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BMW 3 Series

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No, this is not a test-drive report. Actually I can only barely call it a ‘first drive’ report. The fact remains that it is still early days at the BMW plant at Chennai and we were there to witness cars rolling out of the assembly line and not exactly for burning rubber. But we did put our foot down and requested a drive – just to justify us being there, and of course, to tell you about the BMW 3 Series, the first BMW to be ‘built’ in India.

The company has invested close to 20 million euros in India to set up an assembly plant 40 km off Chennai (very close to the Ford facility) in the Mahindra World City Industrial park.  I labelled it an assembly plant since this facility does not manufacture anything – no stamping, no engine shop, no paint shop. Instead it receives painted car bodies (not just the body-in-whites, but complete car bodies with panels minus the doors) which transforms into complete BMWs in the hands of a 120-strong skilled workforce. Almost every part of the car comes in the form of kits as of now, but efforts at localisation have already begun – the seats for example, are supplied by Lear Corporation India and tyres by Bridgestone India. You cannot see any welding happening in the plant either. A very slow moving assembly line ensures that the workers get ample time to put the trim on, fit the windscreens, add doors, handle the wiring loom and of course, fit the powertrain into the monocoque. A careful inspection for flaws later, BMW badges go onto the car and bingo, we have production! Of course, the factory will receive major revamps as time goes by, but for the moment it can produce just 1,700 cars in a single shift operation. Sounds alright when you know that the target for the first year is just 1,200 cars (which includes 3 and 5 Series cars and imports).   

Of course, we wouldn’t have told you all of the above if we had the 3 Series for a full day. We had to satisfy ourselves with strictly monitored laps on a test track adjacent to the factory building. It was not the Nurburgring for sure, but had a bit of uneven surfaces, a skid pad, corrugated tarmac and a bit of a Belgian pavement with an ABS check pad (wet) thrown in. There was no way one could exercise the muscles of a proper front engined-rear wheel driven car in these circumstances. I guess a proper BSM celebration for BMW will have to wait till next issue. But here is what we could gather from our stint.

To begin with, the cars felt absolutely well put together – as in, there is no doubting the integrity of BMWs produced in India. Flawless body finish (as mentioned above, painted kits come to India), expected level of fit (especially the doors that are fitted to the car here) and high quality trim ensure that these cars are made to top standards.There are three engine options for the 3 Series in India – the base model is the  320i with a four-pot engine that displaces 1995cc to produce just about 134 bhp at 6200 rpm and 19.4 kgm of torque at 2250 rpm. As expected, this is not the quickest car in its league and you cannot buy it for its performance – it certainly is a BMW the way it rides and handles though. While ABS (with cornering brake control and dynamic traction control), airbags and DSC (Dynamic Stability Control) are standard fitment, the additional functions of DSC are available only for the 325i version. The 325i gets the famed 2497cc inline six motor rated at 212 bhp at 4000 clicks and 25 kgm at 4000 rpm. If you are gunning for a petrol-powered entry level Beemer, then this ought to be the engine of choice. An electric glass roof distinguishes the 325i from the 320i, while the interior benefits from a monitor that can double as a television (er, only Doordarshan for the time being) and a sports leather steering wheel.  The DSC gets to show its full repertoire of functions in the 325i too. The third option is the 320d with a four-cylinder oil-burner that produces 154 bhp at 4000 rpm and 33.4 kgm at 2750 rpm.

While the 320i and the 320d (we didn’t drive the latter) come fitted with 16-inch star-spoke alloys, the 325i gets 17-inch wheels. BMW offers run-flat tyres on all models, but a spare tyre is provided in the boot to meet India’s homologation rules. Going back to the interiors, all BMW 3 Series cars get leather upholstery in black, beige or grey.The 325i has got spirited acceleration going for it and the car emits a nice growl while at it. A well-weighted steering wheel ensures that your steering inputs are precisely translated to the wheels and the little BMW rewards you with grace, speed and flawless handling. Those who really want extreme performance from their BMW 3 Series can of course order the all-new M3 (read about it elsewhere in this issue) which BMW will gladly import for you.

At Rs 27 lakh ex-showroom (across the country), the 320i is on the expensive side and its price tag was dictated more by the entry level C-Class Mercedes-Benz than the performance on offer. Mind you, cars such as the Honda Civic offer more performance for less than half the money. But that is the premium attached with the famed propeller badge on the bonnet. The 325i justifies its Rs 32.5 lakh price tag though, and is a capable driving machine that can satiate most enthusiasts (we are obviously omitting those who are in the queue for the new M3). Just to keep you posted, the diesel version retails in between at Rs 29.7 lakh.

Can’t wait to get behind the wheel of a proper test car. BMW, we would like a 325i in titanium silver please.