The Independent Road Test: Comfort and joy with BMW's new baby: Richard Meaden celebrates the rebirth of the BMW 316i

Ask any aspirational driver who builds the finest sports saloons in the world, and there is no doubt of the answer. And such is the pull of BMW that even its most basic models are held in high esteem.

For those who hanker after a prime piece of German engineering but lack the cash, there is good news. The BMW 316i has been revamped with a new 16-valve engine, and it costs less than 15 grand.

What is there about the baby BMW that is so much more rewarding than the equivalent Ford Mondeo or Audi 80? For starters, there is the finest chassis in the class. Having resisted the trend to front-wheel drive, BMW offers a car that handles and steers with a clarity and style that front-drive cannot offer. And with this latest generation 3-series, the firm has managed to banish the traditional 'tail-happiness' of rear-wheel drive cars (particularly on wet roads), and put in its place a predictability that will reassure the meek and entertain the enthusiast.

The suspension combines taut handling control with comfortable compliance, giving the driver the best of both worlds. This ability to cope with the high-speed hustle and bumpy, in-town bustle is what sets the 316i apart from the herd.

Obviously, with only 102bhp available, the 316i is never going to be a great ball of fire. But the new 1.6-litre engine is sweet, eager and free-revving. Though you are always aware that it is a small engine pulling you along, the car rarely feels lethargic. The five-speed gearbox has a light, snappy change, which helps a lot - it works with you to keep the engine on the boil. The impressive top speed of 120mph makes it one of the quickest 1.6 saloons you can buy, although its 0-60mph time of 11.4 seconds is well beaten by the 1.6 Xedos 6.

Performance is just a small part of the story: the 316i is not to be found wanting in such matters as driver comfort and interior quality. The driving position is perfect, and the seats are as comfortable as your favourite pair of old shoes - overall, there are few cars in which a driver would feel more at home. The steering wheel (equipped with an airbag) is comfortably positioned, which largely makes up for the absence of adjustment for height or reach, and the crystal-clear instruments, logical ventilation controls and crisp-acting, convenient switchgear all contribute to the efficiency of the dashboard design.

True, you couldn't get lost in the rear passenger space, and the interior is dominated by dour black and dark grey. But the look and feel of the materials BMW has used suggests that the interior will last well - comforting if you are a company rep looking forward to three high-mileage years with your car.

One area in which the 316i does fall short is standard equipment. Some important elements are included - such as power steering, ABS, driver's airbag, central locking and electric front windows - but you have to pay extra to get such refinements as alloy wheels, a stereo system, sunroof or an alarm.

At this end of the market, running costs are bound to be a major factor. With depreciation included in the running costs, the 316i looks a better bet than most of its rivals. Whereas a similarly priced Mondeo is expected to be worth less than half its original price after three years, the 316i should recoup at least two-thirds of the original outlay. Add to this the group 14 insurance rating (the Xedos and Audi are in 15), and its miserly 37.4 touring mpg figure, and the economic argument for the 316i begins to look strong.

The fact that it shares a showroom with exotic high-performance saloons may do wonders for the image of the 316i, but the thought of sharing a workshop with the same megabuck machines is bound to put some potential buyers off. It should not, for although the 316i may be slightly more expensive to service, that excess is nowhere near enough to outweigh the other cost advantages.

There are cheaper, faster and more lavishly equipped 1.6-litre cars, but none of them can offer the BMW's enviable combination of qualities. If you aspire to own a sturdy, handsome and well-engineered small saloon, the 316i is the obvious choice.

SPECIFICATIONS

BMW 316i pounds 14,795

Engine: 1,596cc, four-cylinder, 16v, 102bhp, 111lb ft torque. Five- speed gearbox, rear-wheel drive. Performance: top speed 120mph; 0-60 in 11.4 seconds. Fuel consumption: 37.4mpg

COMPARISONS

Audi 80 1.6 SE pounds 15,160

Stylish, well built, and with enough class to impress the company exec, Audi's junior 80 suffers from an engine that is behind the times, and a ride that is too firm. It also lacks the BMW's sparkle.

Mazda Xedos 6 1.6 pounds 15,995

Same avant-garde looks and composed chassis as the more expensive V6 Xedos. Polished but pricey, and the interior materials as not as good as those on its German rivals.

Rover 420 GSi pounds 14,495

Nicely made, and with a classy cabin, looks smart and goes well, but is essentially a fairly old Honda with titivations. Lacks the dynamic poise of the BMW, and much less special to drive.

Volkswagen Vento 2.0 GL pounds 14,785

Drab-looking Golf-with-a-boot, solid, reliable, holds few surprises - pleasant or otherwise. Engine a bit rough, cabin dark and gloomy.

(Photograph omitted)

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