Motoring: Nice. If that turns you on...

... but BMW's coupe is low on thrills.
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The Independent Online
You're looking at what is likely to be the most popular and most aspired-to full-size coupe of all. It's BMW's new 3-series coupe. QED. In a sense, there's nothing more to say.

You know this car is going to be good: it's a BMW, with all that means for razor-crisp assembly tolerances, granite-solid build quality, a restrained but driver-centred cabin design, a guarantee of respect from those who can see you have made the most rational of irrational purchases (were it the most rational of rational purchases, you would have bought the saloon instead).

You do not buy this car to enjoy the outer limits of daring design, of dynamic single-mindedness, of innovative technology. The BMW has none of these. Instead, it is a homogenous blend of everything that the calmed- down, non-petrol-headed, post-hot-hatchback generation might aspire to. Image, style, pace, cred, and no effort required.

So the new coupe, suffixed Ci as in 323Ci and 328Ci, is a thoroughly "nice" car. Owning one also lets you buy into the messages pervading the current, and very clever, BMW TV ad campaign. These messages contain appealing auto-technical truisms, designed to flatter the viewer's notion of car design, although the way the messages are used is flawed.

One makes the point that a car with equal weight on its front and rear axles is better balanced and thus more agile, and illustrates this with a gyroscope. The problem is that a gyroscope rotates, a car does not. Other factors have a much greater bearing on agility than a 50-50 weight distribution.

Another advert claims that asking wheels both to transmit power and to steer, illustrated by a wobbly unicycle, is a bad idea, so rear-wheel drive is therefore better than front-wheel drive. Again, it isn't necessarily so.

Beyond the iconography and aspiration, then, what is the new 3-coupe like? In essence, it's the same deal as its popular predecessor: a sleekened, topologically-distorted, two-door version of the saloon, except that this time it has a decent amount of space in the back. BMW has gone to extraordinary lengths to make the differences subtle, despite their number: incredibly, only the door handles, the side indicator repeaters and the BMW badges are unchanged.

Should we be surprised at the coupe's similarity to the saloon, given that it could have looked entirely different for no more expenditure of effort? That it doesn't, shows the worryingly complacent streak that may be running through BMW, millennial-end version. BMW has built what its buyers know they want, and doesn't scare them off with new ideas.

Now, the driving. Similar story here, too. Brand values are odd things. People aspire to what a brand represents, but representation and reality, once the image is cast, don't always tally. A BMW is an "ultimate driving machine", they think, but if it really was, as that first M3 of 1987 was, they probably wouldn't like it. So the 3-coupe is fast, it sounds good with its smooth, six-cylinder growl, and it grips the road hard. However, it is not vibrant, nor immediate, nor especially intimate.

The steering is smooth, but sleepy around the straight-ahead position: so much for agility. The gearchange is short and sweet, but an oddly soggy initial response to the accelerator makes the BMW feel clumsy when you are moving off. In the name of refinement, the whole car has become too insulated from the action - because that's what many drivers of today really want, as relaxation therapy from their stressful lives.

This the BMW delivers, especially as an "entry-level" 323Ci. A cheaper 318Ci, with a four-cylinder engine, arrives later, but there's to be no 2.0-litre six-cylinder. It's fast, but doesn't feel it, and does what it is told. It becomes more fun, with minimal damage to ride comfort, with the optional 225/45 R17 tyres, because the steering sharpens and you start to feel more involved with the motion.

The 323Ci actually has a 2.5-litre engine, BMW's naming system having now deserted logic, but the 328Ci has the correct 2.8-litre capacity. It has more power, obviously - 193bhp against 170 - and extra pulling power to match. It also comes, as standard, with those wider, lower-profile wheels and tyres. Now we can enjoy ourselves, with as much pace as we could ever reasonably need, and a degree of two-way car-driver communication.

However, it's still too even, too predictable, and you won't be off on illicit drives to savour the thrills. Not like you would in a Lexus IS200, a car created specifically to fill the niche BMW has, perhaps unwittingly, vacated.

Don't get me wrong. The BMW328Ci really is a thoroughly nice car, and a thoroughly good-looking one. I would just like the car more if it contained a talking point or two, if just one aspect of it was unfeasibly brilliant. And if there were just a few raw edges to its slickness.

Specifications

BMW 328Ci

Price: pounds 28,995

Engine: 2,793cc, six cylinders, 24 valves, 193bhp at 5,500rpm

Transmission: five-speed gearbox, rear-wheel drive

Performance: 150mph, 0-60 in 6.8sec, 26-31mpg

Rivals

Fiat Coupe 20V Turbo: pounds 22,850. Startling looks (even after four years), huge pace, surprising quality, but too much turbo lag.

Ford Cougar V6 24V X: pounds 22,000. The sharp-edged Cougar is starting to catch on, but lacks power in this company. Hot one comes soon.

Mercedes CLK 320: pounds 36,640. Automatic-only, doesn't feel as expensive as it is. You pay heavily for the badge

Peugeot 406 Coupe V6 SE: pounds 27,270. Styled and built by Pininfarina, extraordinarily good-looking. And delivers a pleasing drive, too.

Volvo C70 2.5t: pounds 28,955. The sveltest-looking Volvo ever made, and available with a fantastic Dolby Pro-logic stereo. Fast but flabby .

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