Motoring: what gives them character and sorts the desirable from the competent

"THEY SAY best men are moulded out of faults/And, for the most, become much more the better/For being a little bad."

Shakespeare may never have dreamt of cars, even though fellow savant Leonardo da Vinci had designed one (of sorts) 100 years before Measure For Measure left the Bard's quill. Nevertheless, what Shakespeare wrote about men is just as true of machines. The very best cars have small faults. It is what gives them character and helps to differentiate the most desirable cars - such as Ferraris and BMWs - from the most competent, such as Toyotas.

Toyota makes the world's most reliable cars. They are easy to use, don't cost a fortune to run and do their jobs faultlessly. The Japanese and the Americans, who buy cars for practical rather than emotional reasons, love them. Yet we in Europe covet thoroughbreds, even though some of us ("I only buy a car to get from A to B!") deny as much. Toyotas don't sell in Europe because we find them boring.

I saw a survey a few years back which listed the two most desirable cars in Britain as the Volkswagen Golf GTi and the BMW 3-series. Neither is as reliable as a Toyota Corolla. Yet they look good, go very well, and have a certain sporty cachet. They are all the better, to quote Shakespeare, "for being a little bad". They are noisier than you might expect on the motorway, ride firmly, handle with sharpness and lack of forgiveness (especially the BMW).

They have both just been replaced, and in the past few weeks I've driven both newcomers. The GTi on test was the non-turbo 125bhp version, which is better handling and more responsive than the pricier turbo model. It is a good car - well made, lovely cabin, fast enough, probably very reliable. In all, perfectly adequate transport, with the added cachet of having that Golf GTi badge.

Yet it lacks some of the quirks of the earlier GTis. VW has made the new GTi more refined, quieter and altogether more grown-up. It is invariably what happens when a very good sporting car is "improved". By making it more refined, some of the animal magic which made earlier GTis so hugely special and so very desirable, is taken away. The new Golf GTi is now rather like other good, hotter-than-average hatchbacks.

The same is true, for the same reason, of the new BMW 3-series. It is a superior car to the Golf, unsurprisingly considering its higher price (pounds 27,500 for the top-range 328i SE, as tested). For my money, BMW has done a better job of keeping the 3-series flame alight than Volkswagen has with the Golf GTi badge. Yet, the new 3-series - more refined than its predecessor - is no longer "the ultimate driving machine". It is too much of an all-rounder. Some of the purity has been diluted even if, arguably, its appeal is now broader. Once again, the search for extra refinement has reduced the key strength of the car - the brilliant driving experience. It is a car with undeniably fewer faults. And is the worse for it.

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