Drive: BMW 318i, 320i, 325i (Modern Motor, February 1991)

Magazine article reproduced from Modern Motor, February 1991.

Munich's Pacesetter (Drive: BMW 318i, 320i, 325i)

BMW's new 3 series is an exceptionally fine car, showing again what the Europeans are capable of. By David Robertson.

Normally it's unwise to go out on a limb about a new car driven offshore. Sometimes, back on home turf, it just fails to measure up. But I'll stick my neck out about BMW's all new – but evolutionary, just the same – 3 series.

A few hours behind the wheel over a variety of roads in the stunningly beautiful Camargue region of south western France has left me feeling this newcomer is, perhaps, the best sedan, in a driveability sense, yet built by the respected Munich manufacturer.

Whether cruising on the flat and wide autoroutes or twisting through the limestone hills above the Med, its chassis dynamics proved little short of brilliant, its more rakish styling classy and elegant and its performance – at least that of the 320i and 325i six cylinder models we drove – more than adequate.

Hans Heiland, the project chief of BMW's new 3 Series, has every right to feel very satisfied. He has created a product which sets new standards in the compact luxury segment... standards which the Japanese still have not reached in certain vital areas and which will give even respected rivals, like Mercedes-Benz, cause for concern.

The wedge-styling is superbly executed. This is a good looking car from any angle, with its wide tyres (15-inch wheels on all models, shod with 6.5 inch 205/60R15V rubber on the 320i and seven inch wide 205/60ZR15 rubber on the 325i), longer wheelbase and wider track giving it a purposeful, yet graceful stance.

Touches like flush bonded side windows, a distinctly raised rear deck and low and smooth bonnet line, mean it is also extremely aerodynamic. BMW claims a drag coefficient of just Cd 0.29 for the base model 316i and 0.32 on the cars Australia will get. Despite its new wheel-at-each-corner and tiny front overhang appearance, it is unmistakably a BMW, incorporating all the current "family" styling cues, like the kidney grille, dual circular headlights (for the first time behind a glass cover to improve airflow) and the typical "kick" in the C-pillar.

The early pilot build cars we drove suffered slightly from wind noise around the door mirrors at high speed. We were assured a fix was under development. And, in truth, some of Japan's newer high quality cars have lessons about the control of driveline noise and vibration which BMW must learn. Perhaps, too, the Japanese have taken an edge in paint quality and panel fit... but you would need to be a factory inspector to spot that. It isn't that the 3 Series driveline is harsh, nor overly noisy. It is simply that cars like the new Honda Legend – which will be pitched against it – are smoother and quieter. You can hear the BMW engine at idle... you can't hear the Honda's. I believe, though, that reflects a difference in philosophy between Japan and Europe. I think Hans Heiland and his team want owners to hear the engine working because they regard the sound as part of the driving experience.

And the other side of the coin is that the new 3 Series restores one's faith in the ability of European engineers to maintain their edge in the vital areas of chassis dynamics. The best of the Japanese – even with their gimmicky four wheel steering set ups – simply cannot match this conventionally engineered BMW's suspension, steering or brakes.

The new 3 Series cannot arrive quickly enough for BMW Australia's managing director, Ron Meatchem. With Canberra's lunatic sales tax rates causing massive consumer backlash in the upper luxury area, Meatchem desperately this new car to stimulate sales. Next year, in fact, the 3 Series will account for 90 per cent of his volume.

Meatchem spent many hours huddled in conference with senior BMW executives in Munich pleading for "sensible" pricing of the new 3 Series, particularly the entry level 318i, which, he insists, must come in under the "super sales tax" $46,000 threshold if his Australian subsidiary is to achieve its sales and profitability targets and retain its position as the top selling Euro-import.

My first impression of this third generation 3 Series was that it really ought to be called the 4 Series. But with the word out that the two-door models, when they arrive later, are to boast a different body shell, perhaps that nomenclature may get an airing.

Visually – and actually – it really is a "large sedan in disguise", a much bigger car than the current 3 Series, about 11 cm (4.33 in) longer, over 5 cm (1.96 in) wider and more than 1 cm (0.90 in) taller, in fact. Heiland and his team have cleverly improved the utilisation of space in the cabin to increase passenger room. Kneeroom, for instance, is increased in the rear by more than 3 cm (1.20 in).

The new 3 Series looks nearly as big as the old 5 Series. It would not surprise me a bit that, come May, when it is released here, the new 3 Series creates a new market segment, stealing sales away from not only the Mercedes-Benz 190 models, upmarket Volvos, Saabs and Alfas but from current 5 Series buyers, too.

The thing which is going to be commented on more than anything else about the 3 Series is its superb chassis dynamics. It handles better – more predictably and with greater levels of sheer grip – than the 5 or the 7 Series and gives little away to its bigger and heavier sisters in ride quality. Its sheer road grip is astonishingly good.

Compared with the old 3 Series, the newcomer's track has been increased 12 mm on the front axle and 30 mm on the rear. The wheelbase is 130 mm (5.12in) longer and the axle load distribution is an ideal 50:50. The result is an almost perfect balance of mass inertia versus the wheelbase and track which, coupled with the superior aerodynamic design of the new car, ensures low lift characteristics on the front (reduced 44 per cent over the current 3-series) and rear (reduced 19 per cent) axles and keeps changes in axle load as a function of road speed super low and very consistent.

The suspension system employs a similar single-joint sprint strut front end to the current 3 Series. But at the back the new 3 Series features the unique multi-arm rear axle developed for the BMW Z-1 sports car!

This centrally guided, spherical double track control arm axle was adapted by Hans Heiland and his team to combine the Z-1's sporting driving traits with the higher standards of roll comfort and greater spring travel required in a sedan for carrying all kinds of loads.

