The BMW 3 series is the best small saloon money can buy, the competition doesn't even come close. That is what we are constantly told. However, as a car lover and aspiring motoring journalist I had to concede that I couldn't argue either way as I had never driven one, so in the interests of forming a valid opinion and writing my first proper car evaluation, I picked up the phone and booked a test drive.
The first thing I noticed as I was given the keys was that the 19” optional wheels make for a much sleeker car compared with 18” standards. The second thing I noticed was the boot. It looks acceptable with the roof down but with the roof up you really notice the styling, or lack of it. It is almost like they haven’t bothered. The big, flat boot lid is far too long for a car of this size and as a result it looks like a poor attempt at a cut and shut. You could stage an athletics event on the boot lid, it really is that long. (I know this is in order to have somewhere to store the roof when its down, but other convertibles pull this off without attaching an aircraft carrier on the back). Elsewhere, the M styling certainly sharpens the edges and brings some aggression to the party with a touch of chrome here and an extra crease there, meaning the view from the front at least is pleasant enough. The convertible is not a beautiful car, but it’s not a disaster, it has all the presence you might want and expect from something with a blue and white badge.
Inside, you see where they borrowed the space for that outrageous boot lid. Take my advice, if you are claustrophobic this isn’t the car for you. I have felt less confined inside a broom cupboard. The driving position felt utterly cramped. The windscreen is so close and slim it is like driving through the slot of a post-box. This is what life must look like to those people you see in incredibly thin spectacles. I yearned to see more.
Right, now for some things I did like. The heated seats and the heater for that matter were superb. Within yards of pulling off the forecourt the seat was trying to burn off my buttocks and the fans, which obviously thought they were jet engines, were trying to scorch the skin from my face. I can’t think of a better cure for a cold winter’s morning. It was bloody fantastic. The build quality was very decent indeed; it pulled off feeling robust and delicate without feeling cheap. Like a driving glove or well-made leather slipper. It just worked. Surprisingly, there was ample room in the back for an adult, although my rear passenger complained of a lack of something to hold on to, but this may be more of a comment on my driving rather than the Beemer’s ability to carry passengers in comfort.
Despite the engine sounding slightly dieselesque when it started, once pushed it can produce some satisfyingly tones, combining a basey rumble with some zesty urgency. I liked it. What I didn't like was the gearbox, well actually the ‘box itself was fine, nice ratios, but the gear stick made it a nightmare to use, particularly when getting a lick on. The head of the gear stick is simply too big, it was like changing gear with a toffee apple, it felt ham-fisted. Once a gear was selected, however, I must concede, all was well and torque was readily available throughout most of the rev range. The steering was good too, crisp and precise as BMWs always are. A real testament to rear wheel drive. The brakes too dealt well with the punishment given to them, even when the road got twisty and wet, I had the confidence to brake late at relatively high speeds. Whether they are as satisfying at low speeds remains to be seen as I was too busy having fun thrashing the Beemer to do some sensible town centre, stop-start testing.
In fact, the only thing I didn't like about the actual driving experience, and I really am nit-picking here, is the indicator stalk which is designed to have two settings, depending on whether you are making a turn or just changing lanes on the motorway. It only flashes three times if you give it a small tap or stays on if you push hard. Nice idea but in practice I spent half the time confusing other motorist by approaching junctions and indicating three times then turning it off at the last second. I would gladly learn to live with this as the 3 series was a sensation. To drive it felt alert and competent. While it isn’t the fastest car in the world, it is an exceptional all-rounder. I can definitely see what all the fuss is about, nevertheless, I would save five grand and get the coupé. The weather is crap here anyway.