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Road test: BMW 3-Series Coupe and Cabrio Refined power: Stephen Williams test-drives new models which complete the update of BMW's all-important 3-Series range. (Wheels).

BMW's 3-Series accounts for more than six out of every 10 cars that carry the blue and white quartered circle. Although the locally built four-door sedan is by far South Africa's favourite 3-Series variant, both the Coupe and Cabrio are important niche models. Last year, Coupes represented 13% of total 3-Series models sold, and Cabrios 10%.

Perhaps that's one reason why it is widely rumoured that BMW plans to separate 3-Series Coupe and Cabrio models, renaming them as a 4-Series when it launches its fifth generation 3-Series in late 2004.

But with the fifth generation E90 3-Series at least 18 months away from production it made sense for BMW to breath a new lease of life into the E46 3-Series, and to introduce some of the innovations that will feature in the new car. For 2003, and for the first time, BMW are offering a diesel engined Coupe. The new Coupe 330Cd is fitted with the same straight-six cylinder power unit that was only recently introduced to its top of the range 7-Series saloon.

While the standard new diesel Coupe comes with a manual six-speed gearbox, there is the option of a twin mode transmission feature. Choose the later and, along with a conventional five-speed automatic gearbox, you get a Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG). SMG, based on a FI development, is operated with a simple sideways flick of the gear lever in Drive, allowing the driver to select up and, down shifts. The SMG is essentially an ultra-fast manual shift with an electronic clutch. Remarkably, the SMG is as fuel efficient as the standard manual shift (6.6L/100km).

CHALLENGING TEST DRIVE

This was the transmission in the 330Cd that BMW provided for a test drive last February. The 100km test drive route, over public roads in the mountains of southern Spain, was the perfect opportunity to put the 31t turbo diesel and SMG transmission through its paces. It was filthy weather with. driving rain and gusting winds making the switch-back mountain roads winding through the Sierra del Alpujala potentially dangerous, but the coupe acquitted itself in some style.

It was the kind of route that requires almost constant attention to gear selection, but what became quickly apparent was the supreme flexibility of this engine, torque remaining consistent through a wide range of engine speeds. And the car's acceleration is stunning - BMW claim a 0 to 100km/h time of just 7.4secs, and on this performance I wouldn't doubt it.

Equally impressive was the Coupe's dynamics. On just a one occasion was there any cause for concern. Having taken a corner a little too fast, the-back-end started to drift but immeasurably faster than I could react to it, the car was brought back into line by the Dynamic Stability Control (DSC111) system.

Perhaps the appeal of any Coupe is that it can serve two functions - not just a car with sporting characteristics and performance, but one that can transform itself into a refined saloon for urban and motorway journeys. This is where the new BMW diesel Coupe's strengths lie, particularly with the auto/SMG transmission option.

After experiencing the open road with the 330Cd, the return route took in a 60km clip along the A7 motorway. It seemed appropriate to revert to the auto gearbox. Again, the driving experience is near faultless - although, inevitably, turbo lag is more evident under heavy acceleration. Turning off the motorway for a short stretch of urban roads to complete our trip, the Coupe was as well mannered, agile and as responsive as anyone could wish.

BMW have revised the body shape for their new Coupe with a subtle reworking of the nose - including a widening the twin kidney grills and new headlight/indicator clusters - and at the rear, a new air dam. As an option, adaptive headlights that follow steering inputs to see around corners are on offer, but innovative rear two-stage LED brake lights are awaiting approval from the bureaucrats in Brussels, and will only be available in the US for the time being.

There had been talk that BMW might introduce its new ActiveSteering development with the 3-Series update. It's an exciting development, an electrically powered variable-ratio steering rack that works as a function of the car's speed. It does this by altering the rate at which the pinion turns the rack, speeding it up at low speeds to improve agility, slowing it down at high speeds for stability. However, BMW say we will have to wait for this innovation until the launch of the new 5-Series later this year.

ActiveSteering would be particularly appropriate allied to BMW's paddle-shift transmission. It's not offered on the 330Cd but according to BMW engineers, there s no reason that the diesel burner shouldn't use this innovation.

CABRIO TAKES YOUR BREATH AWAY

Paddle-shifts are an option on the petrol engined Cabrio 330i which was also unveiled and driven in Spain. The Cabrio has received a similar revision as the Coupe to its nose and tail, and the lighting clusters. Adaptive headlights are also an option.

Stepping from one car to the other, if the Coupe's performance was astonishing, the Cabrio's just takes your breath away - even if BMW's figures show little performance difference between the two cars. We followed a different 140km route up into the Sierra del Oregamal mountains with this car, and although it wasn't the weather for top-down, wind in your hair true cabrio driving, even with the soft-top up, the drive was exhilarating.

Like the Coupe, the Cabrio carries the latest generation DSC111 safety system, which incorporates traction control, electronic differential lock, anti-lock braking, corner braking control and emergency braking recognition. Even though the Cabrio has, like the Coupe, the same 50-50 weight distribution between the front and driven rear axles, the Cabrio feels even better balanced.

The standard transmission on the Cabrio is a six-speed manual gearbox, but the car tested came with a unit which gives the choice of three transmission modes. Firstly, as on the Coupe, is the SMG option where the stick can be moved backwards and forwards to change ratios within the six-speed gearbox. Secondly, and inter-changeable with the stick, you can also make shifts with steering wheel mounted paddles - thumbs making downshifts, fingers behind the wheel the upshifts. Thirdly, there is the auto cruise - a little crude but ideal for effortless cruising around town.

I'm not a great fan of wheel mounted controls, preferring to use dashboard switch-gear, but my initial reluctance in using the gear paddles was quickly overcome. They do take a bit of getting used too, but once mastered they're extremely fast and satisfying.

Prices for these two models, as driven and with the various options, are approximately $40,000 for the Coupe and $50,000 for the Cabrio.

RELATED ARTICLE: ROSSLYN RAMP-UP

* Since its launch in 1998, BMW's fourth generation 3-Series has notched up more than two million sales worldwide. South African production of the four-door sedan, in both left hand and right hand rive, began the same year. Since then, the BMW assembly plant at Rosslyn has seen 170,000 cars roll off its line, with 80% leaving African shores to be exported around the world. Last year, Rosslyn manufactured an average of over 10,000 units each week.

This month, Rosslyn began the ramp-up to produce the new 3-Series sedan. Thanks to the use of ultra-modern simulation technologies that determined how the operation should be managed, the whole process of transforming the assembly line will be completed within 24hrs, and without any loss of production.
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Article Details
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Author:Williams, Stephen
Publication:African Business
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Apr 1, 2003
Words:1256
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