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BMW 3 Series


Minimal changes, maximum appeal

You know it's scraping the barrel when a company says it's narrowed the chrome ring round the starter button. That BMW thought it worthy of mention underlines that the changes to the 3 Series are mainly cosmetic, with the biggest moves to the pricing and specification structure. They're aimed at turning sales around for a model that's been overtaken by the X5 and 1 Series in BMW's own sales charts.

The exterior's had a fairly radical overhaul, it must be said. Sharply sculptured lines give it a more muscular, focused look embellished by alterations to lights and grille. The stronger design suggests a lower, more purposeful feel to the car.

However the cabin's all but identical, bar those minor changes to the chrome flourishes, a small move for the window switches to improve ergonomics, and alterations to iDrive, the Three now filching the system recently introduced in the 7 Series.

Otherwise the car's virtually unchanged. Not that that's a problem - bar the ageing and now frankly asthmatic 320i entry-level petrol variant these are award-winning engines that are still impressive for the way they deliver both power and economy.

It's a shame we can't access the latest lean-burn petrol units - there's still too much sulphur in our petrol - but the diesels are wonderful. Smooth, refined, with great gobs of torque accessed via well-matched six-speed manual or auto transmissions.

The rear-drive chassis set-up is still driver-focussed, the cars still nimble, still eager to show what they can do.

My pick is the base 320d. With 150Nm more than the petrol, and more power to boot, it's got plenty of mumbo to match that delightfully nimble handling, and more than enough for real-world driving. Yet it costs just two grand more than the equivalent petrol, making it the best bang for buck of the range.

You can't blame BMW for leaving the underpinnings more or less as is; improving such a good recipe would cost - and spending money ain't an option nowadays. So good news for potential buyers, for BMW plans to keep prices pinned for as long as possible - and it's rejigged the spec to please.

It's dropped some pricey fitments from the standard features with the over-hard MSport package now an option.

Instead there's Bluetooth, park distance and cruise control as standard, and a sharply-priced upgrade pack including the formerly over-priced Satnav, plus heated seats and USB port. Price the resulting spec against the equivalent outgoing cars and you'll pay less than you would have last year for all but the entry-level car, and a lot less for some variants.

BMW NZ managing director Mark Gilbert admits he held prices too high in the past. That's let him fix RRP for now and, he says, for as long as he can.

The outgoing Three may be all but identical under the skin, but this car's new look is important for a brand where image is an integral part of the buying decision.

BMW has to hope the new suit and more realistic pricing will turn sales around, with 3 Series sales now down to third spot for the brand behind the X5 and the 1 Series.

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