Now must be a curious time to be selling BMWs if, as rumours suggest, the popularity of the evergreen BMW 3-series is suddenly under threat. Time will tell if that’s true, but it’s certainly what Autocar’s sources are beginning to hint at.
There’s no need for alarm bells, because the bedrock of a 50,000-unit sales phenomenon doesn’t just vanish overnight. But at certain points in the model range, the cracks are starting to appear. Higher-end Threes are evidently getting harder to sell.
A close friend of mine recently changed jobs, opted out of the new company car scheme, and went to his local BMW dealer to investigate financing his own new car. He wasn’t sure what he wanted, but fell quickly under the spell of the new four-door 4-series Gran Coupé.
When our man sat down to talk turkey, BMW’s ‘product genius’ advised that he’d be waiting several months for delivery and, with interest in the car running so hot, he’d also be paying close to full price. So far, so rubbish the sales pitch.
But it didn’t end there. “If you’re not absolutely decided on a 420d, perhaps there’s something we can do to tempt you back towards a 3-series saloon,” the salesman said. ‘Something’ consisted of a £6000 manufacturer-funded deposit contribution on a 330d bought on finance, plus another £3000 off from the dealer – making the monthly payment on the six-cylinder BMW £40 less than he’d pay for a four-cylinder 420d Gran Coupé. Crikey, thought I, £9k off a five-star car is a very good advert indeed for taking delivery of a new BMW in September.
My friend, meanwhile, was in a right old pickle: wait for the newer, prettier 4-series and put up with the four-cylinder diesel engine – or get a new six-pot 3-series saloon in half the time, with more performance and more standard equipment, for less money a month? It was grunt versus grace, and desirability versus the discount.
His monthly saving would probably be more than offset against greater insurance and fuel costs for the 330d – but which car would give him the bigger buzz?
Being something of a brick, I volunteered to find out, imagining that this would be a straightforward choice, on behalf of a fairly low-mileage private buyer, of either 255bhp or 181bhp. Easy peasy. But with the two cars side by side in a Wiltshire car park, the complexity of the decision fully reveals itself.
This new 4-series is a handsome thing. It makes the 3-series look unexpectedly dumpy and awkward – all straight-sided from the rear end and ill-proportioned in profile.
The frameless doors, elegant roofline and eye-catching details of the 4-series all contribute to a much more appealing overall impression than the 3-series gives. Which is saying something considering that, to these eyes, a 3-series is still about the best-looking ‘normal’ compact exec you can buy.
On the inside, the cars are much less easily separated. To be frank, the 4-series’ cabin designers ought to have done more. The architecture, material richness and finish of both fascias are identical. You sit slightly lower in the 4-series and feel a touch more intimately cocooned by the nearer driver’s window and roofline, so the 4-series feels a bit more special, but not much.
In the back, the relative shortage of passenger space in the 420d is big enough to notice. And although the 4-series’ boot is easier to access, it’s slightly narrower and shorter than that of the 3-series.