the material world Owners who live in less affluent areas may be amazed to learn that 1.7 million examples of the 3 Series have been sold worldwide since 1990
BMW. It says quality. It says class. It says exclusivity. It says performance, and German engineering and tasteful design and "I've made it." It also says yuppie, wine bar, mobile phone and Eighties - despite which, BMWs are selling here in ever greater numbers.

Sorry, but those who enter the club by buying a BMW 3 Series, and think they're buying something genuinely exclusive, are in for disappointment. Many will have realised that already, simply by driving through Fulham, where it's easier to spot a BMW than it is to see a Ford. Owners who live in less affluent areas may be amazed to learn that more than 1.7 million examples of the current generation have been sold worldwide since 1990, some 142,000 of them in Britain, and that this model isn't due for replacement for another two years. When you consider that the 37-year-old Mini is only into its fifth million you realise that the 3 Series is a very common car indeed.

Not that most people will notice if you have bought the cheapest model. For snobs, one of the beauties is that even if you buy the lowly 316i, only keen spotters will know you've got a mediocre four-cylinder engine under the bonnet, not a smooth-pumping 2.8 litre six. Curiously, the fact that only a few - probably fellow BMW drivers - will know just how much extra they've spent, fails to deflect those who can afford the 328i.

More varieties than Heinz

Variety is the thing. You can spend between pounds 13,650 and pounds 39,100 on your 3 Series, perming between three-door hatchback Compact, four-door saloon, two-door coupe or convertible, and five-door estate. You can select one of seven engines from 1.6 to 3.2 litres, enjoy the smooth purr of six cylinders rather than four - even get yourself a diesel that performs with startling, if rattly, aplomb. Amazingly, such variety does little to alter the blue chip character of the 3 Series - unless, that is, you go for the Compact, a cheapskate compromise.

But even the (relatively) impecunious 316i driver can hide the slimness of his wallet by ordering that the telltale badges be deleted from the boot-lid. That only leaves the design of the wheels, the number of exhaust pipes (two means rich; one, poor) and the way the car is driven, as giveaways to the occupant's status: as a rule, it is the inferior, small-engined 3 Series that cut you up. Still, the main point for the 316i driver is that he's at the wheel of a BMW, and not a Ford.

And he has sound reasons. The 3 Series is elegant, brisk, comfortable, well engineered and reassuringly German. A BMW may be a performance car, but the Teutonic edge in its character lends it a less frivolous persona than an Alfa Romeo carries. A BMW also means solidity and good taste - in a functional, Bauhaus kind of way. Compact luxury car it may be, but you will hunt in vain for signs of the carpenter's art in a 3 Series cabin, while its slimly upholstered front seats look as though they might have come from a car costing thousands less. Inside, the plastics are no better than you might find in a Rover. The trim colours of early cars looked as dull as an overcast sky - as did the bumpers, finished in battleship grey because, said BMW, you couldn't recycle a painted bumper. New technology has licked this problem, and the 3 Series now looks more colourful, a theme that can be extended inside if you opt for some of the more startling seat materials.

Mutton dressed as lamb

As they age, the Fulham contingent of those 142,000 BMWs will eventually cross the river to south London, where they will be bought flash new alloy wheels, spoilers, and a stereo to blow the car's windows out. BMW hate the rude persona that its older cars occasionally take on, but there's little they can do about it; even old BMWs are desirable