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First Oz drive: 3 Series sedan facelift

New face: The 3 Series sedan has picked up fresh frontal styling that closely resembles the forthcoming all-new 7 Series.

BMW takes a head-on charge at the new competition with a revised 3 Series

26 Nov 2001

THE car that helped create the BMW success story more than any other, the venerable 3 Series, has been given a mid-life facelift in response to a fresh attack from its European prestige and luxury competitors.

The Model Year 2002 update will be visible in BMW showrooms from this week and comprises revised styling, changes to suspension and steering, and the introduction of a new generation engine for the entry level 318i.

But at this stage the major aspects of the facelift - the styling and engine changes - apply only to the volume-selling 3 Series sedan, which is an indication of just how seriously BMW takes any threat to its long-running market leadership in the compact prestige/luxury arena.

The recent arrival of an all-new C-cass range has turned the luxury segment sales tide in favour of Mercedes-Benz, while new challengers in the Audi A4, Jaguar X-Type and Volvo S60 have stepped up to the plate to put further pressure on BMW's golden child.

BMW is pinning its hopes on the substantial $160 million facelift to maintain the market presence that 3 Series now almost takes for granted and, in the process, stave off the renewed assault from its rivals.

Pricing has been kept relatively stable with rises of between $600 and $1900, depending on the model and transmission.

The base 318i manual remains a sub-$50,000 proposition but only just, coming in at $49,950, while the 330i tops out at $90,700.

Styling changes comprise new single unit headlight/indicators, a wider kidney grille, new front and rear bumpers, re-profiled side panels and a new bonnet, along with the usual selection of new wheel trim and alloy wheel designs.

The tail-lights remain the same shape as before but feature a different globe arrangement, with the brake light at the top and the indicator in the middle, this time with a clear lens.

But there is now a clear visual differentiation between the body styles in the 3 Series range, as the new Compact features a stand-alone four-light arrangement while the coupe/convertible models continue with the existing E46 frontal treatment.

The major mechanical changes have filtered upwards, rather than the usual downwards path of improved technology and features, after being introduced recently on the 3 Series Compact.

The 318i maintains its long-running nomenclature in the face of yet another engine change, this time from 1.9 to 2.0-litres. But the significance of the increased capacity pales in comparison to the new engine technology that accompanies it, called Valvetronic.

The Valvetronic engine management system is limited to four-cylinder powerplants at this stage but will eventually find its way into BMW's six, eight and 12-cylinder units.

It takes over the traditional role of the throttle butterfly by infinite adjustment of intake valve lift to control engine power.

Power and torque outputs are up from 87kW and 180Nm to 105kW at 6000rpm and 200Nm at 3750rpm, which represent increases of 21 and 11 per cent respectively.

Other benefits of Valvetronic are said to be a 10 per cent reduction in fuel consumption and lower exhaust emissions, regardless of fuel quality. The new engine is matched to the either a five-speed manual or five-speed Steptronic automatic transmission, which means the four-speed auto has disappeared and the five-auto is now available across the 3 Series range.

Modifications to suspension and steering under an "Agility" package include revised spring and damper settings on both axles, along with stiffer rubber mounts for all chassis components, while the steering is now more direct, with exactly three turns lock to lock.

BMW claims the result is a noticeable improvement to handling and agility without any significant loss of driving comfort.

Larger 16-inch wheels have been made standard for the entry level 318i, although alloy wheels are only standard for 318i Executive and above.

Other changes include new cloth upholstery for 318i, while the 330i gains a wider on-board monitor, automatic headlight control in conjunction with the windscreen rain sensor, as well as bi-xenon headlights to replace the xenon low beam lights in the previous model.

The MY02 coupe and convertible models continue as before, albeit with some of the less substantial and less visible specification changes from the new sedan, such as the clear indicator lenses, bi-xenon headlights, the Agility package and new wood trim.

BMW is on target for a record year in 2001 as it has already matched its year 2000 sales total by early November and is set to record around 11,500 sales for the full year.

The German marque has forecast an even better year next year when the new Compact and 7 Series come on stream and join the E46 facelift in a revamped range.

The company is aiming for around 12,500 units, although it expects to once again be limited by supply.

"We are going to be supply constrained, as we have been during the course of 2001," BMW Australia managing director Uwe Hartmann said.

"We can't get enough coupes and we are going to be supply constrained with our X5.

"We might also experience some supply constraints with 7 Series and our new brand Mini." Pricing - E46 3 Series sedan 318i (man) $49,950
318i (auto) $52,550
318i Executive (man) $53,950
318i Executive (auto) $56,550
320i (man) $62,000
320i (auto) $64,600
325i (man) $68,100
325i (auto) $70,700
330i (auto) $91,600

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

THERE were two key words in BMW's presentation detailing the facelifted 3 Series sedan range, "more" and "dynamic".

More distinctive, more refined and more efficient was the company line - and in particular, more dynamic.

Yes, the new frontal styling certainly separates the E46 "and a half" version from the original iteration and in the process aligns itself with the all-new 7 Series that is due to arrive early next year.

The look is fresh, easy on the eye and makes the car appear wider than it is, as well as having the desired effect - from BMW's perspective anyway - of endowing the 3 Series with more road presence.

More refined is somewhat harder to substantiate as the changes appear to have had little effect on the 3 Series' already excellent noise, vibration and harshness levels and overall comfort and quietness.

More efficient we'll just have to take BMW's word for as the brief drive program through the Pyrenees Ranges in central western Victoria was not suited to a comprehensive check of fuel consumption.

More dynamic is definitely true with the suspension and steering modifications giving the 3 Series a more lively and precise on-road feel and increased feedback.

But the enhanced steering directness has also meant slightly more kickback, although only on occasions when the car is seriously loaded up through corners with a very rough surface.

And those circumstances are likely to be well beyond where the majority of 3 Series drivers will push their cars.

The new 2.0-litre, four-cylinder Valvetronic engine is a major a step forward for the entry level 318i, as apart from the increase in power and torque, it is extremely happy to rev all the way to redline and is almost as smooth as BMW's renowned six-cylinder powerplants.

The results of the 3 Series facelift, while appearing to be mainly cosmetic, actually go much deeper and should give the model range renewed vigour with which to take on its rapidly approaching rivals.

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