The central arm axle boasts several outstanding features, including constant toe-in, irrespective of spring travel and position, predetermined elastokinematic behaviour under longitudinal loads (for example when applying the brakes or in hard cornering), reducing the effect of side winds and highly efficient anti-dive and anti-squat.

It took only a few kilometres and a few bends to realise that this new BMW was a superb device, offering safe and predictable handling which truly inspires driver confidence. The chassis has been tuned for slight and gradual understeering. You always feel what is happening up front through the seat of your pants and the feel of the wheel... this car remains neutral in its handling nearly all the time and really telegraphs the fact that it is approaching the physical limits of its roadholding. But it does more. When, in those circumstances, you naturally lift off the gas pedal, there is no excessive load change response, no tail out snap to contend with, even when the road is wet.

The rear wheels "stick" all the time, even when you stamp hard on the stop pedal halfway through a corner. Sure, you can provoke tail-out oversteer. But you have to consciously set the car up, with a vicious mixture of excessive speed into the corner, deliberate excessive steering lock and lift-off. Even then easy correction is assured. It's damned impressive, believe me.

Australian versions will run three different drivelines. The base 3 Series will be fitted with the existing model's 83 kW, 1.8-litre four cylinder powerplant, although by next May BMW Australia is hopeful there will be a 100 kW version on offer from Munich.

The 320i will boast the new 24-valve six cylinder, 2.0-litre engine, just slotted under the bonnet of the 520i. With Digital Motor Electronics, it develops 110 kW of power at 5900 rpm and 190 Nm of torque at 4700 rpm.

The 325i runs the 2.5-litre, multi-valve, in-line six, which generates 141 kW of power at 5900 rpm and 245 Nm or torque at 4700 rpm.

The 318i's engine is linked to a four speed automatic transmission supplied by GM. The 320i and 325i will offer the choice of a ZF five speed manual or the new five speed automatic recently fitted to the 5 Series. This three-mode (economy, sports and "winter") slushbox works so effectively – making sweet, smooth and progressive shifts up or down the gears – that even serious enthusiast drivers would be happy with it. It boasts a shorter first gear, for more spirited performance off the line and a taller direct drive fifth for economical cruising, with top speed achieved in fourth.

Performance is more than adequate in the 320i and 325i. We didn't get a chance to drive the 318i, unfortunately. The 320i manual will sprint from zero to 100 km/h in 9.8 seconds and achieve a top speed of 214 km/h. The 325i will run from rest to 100 km/h in 7.9 seconds and go on to a top speed of 233 km/h... quicker than a 525i and nearly as fast as a 535i!

BMW claims a 0-100 km/h split time of 11.3 seconds for the 318i and a top speed of 198 km/h. In fourth gear. BMW claims a 80 km/h to 120 km/h split time of 107 seconds for the 318i, 10.4 seconds for the 320i and 8.5 seconds for the 325i.

The six cylinder engines feel exceptionally strong, with good mid-range torque always evident. They are smooth, too, and even when revving hard, not at all noisy. The gearing should suit our conditions. For while you can push the six cylinder engines to their 6500 rpm cut-out, they are perfectly happy ambling along in fifth at 2200 rpm, which equates to around 120 km/h.

Its power assisted rack and pinion steering is delightfully weighted, with a good feel and low steering forces. But it is thanks to the bigger 15-inch wheel fitment that the swept area of the 320i and 325i's all-disc brakes has been increased by 22 per cent at the front and 39 per cent at the rear. The brakes are terrific, with a delightful pedal feel, superb fade resistance and overall stopping ability second to none. Electronic anti-lock brakes are standard on the 325i and optional on other models. The body shell weighs only 8 kg more than the current models yet is 60 per cent more torsionally rigid and 30 percent more resistant to flexing. With regenerative front bumpers, which can recover from up to 4 km/h impact, and newly developed crumple tubes integrated in the front end hydraulic impact absorbers, capable of preventing structural damage up to 15 km/h, the new 3 Series has resulted in German insurance companies lowering their insurance rates. Let's hope Aussie insurers follow suit.

No one will be disappointed by the cabin treatment. I agree with the press kit description that it "retains that characteristic BMW style: It is calm, clearly structured and spacious, clear and matter-of-fact in design without being unduly sober or impersonal."

The full foam padded front bucket seats are all new and better shaped to provide exceptionally good lateral and under thigh support, with sufficient height, rake and fore and aft adjustment via three levers mounted in a control panel on the side of the seat.

The driver's "workplace" has received particular attention, with instruments located in a new style elliptically shaped binnacle, with huge stylised air vents, behind the soft-rimmed four spoke wheel. The main instruments are classically simple and clear, with a large white on black speedometer and tachometer flanked by fuel and temperature gauges. Minor controls are located on steering column stalks, supplemented by a fluorescent alphanumeric display built into the speedometer face. The upper section of the slightly concave centre console houses either the on-board computer or an analogue clock, depending on the model, and air-conditioning and sound system controls. Electric window lifter switches flank the gearshift lever. It is all ergonomically correct, with everything close at hand and easy to see and reach. The boot is the same size as before (15 cubic metres) but now opens at almost bumper level.

It is unfortunate that in Australia this fine example of German engineering is going to be priced so artificially high. The weak dollar and Paul Keating's ridiculous 50 per cent super sales tax will probably mean the cheapest of these new BMWs will only just scrape in under $45,000... with the 320i and 325i forced into the $80,000 to $90,000 stratosphere.

That's double the price of the same vehicle in Europe or the US. The question we should all be asking is why?

The new 3 Series is much bigger than the previous model; it looks about as big as the old 5 Series and may even create a new market segment. BMW 3 Series BMW 3 Series BMW 3 Series BMW 3 Series BMW 3 Series


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