usual BMW slanted installation (30 degrees) but it is worth noting that the company’s flirtation with belt drive on the 12-valve SOHC original has faded in favour of the trusted chain drive DOHC. Rated at 76.8 bhp per litre, the 325 motor is efficient.
Features such as a coil per cylinder, 10:1 compression ratio, the provision of 9.7mm valve lift for the twin 33mm intake valves (the exhausts are 30mm diameter), underline the serious intent of this 2.5 litre.
Digital Motor 3.1 electronics, plus two on-board microprocessors, remind you how hard manufacturers have to try to extract such power from a motor that will run catalytic convertors and 95 octane unleaded fuels.
The old BMW philosophy of power/liftoff oversteer is buried in their smallest vehicle by the adoption of a wheelbase that is a substantial 130mm/5.12 inches longer and track increased by more than an inch at the rear; an anomaly is that the more powerful models have 10mm less in their tracks than the 316i.
A mere change in dimensions would not have been enough to sanitise the handling, so the company adopted their multi-link Z1 rear axle (which the writer would describe as semi-trailing arms with transverse arm and link control of wayward habits). Company publicity emphasises understeer as the prime aim, but the stiffer M Technic set up offered to Motor Sport minimised this effect through replacement springs and dampers, plus minimal (0.60 in) drop in ride height.
At the Wheel
Driving a 325i is enjoyable, but the cabin is the area that has been most criticised in Britain and America, and one that BMW have already been forced to revamp. From July 8 the cars in production at Munich received velour upholstery and colour-matched plastics for the dashboard, plus extra sound deadening. BMW had rapidly reacted to the biggest image mistake made in recent years: an interior full of gaps and flyweight plastics.
On our Marathon outing, Porsche dealer and rallying legend Roger Clark summed their error succinctly: “if they are not very careful with this car, they’ll land up with a Vauxhall Cavalier image,” he said.
Interior space is along traditional BMW lines with excellent front seat accommodation and more modest rear seat reserves, but there is more passenger space than previously. The car carried four adults through the stressful 85-degree heat of an Italian regularity time trial (using the SE standard computer) with modest average speed success and no arguments. Air conditioning is available at marginally over £1400, but the standard ventilation coped well at up to 93 Fahrenheit.
The BMW computer error in calculating average speed and distance, to try and equal the kind of perfect performance that Pirelli competitors were achieving with stop watches and Haldas, was enough to defeat even the navigational genius of World Championship co-driver Fred Gallagher, who accompanied us. We would have incurred modest excess time penalties, had we been genuine competitors instead of checking one of the many regularity sections that characterised the 1991 Pirelli Marathon. By contrast, a cross check of computer abilities on fuel consumption showed less than 0.3 mpg error, which is the most satisfactory we have encountered from these devices.
Despite the obvious cockpit finish defects, our 2,216 Marathon and UK motoring miles did not include back ache or any serious operational problems. We missed the inherent quality of the 1982-90 generation, but the principles of BMW layout remain firmly logical. Thus the 325i remained easy to operate at low levels of stress whilst the World outside was unreeling at improbable velocities for hour after hour, or through the heat of the deliberate traffic jam that the Swiss create in Zurich.
There was a great deal of quiet enjoyment to be had conducting this machine, and let no one tell you that it has gone soft in its suave Nineties suit. Over three hours in Germany, and a similar period in more speed-conscious France and Belgium, the 325i did not just keep pace with our colleagues in a 1991 press Sierra Cosworth. The BMW had absolutely the same top speed as the turbo 2-litre Ford, a deficiency of 28 bhp made good by the BMW’s torpedo shape and the engine’s appetite for life over 4000 rpm. Allied to a gearchange that matches any in the World, keeping the 325i “on the boil” is fun.
The 2.5-litre is excellent when extended, but if you are not feeling quite so energetic that blip in the torque curve above 4000 rpm forms a mild harassment. The 325i does not march forward convincingly beneath 4000 in third, fourth, and fifth (90 mph in the direct top).
Acceleration was as anticipated, the gearing and heavier kerb weight leaving 0-60 mph around 7. 5 seconds (much as before) and the same comment applied to the 0-100 mph time of 19 seconds, a little more of a surprise in view of the aerodynamic improvements wrought. Yet the maximum speed is almost 10 mph up on its 171 bhp predecessor.
Fuel consumption was only slightly improved over its predecessors due to the nature of our test, but a quieter spell in Britain saw 30 mpg exceeded on one tankful and approached (29.6) on the next. Oil consumption was little heavier than expected on this young car (it had covered 3700 miles at the close of testing), needing a litre after 1,099 miles of hard use. A drop in rpm on the return left no need to admire the clean engine bay’s clean layout again. Noise levels in high speed use were entirely acceptable to this Cosworth regular, but the factory have presumably received complaints that have led to that production switch in sound proofing levels.
Cornering capabilities of the new 325i were thoroughly assessed over Europe’s motorways and the timed tests of the Marathon. Passes, gorges, hillclimbs, even a stint around the infield service roads of Spa Francorchamps. All were conquered in wet and dry circumstances without any sort of moment, other than the incompetent pilot smashing a wing mirror pane in chicane pursuit of an organisational Rover at Spa. The new 3 was a warming revelation, especially the shock-free steering, its reduced turns lock-to-lock further welcome evidence of genuine progress.
