In support of this, it is interesting to note that many European buyers of the Compact are converts to BMW.
The two versions on offer are the 318ti with 2,0 litre engine and the 325ti using the familiar and much-loved 2,5-litre straight six power plant. Whereas the 2,0-litre uses the “valvotronic” system which varies the intake valve lift as well as the timing, the 2,5 does not have this technology as yet. It relies on double-VANOS and a two-stage resonance intake system for its credentials.
Comments on the styling between our testing staff were mixed, but the overall feeling was that the individual high and low beam headlamps impart an aggressive but faintly retro look to the front end. Only the “lip” of the bonnet looks out of place when viewed from the side. The rear end is less effective, looking “dumpy” or squashed. The rear lights, reminiscent of a Lexus IS 200, could have been brightened up as they look somewhat on the cheap side. A small spoiler is mounted to the trailing edge of the hatch. Although this looks somewhat unnecessary, it probably aids the aerodynamics by forcing separation of the airflow from the bodywork. For the rest, the styling is both eye-catching and head-turning and should achieve the aim of appealing to the younger set.
The interior is pure BMW, which means sporty, attractive, comfortable and of excellent quality. The seats are very well shaped and on the 325ti feature adjustment in all directions with the exception of lumbar support, which is available as an option. The driving position is excellent except for three small criticisms. The left footrest is too large and is often fouled while operating the clutch, the pedals are offset to the right and the gearlever is a bit too close to one’s body even for long-legged drivers. A large number of trim options and colour combinations are available. Matching some of these would definitely result in “bad taste” so choose wisely for long-term enjoyment and resale value. Our test car had light beige leather seats with a two-tone facia. Although this looked perfect, the beige strip at the base of the windscreen reflected some light. Unfortunately, any colour other than black, or at least a very dark shade, will not absorb enough light to prevent reflections.
The rear seat looks constricting but scores well in the comfort stakes, especially in having decent legroom. On the down side, headroom is barely adequate and although there are three headrests, there is only room for two adults. The transmission tunnel is very intrusive due to the rear-wheel drive layout and this means that legroom for a third occupant is minimal. Access to the rear is also restricted. The rear windows pivot open to allow air to escape and the only controls for these are on the center console. The wheelbase is identical to the 3- Series saloon but the total length is 21cm shorter. This naturally means a smaller
luggage capacity but in fact we measured 240 dm3, which, compared with the saloon’s figure of 312 dm3, is not at all bad. A hatchback has a distinct advantage when it comes to carrying capacity and, with the parcel shelf removed and rear seats folded flat, large objects or sporting equipment can be easily loaded. The high-rising hatch opens automatically via the remote fob and caution should be exercised when opening it in a garage to prevent damaging the paintwork.
The test car’s RDS radio/tape (standard), with six-shuttle CD player (optional) in the boot, emitted good sound. An unusual feature was its cassette slot hidden behind the computer/ tuner/navigation screen. To access, push a button and the screen moves to an almost horizontal position, revealing the tape slot. At the time of writing the navigation system was an optional extra at R16 000, and the six-CD shuttle cost R3 300. In midday sunlight we detected a degree of light reflection from the screen. Strangely, there were no dedicated cup holders in the cabin.
The forte of the Compact is without doubt its dynamics. To start with, the steering has been sharpened to a, err, point where the feel and feedback are superb. The sports-oriented suspension is firm, almost hard, and only the typical BMW ability to absorb road undulations with ease prevents it from actually being uncomfortable. This provides top-rate handling and coupled with loads of grip from the 225/45 ZR17 Bridgestones; it is easy to imagine this car at home on a racetrack. On a bumpy stretch of our test route we found that the traction control could really earn its keep under hard acceleration, when the rear wheels could not maintain contact with the road. High speed cornering is an adrenalin rush with the dynamic stability control (DSC) helping keep an even keel should the rear end step out of line. To complement the superior suspension capabilities, there is the well-loved 2,5-litre straight six, providing more than enough power at 141 kW at 6 000 r/min. Peak torque of 245 N.m at 3 500 r/min is healthy but, as with most six-cylinder BMW’s, is more exciting above 4 000 r/min than below. Besides this, the turbine-smooth motor emits an intoxicating sound as it approaches 5 000 r/min. The driving pleasure is only spoiled by slow speed pull-away where the sharp clutch and jerky throttle action make stop-start driving a tad tricky.
Our acceleration times, achieved with a test crew of two and test equipment on board, did not quite match the claimed figures. However, with only one person on board and less fuel in the tank, 0 to 100 figures in the low sevens should be achievable.
Braking hardware is assisted by ABS, EBD and cornering brake control (CBC) which directs more braking force to the outside wheels should the driver have to apply the brakes while cornering, reducing oversteer. Conducting an airbag count reveals two in front, two side and two head airbags. The car has a solid, safe feel with no rattles or squeaks, and closing the doors and hatch requires a firm hand, adding to the impression of solidity.
Fuel economy is very satisfactory, bettering many smaller engined cars, but as is always the case with powerful cars, overall consumption will depend very much on the right foot. At a steady speed of 120 we achieved 8,42 litres per 100 km; our fuel index was calculated as 9,55 litres per 100 km. This, incidentally, is identical to the European combined urban and extra urban fuel consumption figure. With a heavy foot one could expect in the region of 12 litres per 100 km.