The new BMW's amazing paint job barely scratches the surface, says Michael Booth

Would suit M4 man
Price £33,420
Performance 155mph, 0-60mph in 5.5 seconds
Combined fuel economy 29.7mpg
Further information 0800 325 600

It is an unfortunate coincidence - at least as far as the motor manufacturers of the world are concerned - that the route I take to deliver my eldest son to school happens to go past the Japanese embassy. Every day, as I pass the embassy, I stop for a moment and stand in gogglement at the miraculous, bottomless black-paint finish on the Japanese ambassador's Toyota Century limousine. This is a paint job unlike any I have ever seen: a glassy, glossy, frictionless, polished onyx. It is as black as the pit of Vladimir Putin's soul; as black as Darth Vader's underpants; as black as Dylan Thomas's Bible. It renders what might otherwise be a risibly dated, clunky three-box saloon (see right), something of transcendental excellence. It has to be the most perfect paint finish of any production car in the world, and it makes the rest of them look like they've been painted by a chimp with a broom.

Or at least that's what I thought, until I met the new BMW 3-Series Coupé in the flesh. This too has a surface like polished ice; even the front wings, which are made from tricky-to-paint carbon fibre, are blemish free. The quality of a car's paint - being one of the most demanding things to get right and requiring a colossal investment in tooling and facilities - is a fair indication of the quality of the rest of the car. This is certainly the case with the 3-Series Coupé, which feels like it has been chiselled from a single block of marble. If it wasn't so engaging to drive, its sheer perfection might seem oppressive.

But this being a BMW - and thus rear-wheel drive with a perfectly balanced chassis and a barely bridled force of nature under the bonnet - it goes beyond the merely engaging. The new 3-Series Coupé defines a new order of "affordable", useable performance motoring. That the 335i - the turbocharged, three-litre range-topper - is stupendously, devilishly, licence-losingly fast, almost goes without saying. But it feels even faster than the figures might suggest thanks to mid-range thrust that surpasses even the outgoing M3 Coupé. Apparently, this has something to do with its piezoelectric crystals that open electronically to facilitate the direct injection of fuel. I believe Scotty is currently testing them as a replacement for Dilithium. These crystals help eradicate any sense of tardy turbos at work - the power is seamless, insistent and bated for your instantaneous pleasure from the moment you touch the throttle. More than that though, this subtly styled two-plus-two has a capacious boot, a courteous little arm that automatically passes you your seatbelt (as happens in far posher Mercedes coupés), and acceptable fuel economy, which means it makes a reasonable case for itself as a daily car for a small family. An Audi TT might be more beautiful and cost considerably less, but to own one of those risks frequent and dispiriting encounters with smug BMWs owners who will happily remind you of the TT's inferior performance and midget back seats.

Obliged as I am to concoct some - often spurious and trivial - criticism of the cars I try, I might draw your attention to the BMW's rear wheels, which look a little too small, and are accentuated by the gap between the top of the wheels and the bottom of the rear-side windows. But I have a solution: a nice gold and burgundy coach line to break it up a little. No? Please yourselves.

It's a classic: Toyota Century

The Toyota Century is Japan's Rolls-Royce, but the chances are you won't have seen one, as only a few have ever been sold outside of Japan. And Centurys attract a different clientele from Rollers. Their austere dignity and Lada-esque styling send quite a different message to the world from a Maybach or even a Bentley.

The Century was first launched in 1967 and has remained virtually the same ever since, despite a new model being launched in 1997. The choice of the Japanese emperor (who has a custom-built £300,000 version with granite kick plates and woollen seats), the prime minister and Japan's business elite, the Century is designed to be chauffeur driven and is the last hand-built car in Japan.

I tried one at Toyota's flagship showroom in Tokyo Bay. On a short track, the top speed allowed was 20mph. It was still enough to appreciate the Century's whisper-smooth V12 engine - the only V12 fitted to a Japanese production car.

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