TURIN - BMW AG executives and engineers are worried that their cars - renowned worldwide for their impeccable driving characteristics - are becoming too good. Or too refined. Or too expensive.

Or all three of the above.

What has BMW thinking this way? It's owners are growing older. A decade ago, the average age of BMW buyers was almost 10 years younger than Mercedes-Benz drivers. Today, the difference is closer to five years and closing. It's a worrying trend.

"Maybe the new 3-series is too perfect. We need a model that takes us back to our roots as a driver's car," says one senior BMW engineer.

There's a growing realization in Munich that unless BMW comes up with an affordable, very quick, sports sedan - if you like, a European rival for the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo V1 and Subaru Impreza WRX - the PlayStation generation will think of BMWs as oldfolks' cars. The loss of the aspirational factor, so critical to BMW's long-term success, concerns more than a few in Munich.

Who needs a BMW M3 when the Evo V1 and WRX offer superior driving thrills for vastly less money?

What's needed, says one power faction inside BMW's Fiz R&D center, is a modern 2002. The idea of a contemporary version of the compact sports sedan that made BMW's reputation, a model aimed directly at younger buyers, was first floated by Wolfgang Reitzle, the charismatic former head of engineering and now boss of Ford Motor Co.'s Premier Automotive Group.

"It wouldn't be retro except in philosophy as a driver's car," says the BMW source. "It would be lightweight and simple, using modern technology, and not just a stripped-out version of the existing 3-series. We need a car that connects more directly with the driver."

The project is officially shelved, at least for the moment, as BMW grapples with many problems at its Rover subsidiary.

But the concept has many powerful supporters among the more enthusiastic engineers inside BMW. Much to their consternation, though, the BMW board has yet to give the program the green light, despite a business plan that shows it can turn a profit on around 30,000 units a year worldwide.

At least the engineering themes developed for the lightweight 2002 have contributed to the next generation 3-series, so costs incurred with the on-hold "basic" BMW program can to some degree be spread on to the future of 3-series development.

Meanwhile, controversy grows over the future of the diesel-powered Z9 Gran Turismo concept car. Few who saw the ugly Z9, unveiled at the Frankfurt show, believe it's the answer to BMW's apparent loss of direction. Designed by Adrian van Hooydonk, under Chris Bangle, BMW's exuberant design boss, the Z9 is a heavy-handed mishmash of unconnected BMW design cues that aims at exploring "new ideas and philosophies." Rival designers almost universally panned it.

"Don't worry, it's not the way future BMWs are going to look," comments another BMW source.

One thing's certain: Even a watered-down version of the Z9 is not going to lower the age of the average BMW buyer.