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From England.

Part of the appeal of a coupé such as the BMW 330Ci is that it does two jobs. Treat it like an executive saloon and it'll waft around in perfect refinement. Should you want to have fun, it has plenty of power and the handling to match, too. So which gearbox should you choose? When it's time to relax on the daily commute you want an auto, ut a self-shifter is no good for the keen motorist.

BMW is now offering a unit which can lead a dual life - the Sports Sequential Gearbox. Rather than a full auto, the SSG is based around a five-speed manual transmission, but electronics do the shifting for you. For the first time in a standard 3-Series, it's available as a £960 option (a full auto is £2,100). The SSG is based on the SMG first seen in the M3, but has been simplified to keep costs down. As in the performance flagship, the driver gets three modes of operation. Firstly, the gearstick can be moved backwards and forwards to change ratio. For a more authentic racing feel, you can use the steering wheel paddleshifters. Your thumbs make downchanges and your fingers work the ups, although we found both switches are mounted too far from the wheel rim to fall easily to hand.

The third method of gear selection is the least effective. Shifting the stick into 'C', which stands for Cruise, engages a crude automatic mode designed primarily for city use. Drivers who use this function regularly will be disappointed by the unpredictable changes, and it soon becomes apparent that this is no alternative to an auto box. Despite having a simpler configuration than the SMG's, this is a system that still takes some getting used to. But give it time and it becomes more and more rewarding. Changes are slower and less racy, yet they are much more refined and relaxing.

Rather than a raucous blip of the throttle on the downchange, the electronics adjust the engine revs to give a slick shift. It is jerk-free, but lacks the drama of the M3. Pulling away in town traffic can cause problems, but once you're underway it's possible to swap ratios smoothly.

To extract the full potential from the silky six-cylinder engine, SSG has a 'sport' mode which speeds up the changes, but this compromises refinement. Most people will find normal shifts fast enough, although this setting also offers a launch control programme for the quickest possible getaway.

But the SSG's most attractive feature is its economy. Because it doesn't have any of the power-sapping torque converters associated with a conventional auto, the performance and mpg figures are identical to the manual's. That means 0-60mph in 6.4 seconds, and a maximum speed of 155mph. Out on the open road the model feels every bit as quick as the figures suggest, and fuel economy of 31mpg is sensational for a machine with this performance. The CO2 emissions, unchanged at 218g/km, are also good news for company car drivers. Chris Thorp

2001 CL Type S
2001 Lexus RX300 Silversport
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