We have recently discussed BMW’s invasion of the lower end of the market. This is the car that really kicked it off.
You don’t really notice these vehicles. They are dissolving into the background of the streetscape like any jaded old Escort or roughed-up, worn out and uncared for Astra or Golf. This one is in BMW’s Ignore Me dark blue. Base-model blue if you like.
The motoring press were in awe of this car when it came out. “A new 3-series for a song,” raved Car magazine in October 1994. They showed the front end of the car which, of course, was identical to the standard 3-series, just as the front end of a Chrysler Sunbeam was much the same as that of the Avenger. However, from the A-pillar back it was cost-cutting and decontenting as far back as the tail-pipe.
The wheelbase remained the same, a telling sign that BMW was going to less trouble with this car than Chrysler did some twenty-five years earlier. As you can see from the photo above (with the benefit of hindsight) it really is two different cars joined together somewhere around the doors. A hatchback with rear-drive looks weird. The residual boot is un-needed and screams prevarication.
In truth, it wasn’t a 3-series at all, but something trading on the name, much as a Rolex with a Swatch mechanism might do. Eventually BMW did things properly and gave the successor its own distinct bodywork and its own series number but for a decade you could get something called a 3-series that was either a stripped-down Golf-competitor or a six-cylinder transcontintental ballistic missile.
How did BMW shave cost out of their Escort-competitor? They used the semi-trailing arms rear-set up from the previous version of the 3-series. Some of this was needed to allow the seats to pack down as a proper hatchback’s do and also to allow a lower boot floor height. Inside the car the switchgear was of lesser quality to the four-door car and there were fewer toys as standard.
BMW did very well with this car, moving their price range down into the heart of Ford, Opel, Peugeot and VW´s territory. It’s around here that BMW decided that commercial considerations trumped their claim to being a cut-above other makers. It’s quite fine that they want to make money; what’s a tiny bit irritating is that they did so by trading on their name in quite such an egregious fashion.
They did however right some of those wrongs with the 2004 1-series which does honour its hatchy character by having a design that is entirely its own. While at the time (2004) that car unsettled me, today it’s a design that has stood the test of time, one of Chris Bangle’s very nicest “flame surfaced” cars which I particularly enjoying looking at under street lights.