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Monday 13th November 2006


BMW 335I COUPÉ

BMW's best coupé yet? Nick Hall throws this smooth tyre-smoker around

BMW 335i Coupé
BMW 335i Coupé

The press launch route can tell as much about a car as the hour behind the wheel you’re sometimes confined to. For the 335i Coupé launch, BMW provided strips of tarmac so nightmarishly surfaced it felt like we’d understeered off the real road, stunning cambered mountain passes and all the time at the helm you could possibly need.

BMW doesn’t play safe with a reputation built on extreme driving machines and once again it doesn’t need to.

And that’s how we came to be whipping past rows of burnt corn at a rate that had cheery French farmers waving their fists cheerfully from tractors. Doubtless they were delighted to see the English having so much fun.

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Artistic soul

It was so easy and so much fun to probe the chassis’ outer limits that every corner became a challenge, tuning down the traction control became a natural part of the starting ritual. The 3 Series might have become the cornerstone of corporate avarice, but underneath that cold, hard-selling exterior is an artistic soul. The fact it can transport shopping, overweight reps to the gold course and suit every occasion better than a little black dress, on a girl, obviously, is just an added bonus.

The 0-60mph time of 5.5 seconds is more than adequate in the modern world, and although it is electronically limited it could surely go quicker than 155mph if it wasn’t for the limiter rudely interrupting progress. But it’s the in-gear acceleration that is truly astounding, where the 335i truly comes alive thanks to 295lb-ft of torque and an engine that revs past 7,000.

Almost any gap is an honest overtaking opportunity, even on the winding roads of the Pyrenees where each slug of acceleration lasts for seconds before the next hairpin bend looms large. The inline six offers a clean, huge wave of acceleration and bar the background whooshes you wouldn’t even know this was a turbo at all.

Back to the turbo

This is the first turbocharged petrol engine in the BMW line-up since the 2002 and is the world’s first inline six cylinder with twin-turbos. For a company that has spent years poking fun at forced induction, this is swallowing a large slice of humble pie. You already know the car had to be something truly special to force this marketing U-turn.

The simple fact was that to get this kind of power from a normally-aspirated engine would have required a 4-litre V8. BMW estimates this solution is 70kg lighter, and that’s a lot to shave off the front end. Despite extra equipment the new Coupé is lighter than its predecessor, too, just, and at 1,620kg isn’t as stodgy as a car in this class could easily have become.

Unlike the diesel equivalent this car comes with two small side-by-side turbochargers feeding three cylinders apiece. Two smaller units feeding three cylinders each is the way round the age-old problem of turbo lag and here it is non-existent, there isn’t even a surge at around the 3,000rpm point. It just isn’t there. Instead it has been replaced with seamless progress. It’s mighty quick, too.

Tyre-smokin' good

With the electronics firmly off, the 335i Coupé smoked its tyres at will on the slower bends. Without the knife-edge response of a hardcore sports car, the long comfortable wheelbase and the marque’s famous 50/50 weight distribution, it’s a simpler toy to play with.

Just an hour into the trip the BMW invited later and later braking and a healthy dose of power from the apex forward, and every exit of a junction was just another chance to blow a pound or two off the rear runflats’ resale value as the Coupé followed an elegant arc, spitting stones at the scenery.

On the second day, BMWs were seen launching into switchback bends in full-on tailslides, knowing that the car would help mop up the excess enthusiasm and somehow come through the bend at a ridiculous speed for a car with such a civil appearance.

The Coupé sits lower than the saloon that proved such a capable companion on a one-hit trip from Malaga to England last year -- it was always going to meet with PistonHeads' approval.

Bostik handling

It goes beyond the impeccable road-holding, the 335i provides such a rich tapestry of its grip levels that the blind could follow the story. The suspension set-up squashes major ruts in the road and yet transmits every valuable nub of information, every change in the surface, with a gentle nudge on the wheel.

It won’t skip out of line either, even over the most savage surface seemingly designed by French engineers to kill foreign cars that are stiffer than blancmange. So it becomes a car you can trust, which is a car you can push.

The M cars are overly complex, this car is simplistic, basic and bonds faster than Bostik with the driver, and is all the better for it. Ok so the M3 will take this basic shape to a whole new dimension when it comes, but this is more than fast enough if you’re not planning on trackdays with the company car. And it’s real fun on the backroads, which is where it really counts.

Elegant profile

Styling is a thorny subject and designer Chris ‘Mangle’ Bangle has certainly had more than his fair share of attention. The 3-Series, the volume seller, was the least affected of the line-up and is relatively subdued next to the bull-nosed 5. If anything this design looks a little weak at the front end and the snub-nosed 3 looks in need of a sports kit, but the profile is flowing and elegant.

Only the side indicator repeaters, rear badge and door handles were carried over from the saloon on the exterior, everything else is new. And the only downsides are the loss of the middle seat in the rear, something most will live with, and the price, which plenty won’t.

At more than £32,400, plus the inevitable extras that come with the BMW ordering process, it’s an almighty slab of money for a saloon. That buys some enticing alternatives, especially for those willing to sacrifice on comfort and go for pure performance, and just 700 people a year will splash out on the top of the line petrol variant. But they will be happy with their purchase.

The 335d variant, when it arrives, may yet prove the pick of the litter, but the manual box on offer in this petrol version could still swing the decision in favour of this spectacular icon of corporate life - the car every young middle manager wants.

Fun factor

The 335i Coupe won’t match a Mercedes for comfort, or an Audi for elegant style. But it’s bold and leaves the opposition for dead when it comes to the pure fun factor on a winding back road.

Of course this machine will merely keep the new M3’s throne warm, but for now this is the best 3 Series BMW has to offer. And it’s good, really good.

Author: Nick Hall