Tuesday 19th April 2005


BMW 330I

Many BMW 330i owners will never know just how good their car is. Nick Hall explains.

BMW 330i
BMW 330i
It’s a sad fact of life that many BMW 330i owners will never realise just how good their car is. The true virtues of the middle managers’ outside lane pounder of choice will simply stay a secret, well hidden behind the traction control button and comfy leather seats.

That’s a shame because inside this icon of corporate greed, now in its fifth generation, there’s a top coupe just waiting to show a clean pair of heels to anything in its class and a good few besides.

After a jaunt that started in Seville, stopping off near Marbella, and then through Spain’s substantial mountain ranges, on to Madrid, Pamplona and up through France, I can safely say BMW has once again lifted the dynamic bar in the compact executive sector. If Audi and Mercedes were worried before, they could now be forgiven for weeping and rocking in a corner.

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Words and pictures by Nick Hall

Performance

The engine is immense. It’s the same powerplant that featured in our 630i road test (see link below), so you may already know how impressive it is. It’s a groundbreaking unit with a number of tricks, including extensive use of magnesium, that combine to make this the lightest three-litre, six-cylinder production petrol engine in the world.

It not only provides 258 stampeding horses, it also pumps out 220lb-ft of torque, which is sportscar levels of propulsion in-gear. Press the throttle down hard, though, and the box will kick down and send the car flying down the road at an obscene rate.

This car is capable of monumental bursts of acceleration -- in normal road use you just won’t worry the last third of the throttle’s travel. I know the top end speed of 155mph is a lie after taking it off the 160mph clock on a late night run on a deserted Spanish toll-road and the 0-62mph of 6.6s, 6.3s for the manual, feels massively conservative from behind the wheel.

In the 3 Series, with perhaps a little less insulation than the 6, the engine is even more raucous when revved hard and this car never felt short of shove all the way to the redline. I drove the automatic version, but made full use of the SMG sequential change mechanism that gets better with each generation.

Transmission

The M5’s box, when we can get hold of it, will undoubtedly be the cream of the crop, but even the entry level model’s SMG is now so advanced it’s hard to imagine how a human foot could improve the process. It might still change up on you if you hold it on the redline, but for the most part this system has now evolved to provide manual control with auto convenience.

Generally I demand a manual box, enjoying the act of changing gear as much as the overall control, but even the most ardent manual fan should test this variant before dismissing it.

It has a few surprises in store, too. Plant your foot, even in manual mode, at 130mph, and it will change down two gears to fourth and scream off towards the 155mph limiter.

Ride and roadholding

The ride isn’t perfect, but it’s not meant to be. The BMW insignia doesn’t just suggest that you’re a golf club member, furnished your home almost exclusively at Ikea and are on your way up the corporate ladder, it also announces the arrival of the tautest, most driver-focussed machines in its class.

Mercedes' are more luxurious, Audis sensible and Jaguars come with special compartments for carpet slippers and Wurthers Originals. BMW prizes the driving experience above all else. It might be massive over-engineering considering most will only hurry between appointments, but then that commitment to the apex means that the 3 Series is sharp as a razor in everyday life, should never be caught out in normal conditions and belongs here.

In fact the only way to unstuck that finely honed rear is with gratuitous use of the right boot. It doesn’t react well to trail braking, which leaves it nervous and unbalanced, but get slowed down before the corner and the car will ride the edge with all four tyres gently squirming under the loads and drifting in unison.

Any saloon washes out into understeer if pushed beyond the limits, but it was barely detectable as we hurled the lithe 1,540Kg creation into bends. It floats through bends, refusing to step out, until you learn to push its limits and then it will take the exit with any level of oversteer you care to dial in.

Feeling the four-wheel-drift kicking in time after time, it became blatantly apparent that the 3 Series is so much better than most of its owners will ever realise it’s almost criminal.

That’s why all BMWs come with a 50/50 front/rear weight distribution, which is a better basis than most sports cars provide, thanks to mixing up the materials in the chassis and suspension to finely balance the machine under the right pedal. Each wheel sits right in the corner, too, in a barely compromised design, and no overhangs is just common sense when it comes to handling prowess.

There’s also that four-piece rear axle that may contribute to the disconcerting high-speed floating over cut-up roads, together with the run flat tyres, but pushing at the limit it was mind-blowing.

Many so-called sports cars don’t provide the feedback, feel or instinctive driving thrills on offer in the new 3. The mere thought of the new M3 is enough to send drool cascading down my chin, but for now the 330i is as much car as you can get, and as much as you’ll need.

Look and feel

The pinched-in front and rear hide the fact that the new car is actually bigger in every dimension than the outgoing 3 Series. Its sporting prowess was a key part of the design and the low slung roofline contributes to the impression that it’s smaller than it really is, and the 3 Series undoubtedly leads the way in this class when it comes to dynamic good looks.

Internally, it’s a cut-price 5 Series environment, with slightly inferior plastics and lower grade leather, but still a stunning cockpit for this class. It’s a clutter-free, driver-focused place of work with a perfect driving position, all-round visibility and every control required available from the steering wheel.

Conclusions

Every time I’ve tested a new BMW recently I’ve spent days seriously analysing the bank balance to see if it could take the monthly payments. BMW has moved on to another level and, the entry-level 1-Series aside, it's currently so far ahead of the game it's not even funny.

Not everyone will appreciate just how good the BMW 330i is, but then they don’t have to. We will know this £28,455 legend is the king of its class, and the master of many besides.

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Author: Nick Hall