Image and looks, two very separate things that just happen to be inextricably linked. See that cool guy over there? The handsome, well dressed guy? And that geek-chic girl he’s with? She’s really hot behind those glasses and the cable-knit sweater. And so it is, we will typically adjust our conceptions of a person’s image, depending on their looks. If a well-dressed man happens to be ugly people will say he’s craggy, or distinctive, or any of a thousand descriptions less insulting than simple ugliness. Ugly Betty, as we know, isn’t ugly at all. She just typically wears horrible clothes.
With cars, as with people, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Ugliness and character are really hard to separate and few of us are totally united in what we see as automotive beauty. It sees to be accepted that the most appreciated supercars have a certain degree of menace and un-loveliness underpinning their appeal, they are pretty in the same way as an F14 Tomcat is. With more utilitarian machinery, beauty is often arrived at by pure accident. The Nissan Pao, for example, one of their Pike series, was designed with exposed hinge mechanisms, gawky light units, fixed side glass. Yet it’s seen as both a design classic and a thing of beauty, as is the Citroen 2CV, even though it’s universally derided as being one of the worst cars, in real terms, on the road today.
Every now and again, though, a car manufacturer manages to produce, against all odds, a car which is seen as absolutely bloody awful looking by all and sundry. In the year 2000, BMW set a new standard by which hideosity could be measured, with the launch of the E46 3-Series Compact. Let’s get this straight, BMW have, over the last ten years and usually under the direction of one Mr Bangle, released some of the most challenging looking cars ever to hit the market. Controversy is actually a good thing, it makes people talk about your products, even encourages people to dig through the surface to see where the talent lies. The flame-surfaced BMWs of the last decade have been extremely polarising, and have attracted as many customers as they have repelled. The E46 Compact, though, wasn’t controversial. It was just wrong.
Dumpy is a good adjective. The central hull of the Compact has very little wrong with it, being all but inseparable from the E46 Coupe; quite a good looking car. The problem lies in how BMW chose to separate the Compact from the rest of the 3-Series range. Concieved as an entry level model, if it looked too similar to more costly products it might steal exsisting buyers from the Saloon rather than encouraging new patrons in from the Golf, Audi A3 markets. So the new baby needed to have a recognisably different face, and they achieved this by bashing it in with an ugly stick until the end result was so gargoyle-like it’s a wonder that Mother Munich didn’t immediately question its fatherhood and put it immediately up for adoption.
In place of the handsome but conventional wrap-around light clusters of the regular E46 came vestigial single lamps in unit with the direction indicators, together with piggy little round main-beam lights bisected awkwardly by shut-lines to facilitate opening of the bonnet. Aside from its strangeness, this made the car extremely reliant on its double-kidney grille for brand recognition. Remove that and the car would be a picture of ananymosity. It’s rather a shame, were BMW brave enough to fit the usual 3-Series lights the car would be transformed, and the failings of the equally unpleasant rear treatment wouldn’t matter so much.
I’d question whether the rear end was actually styled at all, as such. Clearly it was as the light clusters are in fact fairly innovative, in that they use a clear-crystal cover under which the actual lamp units are all kept, much in the manner of the “Lexus-style” aftermarket units that would blight the used-car market for the rest of time. They stand thin and upright either side of the bootlid, speaking little of any BMWness and not really gelling with the rest of the package, which amazingly doesn’t look any better when you’re not actually looking at it.
Viewed side on and all quibbles over the detailing evaporate on discovery of the underlying problem. Take the central hull of the E46 Coupe, lop eighteen inches off the back and you’re not left with an awful lot of metalwork to play with. Trunkated sums it up, after the gentle slope of the rear windscreen your eye is drawn to the cliff-like descent of the rear end, nixing any graceful, flowing lines the car might have had. Thing is, this has all been said before, ten years ago when the car was first launched. But remember this was pre-Bangle. This was when hideous BMWs were a novelty.
