Motoring: Style, power and class - but lacking poise
BMW's new 3-series is packed with features, but lacks the final punch
Saturday 26 September 1998
CBC is standard on all of BMW's new 3-series cars, which went on sale in Britain this week. So is anti-wheelspin traction control (ASC+T, to use the jargon) and six airbags, rising to eight if you pay extra. No pounds 20,000 car comes with more in-built safety - passive and active - than the base 318. But what about flair? In gaining refinement, sophistication and room, the high-performance 328 lost a little of its ethereal spirit, according to some reviewers. Is the same true of the cheaper 318, which will sell in far greater numbers?
Imagine a scaled-down 5-series and you have the measure of the foot-shorter 3. BMW asserts that its fifth-generation compact, rooted in the 1966 model, the 1602, is true to its heritage as a sports saloon. Its conservative styling sends out rather different signals.
Gains in girth normally undermine performance, but not here. Under the bonnet is a new 1.9-litre four-cylinder engine yielding a smidgen more power and more telling increase in torque. This muscular pulling power does not demand screaming revs to liberate, as the impressive engine throws its best punch when ambling, cutting down on noise and gear-changing. Not that shifting is a chore, given that the new car has inherited the old one's smooth, easy lever action.
Besides more punch and brio, there is also greater refinement. Vibration- killing balancer shafts (a first for BMW, though several other manufacturers still use them) give almost six-cylinder levels of smoothness. Add excellent economy and the gutsy new 318's engine is a major advance on the old one, if no match for the coming 136hp 320 diesel, which will do 50 miles to the gallon and 128mph.
So far so good. Comfort is another strong suit, as you would expect of a car that has suspension, some of it in lightweight aluminium, modelled on that of the 5-series. Softly, softly rides the new 3-series - and there lies the problem. Resilience over the bumps is all very well, but it has been achieved at the expense of benchmark handling.
Although its steering is light and direct, the 318 does not corner with the crisp resolution of Alfa Romeo's rival 156. It is not that the BMW handles badly - far from it. It simply lacks the Alfa's endearing sensitivity and poise. No doubt some drivers will prefer the BMW's softer, less knife- edged behaviour, just as they will appreciate its fine cabin, classy dash and deep-rooted quality.
But sports compact? Not really. The new 318 is significantly better than the model it displaces. Pound for pound, it is arguably the best-value car that BMW makes: the law of diminishing returns bites deep beyond pounds 20,000. Whether maturity has changed or not, the car's character is a matter of individual taste.
BMW: 318I, pounds 19,745 before extras.
Engine: 1895cc, 8 valves, four cylinders, 118bhp, 133lb ft.
Transmission: Five-speed manual - auto costs extra - with rear wheel drive.
Performance: Top speed 125mph, 0-60 in 9.5 seconds. Consumption 35.8mpg combined.
Alfa Romeo: 156 2.0TC, from pounds 19,753. Looks good, drives brilliantly, sounds great. The definitive sports/luxury compact.
Audi: A4 1.8 20V, from pounds 19,041. Carved from solid quality, lacks flair without turbo.
Ford: Mondeo 2.5 Ghia, pounds 18,520. Six cylinder refinement and lavish gear for less than a base 318.
Mercedes: 180, from pounds 19,990. Bullet-proof build quality, but dull to drive. A long-term winner.
Saab: 9-3 2.3S, from pounds 19,500. Nice engine and cabin, mushy handling.
Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt
When teaching the meaning of Christmas backfires
Life & Style blogs
Alexander McQueen at auction: What makes a really great piece of fashion?
A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
No female ejaculation, please, we’re British: a history of porn and censorship
Stressed nurses are 'forced to choose between health of patients and their own'
Pornhub: Kim Kardashian's sex tape is the most-watched porn video of all-time
Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
New era of cheap oil 'will destroy green revolution'
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Ukip founder Alan Sked and Nigel Farage 'begged Enoch Powell to stand as a candidate'
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...
£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...
£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...
£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...