x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The thinking man's M3 is this generation's 'sweetheart

This BMW is a special car and hard to fault.

I had some issues with this car when I drove it at the launch a couple of months ago, and that disappointed me. 

It disappointed me because the 3 Series coupe is one of those rare cars that exudes class, dignity and athleticism in one ageless body and, on the streets BMW chose for its debut, it just felt like that body didn't do enough to hide the bumps for those inside. But 2,000km later I've discovered that the only thing to be disappointed about was BMW's choice of launch roads. I've now punched the 335 coupe down the autobahn at an indicated 270kph. I've hurled it up and over the Brenner Pass twice. I've tackled unkempt Italian B and C roads in a hurry. I've dawdled through city traffic in it. I've even whipped along the sweeping curves of the Italian and French riverieras to and from Monaco.

And it's just lovely. There's no reason why it shouldn't be, of course, because there was nothing much wrong with the last one, but there are some significant upgrades here that could have completely changed its character. While it looks as though the styling department was asleep on the job (there are minor alterations to the nose and tail), there's a new seven-speed, double-clutch gearbox in charge of the cogs and there's a new, single-turbo version of the in-line six-cylinder engine.

It's what BMW calls its TwinPower six, but don't let the name fool you (like it's probably supposed to) into thinking it's a twin-turbo. Instead, it combines a clever twin-scroll turbo-charger with direct fuel injection and variable valve timing and lift. If it loses anything to the old twin turbo (which has moved on to become, in tweaked form, an exclusively M engine), it's hard to notice, because it does so many things beautifully.

It trickles around town with a silken softness, with the seven-speeder flitting through the gears so slickly you only notice the change in the noise levels. It has a strength in the midrange you can get only when there is 400Nm available across almost the entire rev range. It arrives at 1200rpm (just 450 above idle) and stays on until the power curve arrives, on its way to 225kW, to take over the heavy lifting.

This is one of the loveliest engines going around today, with a wide range of character, a depth of emotional sound and never even a hint of unwanted vibration or harshness. It's always willing and it's always strong. It spins to its redline at 7,000rpm, with the mellifluous howl increasing with every new rpm it piles on, yet it's flexible around town and it has terrific precision when you use the throttle to adjust the car's attitude mid corner.

With 1,525kg of four-seat cabin to shift around, it blasts to 100kph in 5.5 seconds, which is quick enough to make this the thinking man's M3. Add to it that BMW has given it proper paddle-shift gear levers instead of the ridiculously unusable old system and you've got a handy package. There are other areas of cleverness, too, and the best of them is the new springing system inside the dampers that improves the ride quality while maintaining the previous sportiness. It works, too, softening off the initial harshness, particularly from square-edged hits and the low-amplitude bumps that were once a BMW bugbear. It's still firm enough to be lively in corners, but it's no longer painful when you don't want to push.

It helps the handling, too, because the steering now loads up enough to throw in a bit of nibbling feedback on the limit and, while the front-end feel isn't up to Cayman standards, it's not bad. It's got plenty of grip, it's wonderfully balanced, it's easy on its tyres, it's predictable and about the only fault you can pin on it is that it can dart a bit on longitudinal bumps at high speed. It's a lovely cabin, too, with a fat-rimmed leather steering wheel, surprising rear-seat space and it also helps that it uses the latest version of BMW's i-Drive, which reverts to a rotary dial for the navigation and gets a big "Back" button which helps enormously.

It's a hard car to fault, really. Every era throws up its sweetheart cars and, quite frankly, this is one of them. The larger Audi A5 might have picked up more attention, but the 335 coupe is still the better car. There are reasons not to buy it, of course. You might need four doors, you could want a people mover, your ego may need to be seen in something flashier or you might live in the desert and need a proper 4X4. But other than that, if you test this car and don't love it, then you don't love cars and you don't deserve it anyway.