Motoring: Style, power and class - but lacking poise

BMW's new 3-series is packed with features, but lacks the final punch

Brake hard on a slippery bend and you risk a skid, with or without ABS. Normal anti-lock systems allow you to steer (impossible when the front wheels slide) but they won't necessarily prevent the tail slewing out. CBC (cornering brake control) will, provided the laws of physics are not breached.

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.

SPECIFICATIONS

BMW 318

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.

RIVALS

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.

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