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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: February 9, 2012 @ 7:24 am

    Ignorant of BMW? Hardly surprising…

    Neil Briscoe

    How has it happened that a luxurious, overtly sporting, premium-badged German saloon has become the most relevant car in 2012 Ireland? Surely that title should go to a more affordable, less aspirational car. One with less baggage on its badge and fewer reservations about the nature of those that drive them.

    Of course, the thing about the BMW 3 Series is that it has long since become the car that is driven by us. By you, me and everyone we know. Long gone are the dim days of the eighties, when my acne-ridden friends and I lusted after the famed E30 325i model, all while driving our knackered 1.1 Fiestas. Back then, BMWs were the height of aspirational motoring, a rare sight on the roads (in childhood West Cork at any rate) and generally driven by the type of thrusting, arrogant road-hog that your mother hoped you didn’t grow up to be.

    Since then, things have changed out of all proportion. BMWs are now commonplace sights, with more than 5,000 a year now being sold and both the 3 Series and 5 Series regular botherers of the top ten sales chart. They are no longer exclusively driven by arrogant, tail-gating pains in the neck, but by a broader range of personalities than ever before. They’re not even that expensive any more. In fact, stump up (or trade in) a 40% deposit, and your new 3 Series repayments can be as low as €200-odd, and that’s with the service inclusive package that covers all your maintenance needs for the first three years.

    But the most relevant car in Ireland? Oh yes. Having finally gotten around to trying out the EfficientDynamics version of the new BMW 320d, there is no doubt in my mind that it is so. With the ED model, you get a slightly less powerful engine (163bhp though, still sufficient for an 8.1-sec 0-100kmh run) and various aerodynamic, electronic and tyre adjustments to make the car as frugal as possible.

    The upshot of all this is a car that looks like a 3 Series (slightly too much like the old one from side-on actually), feels like a 3 Series and, most certainly, drives like a 3 Series. In fact, it drives like no 3 ever before it; gliding with firm calmness over the worst road surfaces I could find. Yet it still has the alacrity of steering and suspension that makes for, on slippery roads at any rate, an up-on-its-toes adjustability and sense of reactivity that is increasingly rare. In other words, it’s still fun to drive, just as the E30 was all those years ago.

    And yet it emits an average of 109g/km of Co2, a figure that less than half-a-decade ago was the sole preserve of the Toyota Prius. On a briskly taken test drive across give-and-take twisting back roads, all done in third, fourth or fifth gear, it returned and indicated 52mpg.

    So, relevance. To the Ireland of 2012, I reckon this new 3 Series is the car most closely in tune with modern times. It is lighter than before, thus proving that obesity can be reversed. Its frugality and its lack of emissions show us all that any belt can always be drawn a little tighter. Its aspirational nature reminds us that Wilde always implored us to look at the stars, even when in the gutter. And its premium presence and high levels of quality remind us all that when it comes to cold, hard cash, Germany’s the place to go.

    There is one thing I wonder though. How many of its owners truly appreciate this meisterwerk of motoring for what it truly is. A survey of BMW 1 Series owners a couple of years ago indicated that a significant majority of its owners had no clue which of its wheels were powered. And when I say significant, I mean a staggering 80%. BMW’s clinging to rear-wheel-drive in a front-drive world is part of its massive appeal, you would think. Rear-drive’s purist nature, its direct relationship to the highest echelon of racing cars and its ability to grant a car perfect weight distribution and balance are all part of what proves that BMW’s advertising tagline is not, quite, just marketing puff.

    But if that many 1 Series owners don’t realise the significance of which wheels get the grunt, then surely a proportional same must hold true for 3 Series buyers? OK; some, possibly many, will know of 50:50 weight distribution, of Wilhelm Hoffmeister’s classic styling work, of Winklehock, Ravaglia, Soper and Priaulx, of E30 and M3 Evos. Most, however, will simply see the badge on the bonnet, the brand’s desirability and, when the rewards for work accrue to a sufficient level, will simply sign on the line and head home, ignorant of what it really means to be a 3 Series driver. They may not be gits any more, but I bet many of them are ignorant, in a technical sense at least.

    A decade ago, that finest of motoring writers, the late Russell Bulgin, wrote that the increasing popularity of the 3 Series meant that it was fast becoming the new millennium’s answer to the original Ford Cortina; “A front engine/rear drive saloon increasingly commonplace down at the shabbier end of Acacia Avenue.”

    BMW has so far massaged and managed its brand and its values cleverly and carefully, so that a many-fold increase in sales has not yet truly harmed its cachet, its desirability. In the face of such everyday relevance and popularity, can that long continue?

    • peter barrins says:

      The 3 series has been consistently hard to beat as an overall package – it’s core values and qualities have endured from generation to generation and the intrinsic quality has always been excellent. The only other car I can think of which has evolved in more or less the same way is the VW Golf – it has also remained the benchmark in its class for desirability.

      The 3 series has also become increasingly affordable since the VRT changes and is good value for money considering what you get. Many will argue that BMW is a badge – it is – but it’s a badge which lives up to what it promises.

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