The magic number

Another 3 Series, another perfect but slightly dull saloon. Right? Not this time. Michael Booth sees BMW emerge as a marque of character

Fretting over this in the run-up to my time with the car, I remembered a well-worn, but endlessly useful technique for dealing with this problem, first used, I believe, by Kenneth Tynan when describing Olivier's Bottom at the National in 1953. Among critics it is known as the "technically perfect but devoid of soul" approach. You can use it wherever unimpeachable excellence has been achieved at the expense of emotional potency, for instance in comparing the technical supremacy of one singer (Celine Dion) to the emotional power of another (Billie Holiday). Comparisons like this exist in virtually every field of human endeavour: sport (the robotic perfection of Ivan Lendl vs the wayward artistry of McEnroe); architecture (the brutalist efficiency of Erno Goldfinger vs the passionate ebullience of Antoni Gaudi); news reading (the chilling authority of Moira Stuart vs the maverick insouciance of Michael Buerk). You typically find the automotive equivalent in comparisons between German and Japanese cars and those made in Italy and France, and I had already lined up the Alfa Romeo 166 as my soulful counterpoint to the indomitable 3 Series.

But, you know what? The new 3 Series is not only perfect in virtually every way, but it has bags of character too. Damn!

Mine was a 320d, in "Arctic" - deep grey. It was roomy (even in the back, where rear-wheel-drive cars often suffer), ergonomically perfect, impeccably quiet, exquisitely well made and will easily do 40mpg. While former standard- setting German marques such as Mercedes and VW have seen notable declines in interior quality in the past five years, BMW continues to push material, fit and design to new levels of excellence: this is the most aesthetically pleasing and well made of all the new-generation BMW interiors. Outside, the new 3 Series is not nearly as challenging as recent BMWs, such as the Panzer-esque 7 Series, the willy-on-wheels Z4, and that abominable slowman, the X3. It's still no great beauty but, what it lacks in grace, it makes up for with that BMW heft and presence.

So far, so clinically efficient; so where's the character? Well, the 3 Series is rear-wheel-drive, for a start, which means you are pushed through corners by the back wheels, leaving you master of your directional destiny via the fronts. And its spiky visual presence makes the Audi A4 and Saab 9-3 fade into the urban wallpaper. Then there are the quirky details - the strangely elongated gear-stick (more of a walking stick), the ridiculously chubby steering wheel and, more happily, the abiding sense of cosseting, big-saloon luxury. But I'd better stop there before I start reaching for my thesaurus. *

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