The A95 runs south from Munich for about 10 miles before it becomes derestricted. It isn’t one of Germany’s grandest or busiest autobahns – not at mid-morning on a weekday, at any rate, because it arrows straight into the foothills of the Austrian Alps – and southern Germany heads there mostly at the weekends.
So for the rest of the week outside of rush hour, the A95’s two lanes are pleasingly light on traffic and ideal for gathering your first impressions of a brand-new German sports saloon such as the near-£40k, 322bhp BMW 340i.
Cars like this quickly find their niche on the autobahn. Powerplants that might otherwise seem profligate can suddenly bring their talents to bear. Rolling chassis and steering systems tuned to reassure with their high-speed stability and unwavering body control make short work of going fast.
And partly because Germany’s roads are so good, but at least equally because its cars are so well suited to them, you wonder for a little while why any other civilised country in the world should need such an antiquated, anti-libertarian thing as a national speed limit.
So it is with the 340i, right down to an unexpectedly detailed level. The fact is that you needn’t even have noticed the all-important road sign with which Germany marks the beginning of a derestricted stretch of motorway when driving this car. Just flick your gaze down to the 3 Series’ head-up display, where its speed limit recognition system conveniently repeats the last posted limit you passed. If it’s a white circle with a black diagonal bar running through it, you’re cleared for Mach 2. Easy-peasy, pedal-squeezy.
But hang on. The new 3 Series isn’t alone in its ability to gel perfectly with the roads and surroundings where it was born and bred. On the narrower, curvier, more undulating A-roads and B-roads of the English Midlands, a near-£45k, 335bhp Jaguar XE S can do it, too, albeit in a very different way: with greater directional agility and poise, tuned to come to the fore at a slower but no less demanding ground-covering stride, in among hedges that are closer and higher, corners that are tighter, and with your line of sight rarely as clear as on Germany’s multi-laners.
New cars, like people, are at least in part a product of their environment. It’s inevitable. But what happens when you put such differently influenced products together? Which one asserts itself? To butcher Jack Nicholson’s Boston-drawled opening line from The Departed: which can make that new adversarial environment a product of it?
Well, first you’ve got to do it. And if you want the latest 3 Series, you have to go a fairly long way to do it, because the BMW has only just been launched to the international press in Munich.
So you bundle a willing volunteer into Jaguar’s equally new XE and send him off towards the Channel Tunnel while you get on a plane. You aim for neutral ground: in this test’s case, an idyllic stretch of mountain road called the Namlos Pass, not far over the Austrian border.And when you get there, you prepare for the start of an automotive rivalry that could run and run – the most telling gauge yet of whether Gaydon has got it right with its most important new saloon car in decades.
Stand by, then, for England versus Germany; new pretender versus old master; £2 billion of recent investment versus 40 years of experience in making what has consistently been the best compact executive saloon in the world.
You’re probably reading this twin test in advance of any first drive impressions about the 340i. There has been very little written about BMW’s facelifted 3 Series so far compared with the reams and reams we’ve published on the XE. So let’s redress that a bit.