Motoring: More room for improvement

Roadtest: John Simister drives the new BMW 318i
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The Independent Online
Oh, the trials of success. You make a product which everybody wants. which achieves an almost iconographic status in its market - and then it's time to replace it because you know you can make a better one. What do you do? Strike out in a bold, new direction in the hope that your customers admire your design ethos so much that they will follow you come what may? Or play safe, building on what went before, lest you kill the goose that laid the golden eggs?

You will see from the picture that BMW has gone for caution. The new 3-series, set to be the most-bought BMW of all, looks a lot like the old one. Nearly everything has changed in the new car, but only slightly. BMW's stylists, masterminded by the American Chris Bangle, would be mortified to hear such an assertion of conservatism, but a creator always finds it difficult to stand back from the creation. Bangle could point - has pointed - at the rounded cut-outs for the headlamp lenses, at the tapering ridge along the side sills, at the way the so-called "double kidney" front grille is now built into the bonnet (I've never seen kidneys that shape), at the stepped rear lights reminiscent of those found on the previous 5-series model - but the visual deal is fundamentally the same.

Where's the progress, then? It's more a case of rewarding loyalty, achieved by giving buyers enough extra space in the back for the 3-series no longer to be laughably cramped, greatly improving the car's ability to cocoon its occupants in a crash, building it better, making it quieter, and causing it to need less maintenance. The frontal structure can absorb more than 60 per cent more crash energy before the passenger compartment caves in, and every version comes with eight airbags. There are two in the front, as normal; one in each door panel; and, on each side, one secreted in the windscreen pillar and above the front doors, which bursts forth as a giant sausage.

There's no doubt that the new car is better. It feels better the moment you sit in it: it's lighter, airier, made of better-quality materials. All versions have electric seat adjustment, and you can programme up to three keys separately to adjust the driver's seat automatically to suit the key owner's preferences, on unlocking the car.

Also standard are "corner brake control", a system which automatically adjusts the braking effort on each wheel to help you keep control when braking in a slippery bend; and a traction-control system to help stop the rear wheels from slithering their grip away, because all BMWs are still rear-wheel-driven.

The new range starts as a four-door saloon, so the current Coupe, Compact and Touring continue for a while. As before there are sweet-spinning six- cylinder engines towards the top of the range (320i, 323i - 2.5-litres, in fact - and 328i), and humble four-cylinder versions lower down. One of these is a powerful and efficient new diesel, with direct injection, another is the engine that powers what has always been the mainstay of the 3-series range, the most attainable of the aspirational, the 318i.

This engine has grown from 1.8 litres to 1.9, though the name hasn't grown with it, and now incorporates a pair of balancer shafts to make it run more smoothly. Yet it still has just eight valves in its cylinder head instead of the now-usual 16, an odd result for a company as purportedly technologically on the pace as BMW. "Drive it," says BMW's head of research and development, Dr Wolfgang Reitzle. "You'll see it doesn't need 16 valves."

So we'll do just that. The new engine is indeed smoother - slightly - but it doesn't fire your senses with enthusiasm the way the six-cylinder engines, or the eager, sonorous 16-valver in the rival Alfa 156 can. If this is a good car, it's good despite its engine rather than partly because of it. And I find myself thinking that the virtues of this BMW, this interpretation of the "ultimate driving machine",as BMWs ads would have it, are rather passive. It's quiet. It's beautifully made. It looks good, if a little ornate. It holds the road well, its rear-wheel drive helping to give a satisfying launch out of corners, but it steers without the precision and sensitivity you might have expected, given that the front wheels have nothing to do but guide the car's nose. And it rides over bumps with greater suppleness and discipline than its predecessor.

In the end, it's all rather anodyne. This would be a great car to own, and no doubt to be seen to own, but as a car for the technically-informed lover of driving, it misses the mark. Could BMW be losing its way? Come September, when the new 3-series goes on sale here, you can judge for yourself.

BMW 318i

Specifications

Price: from pounds 19,500 approx. Engine: 1,895cc, four cylinders, eight valves, 118bhp at 5,500rpm. Five-speed gearbox, rear-wheel drive. Top speed 128mph, 0-60 in 10.1sec, 31-36mpg.

Rivals

Alfa 156 2.0 Twin Spark: pounds 19,727. Stunningly original looks, and an eager fizz that the BMW lacks.

Audi A4 1.8: pounds 19,01. The car that stole the thunder from the old 3-series. Still desirable, but cramped in the back.

Citroen Xantia 2.0 Exclusive: pounds 18, 250. Just facelifted, well-equipped and now impressively refined as well as technically intriguing with its hydropneumatic suspension.

Mercedes-Benz C180: 19,990. Lacks power and equipment compared with BMW, but that badge still counts for a lot.

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