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Car reviews - BMW - 3 Series - Compact 5-dr hatch range

Our Opinion

We like
Engine performance, BMW-like dynamics, build quality
Room for improvement
Exterior styling, interior space, price

BMW logo28 Aug 2002

IF at first you don't succeed, try again. This philosophy could apply to BMW and its second generation 3 Series Compact, which shares little more than concept and name with its predecessor.

In an attempt to make it a true stand-alone model, the three-door hatchback has been styled to stand more separate from the 3 Series sedan, key differentiators being the four separate headlights and clear lens tail-light covers.

And of course, there's that truncated rear end, which means its 21cm shorter than the sedan, although it should also be said it's wider and taller than the old compact.

This time round the compact hasn't been compromised in engineering terms like its predecessor, which was criticised for its outdated rear suspension and stodgy performance.

The new generation hatchback benefits from the same basic platform as the rest of the E46 3 Series family, including MacPherson strut front and the sophisticated Z-arm rear suspension tuned for sports performance.

Under the bonnet the base model 316ti gets a new generation Valvetronic 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine, while the 318ti gets a 2.0-litre version with the same Valvetronic technology, which eliminates throttle butterflies for claimed improvements in performance and economy.

The 1.8-litre unit produces 85kW of power and 175Nm of torque, while the 2.0 produces 105kW and 200Nm. Maximum torque is obtained in both engines at a relatively low 3750rpm.

Acceleration to 100km/h is a claimed 10.9 sec for the 1.8 and 9.3 for the 2.0, with claimed combined fuel consumption of 6.9l/100km and 7.2l/100km respectively.

Topping the range is the 325ti, which employs the M54 2.5-litre inline six-cylinder engine already used in such luminaries of the BMW range as the 325i and 525i sedans. Producing 141kW and 245Nm, it zaps to 100km/h in 7.1 seconds.

The compact is actually technologically ahead of its more illustrious relations in a couple of areas. It gets the 2.0-litre Valvetronic before the facelifted 318i sedan in late 2001, and it also has a meatier steering rack which will also go into the new 3 Series sedan.

BMW will introduce the four-cylinder variants in November, but pre-launch marketing activity is underway now, while the six-cylinder won't be seen until July next year.

Pricing has been set at $41,750 for the 316ti, $46,900 for the 318ti (up slightly on the old model discontinued in May) and $63,900 for the rorty 325ti. A five-speed Steptronic automatic is a $2600 option.

Specification levels are high. In safety terms all models have eight airbags including front and head airbags for the front passengers, side impact airbags front and rear, anti-lock brakes, automatic stability and traction control and lap-sash safety belts and headrests all-round.

Other features include alloy wheels (15-inch on the 316ti, 16-inch on the 318ti and 17-inch on the 325ti), rear windscreen wiper, sports seats, power front windows, air-conditioning, in-dash CD player, and a remote opening hatch lid operated off the key fob.

Features the 318ti boasts over the 316ti include fog lights and a multi-function leather steering wheel, while Montana leather trim, climate-control air-conditioning, a boot-mounted CD stacker and in-dash cassette player are all exclusive to the six cylinder.

Boot space is 300 litres, extending to 1100 litres with the rear seats folded.

The compact range will offer some 18 combinations of external colour and trim treatments including a bright "Youth Line", emphasising the younger audience BMW is chasing with this car.

In fact it estimates 80 per cent of the 1200-1300 buyers it is chasing for the Compact annually will be conquests from brands as mundane as Holden and Ford.

It will also need to defend its ground as German rivals Mercedes-Benz (sports coupe) and Audi (A3) fight with it for prestige hatch sales. Soon Alfa Romeo will join the fray with the 147 and Honda will release a new generation Integra.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

BMW's recent styling work has been controversial. And while the unloved original Compact's looks have been substantially improved, the new car is still very much in the eye of the beholder. Some people will undoubtedly love it, others hate it.

Perhaps most disturbingly compared to the sleek Mercedes-Benz Sport Coupe or Alfa's striking 147, the Compact may fail to inspire any real emotion at all. It's a bit dumpy, a bit plain.

Nevertheless it is undoubtedly a BMW both outside and in. The kidney grille and propeller badge are prominent up front, and the "Hofmeister kick" C-pillar is a true signature of the Munich firm down back.

Inside it is even more familiarly a BMW, the instrumentation housed in that heavily lidded pod, the central controls canted slightly toward the driver and a high central tunnel running between the driver and front passenger comfortably ensconced in big, heavily bolstered seats.

But it's the driving where these cars are most familiarly BMW.

The chassis refinement is excellent, the sports suspension doing its job beautifully, to both keep the rough Aussie roads at a discreet distance and provide a flat cornering attitude.

Its steering is meaty and neutral with plenty of feedback for the sporting driver and grip levels are high. In other words, a vast improvement over the old car.

The four-cylinder engines aren't quite to the same level of excellence. Yes, they are beautifully smooth all the way to the soft cut-off somewhere beyond 6000rpm and once they are up and running they are plenty willing to push you along.

But getting there can be a chore, even redlining through the sweet-shifting manual gearshift doesn't provide a big push in the back. A brief sample of the 325ti, however, assured us the six didn't share the same problem.

BMW's improved access to the rear seats in the new model, although it's still a bit of a tight entry and exit for a full-sized adult, as is the actual seating space.

But the Compact won't spend a lot of its life loaded up with people, BMW seeing rich kids and pensioners as prime target markets. If it can get them into the car for a drive they'll probably love it.

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