Keep­ing the flame so alive

The BMW 3-Se­ries is a car, along with a for­mer ed­i­tor, that al­ways in­duces great mem­o­ries, says Camp­bell Spray

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Motoring -

SO as the coun­try shiv­ered, got soaked and blown to bits early last week I took the op­por­tu­nity of shoot­ing down to south­ern Por­tu­gal for two days and a night to test the new BMW 3-Se­ries which ar­rives in show­rooms here early next March.

This an amaz­ingly im­por­tant car for the com­pany, as it is not only its top seller — notch­ing up 15,543,000 sales since its launch in 1975, and makes up one-in-five cars sold by BMW — but it re­in­forces the com­pany’s cred­i­bil­ity for driv­ing dy­nam­ics as well as show­ing a con­tin­u­ing com­mit­ment to the sa­loon con­cept, as crossovers and SUVs turn the world’s head.

I have long loved the 3-Se­ries for the sheer joy of driv­ing it, al­though it went through a pe­riod when it was too tight in the back to hap­pily func­tion as a fam­ily car.

It was also a car with which I as­so­ci­ated Aen­gus Fan­ning, the much re­spected but im­pres­sively ec­cen­tric ed­i­tor of this pa­per from 1984 un­til his death, nearly seven years ago. I first started work­ing on the pa­per dur­ing his first year, and next year will cel­e­brate half my life here.

Aen­gus’s driv­ing had a capri­cious, devil-may-care at­ti­tude about it, as fre­quent small scrapes and many park­ing tick­ets at­tested. He also had a to­tal dis­re­gard for the bus-lane sys­tem. This I dis­cov­ered nearly to my cost, when many years ago I had to move my bike quickly out of the way as he whizzed past in his 3-Se­ries con­vert­ible, obliv­i­ous to any speed or lane re­stric­tion. As the car passed, I saw that four peo­ple of a darker hue than the Kerry-raised ed­i­tor, who swam ev­ery day in the sea, were squeezed in with Aen­gus. It was easy to work out that they were off to play as “ringers” with the Sun­day In­de­pen­dent cricket team, for which Aen­gus would scour groups of peo­ple over here from the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent for what he per­ceived as their nat­u­ral cricket ta­lent.

I had good thoughts of Aen­gus and his love of his car and sport when at­tend­ing the in­ter­na­tional launch of the new BMW 3-Se­ries, which is built on a brand-new plat­form. It was then and still is a car that brings joy to you with its looks and the dy­nam­ics that the engi­neers have, over suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions, put into the car. For em­bargo rea­sons I am not able to speak of the driv­ing abil­i­ties of the car for an­other 10 days, when my col­leagues on daily pa­pers will have the drop on us.

While BMW have al­ways staked a lot on say­ing that the rear-wheel drive ex­pe­ri­ence gives the real beauty of be­ing at the wheel of a pow­er­ful thor­ough­bred ma­chine, grad­u­ally the move to all-wheel drive and next year FWD for the One Se­ries is maybe be­gin­ning to chip away at this cer­tainty. But, for the mo­ment, it was im­pres­sive to at­tend work­shops at the Por­ti­mao Race­track where engi­neers could demon­strate the work they are putting into re­fin­ing sus­pen­sions and en­gines to de­liver an­other lot of thrills for the 3-Se­ries. Nor­mally this would put me to sleep, but here, with the sounds of carts whizzing around the track in the back­ground, I could sense the pas­sion of the engi­neers.

The ex­cel­lent ve­hi­cle genes of the new car have been de­vel­oped by a per­fectly bal­anced weight distri­bu­tion of 50/50 front and rear, an over­all lighter body, wider track width and lower cen­tre of grav­ity and stiffer chas­sis. It all aims to make the car more ag­ile while keep­ing com­fort at a premium. I’ll tell you if they suc­ceeded on De­cem­ber 16. In ad­di­tion to the aim of mak­ing the new 3-Se­ries the “best driv­ing sports sedan” with the mix of weight re­duc­tion and im­proved aero­dy­nam­ics, BMW had other pre­sen­ta­tions and lis­ten­ing to Stephan Horn, Head of Prod­uct Man­age­ment BMW 3-Se­ries for the last five years over din­ner, you could tell that they wanted, with some jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, you to be­lieve that buy­ing the car “was a beau­ti­ful high value de­ci­sion”. It would be big­ger all round, have ex­tra legroom, be cleaner, more eco­nom­i­cal, be a bit cheaper, have bet­ter acous­tics and, most im­por­tantly, would make cus­tomers’ life eas­ier for them.

