While Swade continues his cross-continental odyssey in pursuit of Italian perfection, here’s a small tale from my end of the paddock by way of interlude music.
Fellow Swadeologist Dr Russell, his partner Beate and I found ourselves luxuriating in the hospitality of our local BMW dealer last Saturday night; cold climate pinot-noir, rare beef fillet on melt in your mouth sourdough, single origin beans and the swinging sounds of an early ‘80s lounge lizard with a tight band behind him. Not an average night on our coastal strip. The local aristocracy were all out in force of course. Breakfast radio stars, fringe politicians, real estate moguls and part-time artists. As the smoke from the barbeque slowly filled the showroom and the crowd spilled around the display cars (!M3 in black & white!) and cream leather furniture we paused to reflect. Here we were to celebrate the arrival of Munich’s latest 3-Series and yet there was a distinct trace of Trollhattan in the air. How so? Bear with me.
As the evening ground on and platters were emptied, snappy BMW launch videos run, gracious speeches from the dealership principal inaudibly delivered until finally the covers were snapped off two curvaceous new sedans. Mr Van Hooydonks finest work. Or at least his latest effort in Bangle-erasure. Winsome shapes housing a mortgage worth of options. Fine vehicles thats for sure. Not my thing, but fine. As we hang around for the last of the beef we glanced outside into the drizzle and notice that not only is there an E30 M3 hiding discreetly there in the shadows, people are also taking the new cars for test-drives. Hmmm, thats brave. Test drives on a rainy night when there’s an endless supply of free booze and when the choice of roads is either freeway or a local set of twisties what would fit as a stunt double for sections of Ze Grune Helle. Apparently there was a breath-testing device somewhere about but as I approached the sales guys it was nowhere to be seen.
Not that it mattered, I’d called a halt at my second pinot and switched to espresso an hour earlier anyway. So, I signed my life away and slunk into the drivers seat of a navy blue, cream interior 328, luxury spec and started adjusting. A lot. There are a lot of options as I noted earlier and so they all demand attention. Sport this, comfort that. Why can’t cars be like my Rotel amplifier with just on/off and volume? Having finally selected some mind-numbing combination of electronic madness I finally pushed start and strained to hear a nice, thrummy buzz over the shrieks from indoors. This is where I started connecting with south-west Sweden and not Bavaria. Unlike its inline-six forbears, the 328 is powered by a 4 cylinder turbo. Rear-wheel drive; that’s true but it still has that unmistakeable Scandian growl. With a gushing salesman on my left and Dr Russell taking perch in the backseat I reversed through a minefield of expensive metal and slowly eased onto the dark, slick road.
It was quickly clear that the new 3-Series cabin is a lovely, refined place to be. I’m not hot on the textured wood interior (memories of primary school lino cuts) but the overall effect is comfortable, classy and very, very polished. Too polished. I wanted to hear what I was driving so dropped the window to let in the cool, wet night air and at least a hint of the exhaust note. We rumbled off down through the traffic lights and industrial suburbs, past the freeway on-ramp and through to the winding bends and switch backs of one of my favourite roads. Its tough to know how hard to push a car in this circumstance. You want to feel it move – but not wrap it around a tree. Somehow I found a middle ground and with rain splattering in my ears, wound out that turbo-4 as best I could. It’s a beautiful motor which makes a beautiful sound and is beautiful to drive. Strange then, that it made me sad.
All I could think about on the way back to the dealer and then later when I drove home in my well-worn and loved 93 SportCombi was: there but for the grace of God/Allah/Earth Mother/Grand Scientist goes Saab. Twenty years ahead of its time perhaps. The irony of BMW expanding its line-up with one turbo-charged wonder after another while Saab lingers in a set of dusty folders on a liquidation lawyer’s desk is tough to bear. Perhaps it’s a kind of backhanded compliment which just proves what we Saab alskàre knew all along. The unanswerable question for now is: will we ever see it again?