Considering the 106-inch wheelbase, we could have concluded that the ride was not up to much. There was too much jarring at speeds below 20-30 mph, but the compensation was absorbent ride quality thereafter and minimal float. We have driven other 3-series without M Technic suspension, and the ride quality is much better, but the handling not quite so pleasurable. Pay your spring and damper money to take your choice, but few Motor Sport readers would want to be without the extra capability of M Technic to complement the astonishing extra reserves of grip that BMW have extracted from what is basically still a thoroughly conventional rear-drive formula.
The brakes were punished throughout and never caused anxiety, the ABS antilock action set sensibly late before activation.
The value for money sunroof, computer and alloy wheels “SE” equipment made its presence effectively felt. We were dubious that some £1017 was expended on black leather, £200 on an M Technic steering wheel (shapely and rigid, but really. . . £200! You can do better on the Momo/Italvolanti aftermarket), rear window blinds, a “BMW Hi-Fi Speaker System” at £327, “interior light package” (PR speak for individual cabin lights of the map-reading variety, including those at the back), rear electric windows (£276), heating for the door locks and mirrors (£108). We even had a £98 ski bag to take the interior options tally to £2,026 and the complete car over £25,500. And that was without precisely pricing the extra cost of an “about £500” radio. .
If only Britain built BMWs our joy in this thorough engineering evolution would be complete. The shoddy standard cabin was a gross error in the new model (largely hidden by options on the press car), but BMW seem to have recognised that problem instantly. The aerodynamic reservations expressed were the result of exceptional opportunities to sustain 90 to 140 mph velocities. These emphasise what is a pervasive uneasiness, rather than a heart-quickening problem.
After the toughest test of the year, the 325i SE emerged the worthy recipient of new class honours. BMW are unlikely to be equalled until Mercedes unveil the 1992 replacement 190 and Audi rationalise their 80/90 line into one with some of their defects eradicated. Buy BMW now, before the recession recedes and prices escalate. —JW
MOTOR SPORT TEST RESULTS — BMW 325i SE
ENGINE: Water-cooled, light alloy head, iron block; inline six cylinders , DOHC, 4 valves per cyl. Capacity 2494cc (84 x 75mm). Bosch DME motor electronic ignition and fuel management, 10:1 cr, catalytic convertor. Max power: 192 bhp @ 5900 rpm. Peak torque: 181 lb ft @ 4700 rpm
TRANSMISSION: Front-mounted longitudinal engine, rear-drive via 5-speed manual; single-plate diaphragm spring clutch plate. Optional limited slip differential (£404) installed.
GEAR RATIOS: First: 4.23; Second: 2.52 ; Third: 1.67 ; Fourth: 1.22; Fifth 1.00 …. 22.5 mph per 1000 rpm; Final drive: 3.15
BODY: Steel monocoque 4-door, 4-5 seater; central locking. Petrol tank of 65 litres / 14.3 gallons. Aerodynamic drag factor: 0.32 Cd.
DIMENSIONS: Wheelbase 106.3in/2700mm; front track 55.43in/1408mm; rear track 55.94in/1421mm; width 66.85in/1698mm; length 174.5in/4433mm; height 54.84in/1393mm. Kerb weight: 2849lb/1295kg.
FRONT SUSPENSION: MacPherson struts, double-acting gas damping, co-axial coil springs, linked 22.5mm anti-roll bar. Steering: Optional M Technic 370mm/14.7in diameter steering wheel. Power-assisted rack-and-pinion, 3.4 turns lock-to-lock.
REAR SUSPENSION: Independent, semi-trailing arms, upper and lower transverse links, coil-sprung with separate long-stroke, gas-pressurised telescopic dampers. Anti-roll bar of 17mm. Test car: M Technic lowered height 15mm/0.59in
BRAKES, WHEELS, TYRES: Vacuum power-assisted vented front and solid disc rear with single-piston calipers front and rear. Alfred Teves MkIV electronic ABS. Front discs 11.3in/286mm diameter; rears 11.0in/280mm diameter. Light alloy 7 x 15 inch front and rear wheels; 205/60 ZR-15 Pirelli P600.
PRICE: £22,615 UK taxes paid. As tested with £3,039 of options above SE specification: £25,654
MANUFACTURER / IMPORTER: BMW (GB) Ltd., Ellesfield Avenue, Bracknell, Berks RG12 4TA
CLAIMED PERFORMANCE: Max speed 145 mph; 0-62 mph 7.9s
Conducted at Millbrook Proving ground using 1991 Correvit electronic measuring gear. Weather conditions: Dry tarmac
ACCELERATION: 0-30 mph 2.32 seconds; 0-40 mph 3.84 seconds; 0-50 mph 5.23 seconds; 0-60 mph 7.50 seconds; 0-70 mph 9.49 seconds ; 0-80 mph 11.77 seconds; 0-90 mph 15.17 seconds; 0-100 mph 18.78 seconds; 0-110 mph 22.78 seconds; 0-120 mph 30.03 seconds
FLEXIBILITY: Third gear 50-70 mph 4.27 seconds; Fourth gear 50-70 mph 6.66 seconds; Fifth gear 50-70 mph 9.10 seconds
Standing 0.25 mile/400 metres: 15.8 seconds @ 91 mph
Maximum speed: Millbrook 2.029 mile bowl, lap speed, 141.4 mph
Maximum gear speed @ 6400 rpm: First 34.9 mph; Second 55.9 mph; Third 86.7 mph; Fourth 116.1 mph
Overall fuel consumption: Test Average 25.84 mpg; Best 30.64 mpg; Worst 22.85 mpg
Government mpg figures: Urban 21.4 mpg; @ 75 mph 33.6 mpg; @ 56 mph 40.4 mpg