It was this last part which was the fo­cus of the launch, but other than the ex­cel­lence and clar­ity of the pre­sen­ta­tion, it leaves me with slightly iffy feel­ings.

The whole point is to make the car, say BMW, an ex­ten­sion and very in­te­gral part of your life, so that it can be­come your of­fice or an ex­ten­sion of your home from which you can make con­fer­ence calls; re­ceive and an­swer mail; find the near­est cof­fee shop; have mu­sic and cli­mate to suit your mood and level of tired­ness, and do it all with­out tak­ing your finger off the steer­ing wheel, which, with its own cer­tain level of au­ton­omy, is driv­ing you and keep­ing you in lane and at the right dis­tance in traf­fic. You do this by ad­dress­ing the car, “Hey, BMW” or “Ziggy” or some­thing, and give your com­mands.

When ad­dressed by the im­pres­sive Tanja Klossek from BMW, the In­tel­li­gent Per­sonal As­sis­tant fea­ture worked fine, out on the road, when the Of­faly burr of my co-driver, the now mas­ter sto­ry­teller Ed­die Cun­ning­ham*, and my own per­ceived West-Brit tones min­gled in talk­ing to the sys­tem, it was less suc­cess­ful, but I am sure that it would be rec­ti­fied quickly when you ac­tu­ally owned the car. How­ever, I am left to won­der whether we are just hav­ing far too many dis­trac­tions in the car.

When au­ton­o­mous driv­ing com­pletely comes that’s all well and good but when you are still send­ing a killing ma­chine at mas­sive speeds down coun­try roads, when a well-oiled pedes­trian might sud­denly step out, it’s a dif­fer­ent mat­ter en­tirely. The best safety sys­tems in the world can­not take the re­spon­si­bil­ity away from an alert, not dis­tracted, driver.

Prices for the sev­enth gen­er­a­tion 3-Se­ries start at €43,700 for a 318d SE model, and the 320D SE Model is a lit­tle over €46k and in­cludes the 1pc diesel sur­charge. The com­pany an­nounced re­cently, that from the be­gin­ning of last month, it was cut­ting its Irish list prices by an av­er­age of 5.1pc across its range.

Once bit­ten by the 3-Se­ries bug, drivers are of­ten in love for life, even if they might move up the BMW range. The com­pany sees a fu­ture in diesel, al­though they do think that petrol sales will be good and an elec­tri­fy­ing plug-in hy­brid mode is com­ing fast.

As I packed a small case to go to Por­tu­gal, I found a bag tag BMW had given me for the launch of the last BMW 3-Se­ries — sweet mem­o­ries — and even fur­ther back, I re­mem­ber writ­ing of the launch of the M3 nearly 18 years ago, when a Dane mum­bled to me in the early hours of the morn­ing that driv­ing it was like the thrill of “the first espresso of the morn­ing, a bot­tle of premium cham­pagne, or find­ing your girl­friend is a real blonde”. That was the sort of thing you could say then.

I came back last Tues­day night hav­ing seen a won­der­ful car with a much more in­trepid look. It’s a shame my driv­ing im­pres­sions have to stay silent for two weeks. On the flight home, I fin­ished Sally Rooney’s won­der­ful novel Nor­mal Peo­ple just as she was be­ing an­nounced as the win­ner of the Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards.

As I closed the book, my eyes were brim­ming with tears and, with the dregs of my Hen­drick’s and tonic, I toasted Ms Rooney, the new BMW 3-Se­ries and a per­fect trip that we are very priv­i­leged at times to do. The BMW 3-Se­ries is a thing of beauty. I shut my eyes and see Aen­gus fly­ing down the road. He, like gen­er­a­tions be­fore and af­ter him, got a thrill from the car.

* Let­ters In The Sky by Ed­die Cun­ning­ham, (€14.99, Ball­point Press)

OF­FICE ON WHEELS: BMW aims to make the new 3-Se­ries an ex­ten­sion of your life

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