Fortunately, as you might imagine, those brave enough to see past the aesthetics were rewarded with typical Bavarian Brilliance behind the wheel. And, while the looks haven’t improved with maturity, in a way the driving experience has.
Call it nostalgia, but I love driving cars of the old school. Drive a current E90 3-Series and you will come away blinded by the directness of control, nimbleness of reflexes and feeling of absolute precision. Jump straight into an E46 and it feels like a blunt instrument, that telepathic link between you and the road has gone slightly fuzzy, the lines of communication are fast dial-up, not broadband.
In its place, though, is a very welcome sense of weight and solidity, a feeling of ever-so-slight inertia that is actually very reassuring. Given its due, you can carry out every single manouever in an E46 with just the deftness that you can in an E90, it just takes a little more effort and commitment. It’s as if the car asks you to confirm your intentions first, before letting you go ahead. I like it, it actually massages a drivers talent, by the time the car is ready you’ve had a fraction more time to plan your route through the corner and make sure your throttle setting is just so.
The brilliance of the Compact is in the very thing that causes it’s visual undoing. That big chunk of weight sliced off aft of the rear axle results in the car feeling far more pointy, more chuckable than conventionally proportioned models in the range. There is less of that typical 3-Series feeling of impending rear-wheel breakaway and oversteer histrionics, a seasoned BMW driver would very easily get excellent cross-country results in a Compact.
The 320d Compact I used for this feature isn’t the finest example of the breed. It has the wrong wheels, for a start, the drive is preferable on the standard 16” items, even if these incorrect M-Sport units do offer huge levels of grip. It’s also absolutely filthy, inside and out, has a permanently lit glow-plug warning lamp, and has a few rattles and squeaks commensurate with its 130,000 miles.
Still feels tight, though. Still answers my calls for progress without hesitation, the gearbox still kicks down obediently and the engine still emits the same gruff four-cylinder racket a 320d always did. Most importantly, though, the controls still feel like a dream. It still works with you, guiding you through every enthusiastic exploit rather than just letting you straight off the leash and saying “I told you so” when you oversteer off the road, as would happen in a more recent BMW.
Another thing worth mention is the Steptronic Auto gearbox; a slusher I’m still impressed by even after all these years. Responsive enough in its usual configuration, move the beautifully tactile stick to the left and you’re in sports mode, which makes a tangible difference to the way the car picks up, as well as holding each gear that little longer. While in sports mode you can also make clutchless manual changes, and these happen with a good deal more immediacy than found with many comparable systems, you often find yourself waiting for the engine to consent to your gear-changing whims. The BMW, though, know’s you’re boss. I believe that an auto box is pretty much essential in a diesel car, and when it’s as good as this one it’s a no-brainer.
In a way, BMW can be forgiven for trying to throw potential customers off the scent, as the 3 Series Compact is by far the most practical E46 short of the far more expensive touring station wagon. Ok, the two doors make it tricky for adults to fit in the back, and once you get in there you’re best off if you have short stumps for legs, and ideally no head, but for kids or really short-distance work, it’s by no means a digrace. And you get a useful boot, far deeper than that found in its later 1 Series replacement, and made handier by standard fit split-fold seats, and of course that hatchback door. For a small family it’s fair to say that the Compact was a very wise choice if you wanted room and vroom for less than a regular 3-Series.
BMW are on a stylistic comeback, these days. Bangle’s redistribution heralds a return towards styling that is almost understated. Picking a Munich product from the recent era that will actually stand the test of time as a recognised classic usually hinges around the M models and the more exotic regular machinery, but I think there’s a case for the possibility of the 3-Series Compact becoming a minor celebrity in the future. Think of how prized the old 2002 Touring has become, for its rarity and before-its-time design. The Compact, while never especially innovative, is certainly individual. Whatever its status in the future, buying one now isn’t a decision you’ll immediately regret. For a first taste of traditional BMW handling, you could do a lot worse.