Has BMW re-captured the very engaging 3-series driving experience of the past?
BMW,’s nomenclature stopped making sense ages ago. The E46 Generation (99-05) was the last time that the numbers on the back of the cars consistently told you something about the engine. “330i” was a 3-series, with a 3.0L inline-six, and the “325i” was a 3-series, with a 2.5L inline-six. Now however, with the introduction of turbocharged four-cylinder engines, not all 3-series BMWs are sporting a six-cylinder with a different displacement.
Personally, I’m a big fan of six-cylinder BMWs. In fact, I own one from the E46 generation. I generally fall into the crew of those who think that when it comes to BMWs, older is better. Hopping into the 2017 BMW 330i xDrive M-Sport, I was expecting it to reaffirm that the current Bavarian “ultimate driving machines” have simply lost their zing. Interestingly though, I was proven quite wrong.
This 330i has been released this year to replace the 328i, which was the middle of the 3-series range. Its twin-scroll turbocharged four-cylinder engine has been given a slight bump in power, and is now making 248 horsepower and 258 lb-ft. of torque. Those are very acceptable numbers for a middle of the range 3-series. In fact, after commuting with this 330i for a while, I can’t even conceive of a time when you would need more torque for daily driving. The power delivery is impressively smooth, and there is almost zero turbo lag.
However the ticket to smiles is this; you really should spend the money to get the ZF eight-speed automatic transmission. It’s $1500 dollars more than the six-speed manual and worth every single penny. My tester was fitted with this option, so I was lucky enough to spend a week with one of the best automatic transmissions around, period. Every upshift was deliberate, and every downshift was perfectly timed in auto mode. Then you knock the gear selector over to the left, use the paddles, and enjoy a transmission that is easily near the top of this class.
Fast aggressive upshifts are at your disposal, and satisfying throttle blips are delivered on the downshifts. However the best part comes when your blast on the winding road ends and you venture into the city. The transmission simply becomes a smooth torque converter automatic. No fuss. Over the week I could not find any fault with the transmission or engine. In fact, coupled with the synthesized exhaust note that comes through the speakers (which isn’t bothersome at all really), you might actually mistake the powerplant for a naturally aspirated inline-six.
To continue my high-expectations evaluation of this BMW sedan, I was ready to be very critical of the chassis. BMWs have always been about handling and I went headlong into this 330i expecting it to be too soft and not engaging enough. With the engine inside of the front axle, a stiff body, well tuned suspension, and a near perfect weight balance, the 330i impressed me corner after corner. Even with xDrive all-wheel-drive on board, the car felt primarily rear wheel drive (due in part to a rear power bias). The car would happily rotate under throttle.
The 330i very clearly has a stiff chassis with softer suspension. They left the body control up to the structural rigidity and allowed the suspension to remain soft enough to soak up the bumps. This makes for a very confident driving experience. The steering is still a weak point. Older BMWs had wonderful hydraulically assisted steering, and even though the electric rack in this 330i was better than its predecessor it still felt very dead on-centre and didn’t feel connected in a straight line. The weight builds fairly well in a corner, but it’s still not quite where I would like it to be. Considering the M cars like the M2 (reviewed here)feel noticeably better, I don’t see why BMW can’t prioritize the steering in their ‘normal’ cars. That being said, since the rest of the driving experience is so stellar, the sub-standard steering isn’t even close to a deal breaker.
While the steering isn’t impressive, the steering wheel itself, is. My tester was equipped with the $3,000 dollar M Sport Line package, which included the M Sport steering wheel. It’s broadly the same as the wheel that you will find on the M cars, and it really adds to the driving experience. It’s finished in wonderful Nappa leather, and the buttons don’t feel cluttered or difficult to decipher. This M Sport Line package also includes the sport seats and some more aggressive exterior styling. The seats are very comfortable and highly adjustable. With the tilt and telescoping steering wheel, I was able to easily achieve a perfect driving position.
The driving modes do very obviously change the feel of the car. I left, the car in Sport or Sport+ most of the time, because I preferred the steering and throttle response in that mode. Comfort mode is very usable day to day. My mileage suffered a bit in the city in Sport+ mode as expected, and I turned out 11.5L/100km. Driving more conservatively and having spent some time on the highway, I easily managed to average 9L/100km over the course of the test week.
The good news continues through the rest of the interior. The materials are all very good, and fit and finish is typically German. The Audi S3 (reviewed here) interior could give it a run for its money, but it’s nothing to worry about if you are a potential buyer, because the 3-series interior ticks all the boxes. The newest iteration of BMW’s iDrive is very good, and brilliantly intuitive. I figured out the menu and submenus in five minutes. The iDrive controller also has an area on top where you can draw individual letters with your finger. If that’s too pedestrian for you though, you can also make a call to BMW’s ConnectedDrive and talk to an operator who will input the location in your navigation system for you. The ConnectedDrive menus also include weather, and local news articles that the car will read out to you if you are on the go.
In order to get the ConnectedDrive though, you have to tick the box for the $5,550 Premium Package Enhanced, which will also get you a wonderfully sharp heads up display, a backup camera with sensors, a Harman/Kardon sound system and some accessories including a heated steering wheel and lumbar support. All of these extra features are very nice, but personally, I’m the type that would spend the money on the M Sport package instead. If you can afford both, then you’re laughing. I would opt for the $750 dollar smart phone connectivity package, because Apple CarPlay is one of those things you need after you have tried it a few times. To further that point, BMW is the only manufacturer that has managed to get Apple CarPlay on the screen without physically plugging your phone in.
The question is, has BMW re-captured the very engaging 3-series driving experience of the past? Well, Almost. If they improved the steering this would make a very formidable driver’s car. With this particular tester coming in at a hair under $60,000 you do have to consider the fact that the M2 with a manual transmission makes a compelling argument at $64,400. And it is most certainly a driver’s car. If you were asking me, I would take the M2 for that price. But if that wasn’t an option, owning this 330i wouldn’t keep me up at night for one wink.