Or why the BMW 3-Series spell S-U-C-C-E-S-S

In the luxury vehicle arena, success or failure hinges on an automaker's vehicles to deliver maximum effect with minimum effort in ALL departments, from performance to looks to price.

Such is the principle that drives BMW (Bavarian Motor Works) to succeed in the aforementioned market. Its vehicle lineup, composed of roadsters, sport utility vehicles and luxury cars, are contenders in the automotive sales arena. According to 2004 January-November CAMPI (Chamber of Automotive Manufacturers of the Philippines) year-to-date statistics, BMW at present has a Philippine automotive market share of 2.68 percent, a 1.78 percent increase from the company's market share in 2003.

It is tempting to ask the BMW top brass why the company stands tall above the luxury vehicle market, but that would be scratching the tip of the iceberg. The BMW top brass will tell you that spending time behind the wheel of any BMW vehicle will answer the aforementioned query.

With that in mind, the author decided to spend the last weekend prior to Christmas Day in a BMW. Great was his satisfaction when he found out that he would be driving its bestseller, a BMW 3-Series luxury car. But not just any BMW 3-Series will do; the author got a 318i M Sport car as his faithful four-wheeler for five precious and insightful days.

Multi-titled, multi-faceted

In the eyes of BMW Philippines, the BMW 3-Series cars compose nearly half of its sales volume due to its impressive mix of performance and looks at a lottery-level price. But then again, if one wants the best from an entry-level German passenger luxury car, one will have to cough up lots of Philippine pesos.

The success of the 3-Series has also branched towards the quality level, having garnered several awards for excellence. Among those are consistent spot on Car and Driver's (a prestigious automotive magazine in the US) "Ten Best Cars of the Year" and its winning the "Most Appealing Entry-Level Luxury Car" from JD Power and Associates in its APEALS (Automotive Performance, Execution And Layout Study) for the sixth straight year. Indeed (as the author found out), when one gets behind the wheel of a 3-Series car, one will find out why the 3-Series deserves all its accolades.

Under the hood

The small stretch of straightaway along Katipunan Avenue (Ave.), from Ateneo de Manila to P. Tuazon Avenue-Blue Ridge in Quezon City is a good test of acceleration and braking, because the overpass that spans the Katipunan Ave.-Aurora Boulevard intersection receives very little traffic volume. When the author drove the 318i M Sport through the said straightaway, he noticed that the car accelerates REAL FAST. So fast that if you drank before flooring the gas pedal you might actually pee in your pants.

The slightest prod of the gas makes one jerk back in the driver's seat. When the gas pedal is floored, one will notice that the tachometer moves to the redline area quickly, but with engine noise decent enough to carry a conversation in hushed tones. Definitely BMW was not kidding when they say that the 318i M Sport is rated at 143 brake-horsepower (bhp) and 200 Newton-meters (Nms) of torque, all coming out of a two-liter inline four cylinder engine.

The steering is heavy but responsive, while the 318i M Sport's Dynamic Stability Control function (which relies on the presence of certain brake load characteristics and the intervention of engine electronics) keeps the car planted on the road at all times, even during unstable deceleration. The automatic transmission engages fairly quickly and is particularly helpful, especially when one engages the Steptronic feature. All one has to do to engage the Steptronic feature is step on the brake, press the gear selector button, place the gear column to "D (Drive)" and move the stick column to the left. To upshift one has to to pull the column downwards, while pushing the column upwards makes the car go down a gear. If one is confused, an indicator on the dashboard underneath the tachometer and fuel consumption gauge tells you the gear you have selected for quick reference.

The author also noticed that downshifting in Steptronic mode is easy thanks to the built-in computer within the car's gearbox. Even if you don't shift to first gear in time to make a full stop (like if you need to stop from 60 kilometers per hour to zero quickly) the Steptronic feature does it for you.

The friendly confines

Entering the car and examining the interior, one will notice that the dashboard, center cluster and transmission cluster is full of gadgets, buttons and dials that are arranged within easy reach and glance of the driver and shotgun-riding passenger (front seat passenger). Even during night driving, the dashboard, radio, transmission cluster and airconditioning (a/c) controls illuminate the entire front interior for easy viewing and reach.

The radio volume and radio station shuttle switches are located on the nine o'clock side of the steering wheel so that there will be no need to move the right hand towards the radio for fiddling purposes and keeps the driver's eyes on the road instead of on the radio. The automatic climate control feature has two buttons (with red/blue labels) that can regulate the temperature of the interior instantly. At the left hand side of the driver's seat there is a memory setting function which "memorizes" the seating position of up to three figurative nuts behind the steering wheel.

But there are quirks. Some symbols, such as the cruise control buttons on the three o'clock side of the steering wheel, require reading of the instruction manual for familiarity. Those used to driving a Japanese model car will find out that the on/off switch for the headlights is NOT on the left hand side stalk behind the steering wheel, but below the leftmost a/c vent. The power window and power lock controls and the hazard lights are located around the automatic transmission's (a/t) shift knob, while the side window adjustment feature is located on the driver's side armrest.

Interior dimensions are big in this car. The 318i M Sport's bucket seats are big enough to contain even a size 38 waist. The back row is big enough to seat comfortably four Filipinos of average size, or maybe a balikbayan box and a six-footer beside it. The trunk is large enough to swallow two laundry bags, an LPG (liquid petroleum gas) tank and two sacks of rice. And maybe three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree thrown in for good measure.

Attention grabbing

The fact that it's a BMW is enough to attract inquisitive looks, prying eyes, a lot of comments about the car and an occasional parting of seas of traffic. Traveling through EDSA for example, is interesting because every time the author traversed the said highway, he noticed that there were people (even in current model Japanese cars) who tend to stare at the vehicle and steer their vehicle away from the 318i M Sport when the car is in their line of sight. Picking up or unloading passengers is also an interesting sight because bystanders tend to look at the driver and a glimpse of the interior of the car for a long time, as the author observed during a trip to New Manila (Quezon City) to hear Mass.

Even if the car is parked, a lot of people tend to ask you questions like "Where did you get that car?" and "How much is that car?" over and over again. Remarks like "Nice car" and "I like you car?" prop up countless times, especially when the author parked the car in places (like the author's area of residence in Cubao, Quezon City ) where there are scores of people. Even in drive-through avenues (such as McDonalds Katipunan), the order takers tend to give the said statements and ask the same questions and have that look that says "That's a nice car but I'll have to sell my soul and work 24 more years in the fastfood industry to get me that car."

People who have rode in the 3181 M Sport (such as the author's girlfriend, her co-workers at BusinessWorld, his relatives and friends) tend to look around the interior and play with everything, from the a/c controls to the radio controls to the power window features. Not surprisingly, they are astonished at the huge interior room and trunk space and wowed at the cornucopia of buttons, dials and levers. Also, they are shocked at the price tag of the car (Php 2.75 million for the 318i M Sport*). "I might have to purchase a lottery ticket or two, and win, just to get one 3-Series," said Claire Pascua (the author's cousin), a middle management executive at Unilever Philippines . But then again, to whom much is given, much is required.

This is the last year of the current model 3-Series, for in 2005 BMW Philippines is set to introduce an all-new version of its main volume seller. Even if the current model 3-Series is on its last legs, it is easy to see why it deserves every award it wins. It is also easy to see why the 3-Series is its best seller. All with minimum effort at maximum enjoyment.