Marbella, Spain - Pretty it is not. The four-headlamp front end looks contrived; the rear side panels are fat, shapeless, and excessively tall; and the taillights seem to have been lifted off a Lexus IS300. But beneath the ho-hum skin, BMW's new 3-series hatchback--or compact, as it is known in Europe--boasts revised steering and a seriously improved chassis. These modifications are so important that they are being introduced, step by step, to the rest of the 3-series range, starting this spring with the 330i. In August, the 325i is to follow suit, and, before the year is out, BMW also will upgrade the all-wheel-drive 325xi and 330xi models.
Compared with the rest of the 3-series lineup, the second-generation hatchback has better-balanced power steering that is fifteen percent quicker, much meatier around the straight-ahead position, and more communicative as you wind on lock. These changes have brought back the precise steering feel that used to set the 3-series apart from the competition, and they have eliminated flaws such as excessive kickback on imperfect surfaces and a lack of progression during quick lane changes. The recalibrated helm requires a little more effort at parking speeds, but this is a small price to pay for the transformed handling. Complementary measures include tauter springs, stiffer dampers, less compliant mounting points, and a more competent version of BMW's Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) program. The enhanced DSC software automatically increases brake pressure during emergency braking. Also new is a computer-controlled limited-slip differential, which permits a certain amount of wheelspin to help get going when driving on snow-covered or gravel roads. If this sounds like too much nannying, relax: All the electronic watchdogs can be deactivated at the push of a button.
The 316ti is the first BMW offered with the new Valvetronic four-cylinder engine. The variable valve lift system reduces fuel consumption and exhaust emissions. Next fall, Valvetronic also will be adapted to BMW's V-8 and V-12 powerplants, with the six-cylinder engines to followin 2003.
The hatchback also previews the revised passenger compartment that will appear in the rest of the 3-series range later this year. Among the highlights are a larger in-dash color monitor for the navigation unit and radio, a voice-activated phone, additional crash sensors for as many as eight air bags, and a much broader spectrum of color and trim options.
Unlike the previous model, the new 3-series hatchback won't be exported to the United States. If you are in the market for a new 3-series BMW, the chassis improvements introduced on the hatchback are worth waiting for.