2006 BMW 330i
– Great engine
– Amazing handling
– Interesting gadgetry
– Rearward visibility
– Tight rear seat room
– A little on the expensive side
We have to admit that when we went to pick up our brand new test car from BMW Middle East, we were already in a pretty biased mood — against BMW. Sometime last year, we repeatedly tried to get test vehicles, and we were repeatedly stonewalled by their previous PR rep for, we guess, not being “important” enough. We are also speculating that we were put on the waiting list for press cars somewhere between Camel Racing Weekly and Ahlan’s Hot 100. This left us scrounging for BMWs from private owners for reviews. However, all that changed with a recent call to BMW. This time we dealt with friendly new PR people who quickly arranged the new 330i for us, making up for lost time by giving us the car for almost an entire week. And we have to say, the wait was well worth it.
The latest BMW 330i is a very unassuming car. The feisty design influences found in the larger Bimmers are very hard to spot on this little number. The exterior styling is a tight package, bulging at the seams with flared fenders and bubbly surfaces, finished with trademark “cat’s eyes” headlights and massive 18-inch alloy wheels. The overall styling is attractive, but we’d be hard-pressed to differentiate the top-spec 330i from the lower 320i and 325i models, aside from the telltale badging and wheel designs.
The interior follows the conservative exterior theme, but it is very tastefully done. The seats are quite firm, but the front seats are very supportive for quick cornering work. The grippy leather-clad seats in our tester were perfectly stitched, though finished in an uneven wrinkly style. Legroom is abundant in the front, but expectedly limited in the back for rear passengers over six feet tall. Headroom all round is enough for six-footers, though freakishly taller people will have their scalp massaged by the headliner. It is the small price buyers have to pay to not have their car look like a minivan. Straight-ahead visibility is excellent, but rearward visibility is limited by big rear headrests, with small oval-shaped convex side mirrors that offer a skewed view of the world behind the car.
The dashboard is cleanly laid out, with basic a/c functions being the only visible switches. The rest of the controls, including the stereo and DVD navigation, are stuffed into the optional iDrive computer, with its colourful dash-mounted screen, central rotary joystick and steep learning curve. Luckily, the most basic controls for the rather good CD stereo system can be found on the steering wheel. The few ergonomic annoyances that require stretching include a driver’s flip-out cupholder that is actually on the passenger’s side, and a CD changer system that is mounted in the trunk. The trunk itself can hold maybe two average-sized suitcases and a few bags. Our car was equipped with the usual power windows, mirrors, seats and sunroof. We weren’t particularly pleased with the black dashboard combined with the all-beige interior, but it’s a minor grievance considering the upscale soft-touch quality of the surfaces. Features to brag about include an electronic key, the starter button, the LED-lit door handles, the eight airbags, the computer-guided reverse parking sensors and maybe the roof-mounted “SOS” button which we’ve been told not to touch. Tempting.
Describing the interior is just a formality on our part. The 3 was conceived simply to provide the most stunning driving experience possible in a practical shell. And it did not disappoint. The suspension setup on this car is so finely tuned that the ride was as comfortable as the last Cadillac we tested, yet it also cornered at high speeds with the same stability that is usually the domain of more expensive cars with fancy electro-air-doohicky suspension. The rear-wheel-drive 330i utilizes the traditional MacPherson strut front and multilink rear combo, used in cars as pedestrian as, of all things, the Mazda 3. But we could find no flaw whatsoever in the tuning. Pushing the limits at our usual isolated proving grounds, the Bimmer demonstrated to us why it is known, rather cheesily, as the ultimate driving machine. Cornering at 120 kph in sweeping curves rewarded us with so little body roll and so much grip that we were left wondering if the speedo was misleading us, while slides induced with the handbrake were easily controlled with the accurate steering. We actually thought that the optional active ratio power steering would be annoying, but it operated quite invisibly, surprising us with conveniently small turns of the steering wheel during parking, while firming up so as to avoid twitchiness at high speeds, though we could not feel any supposed difference in the steering ratio. However, the 50:50 balance of the car is too perfect to be upset by such trivial on-the-fly changes when driven under the limit.
Showering praises on the handling almost made us forget the “power” component of our test drive. In 330i trim, the inline-six packs 255 hp at 6600 rpm and 300 Nm at 2750 rpm. The numbers are impressive, but the power is offset by its 3400-pound curb weight, making it as heavy as midsize cars like the Toyota Camry Grande. However, there certainly was no power deficit in practical terms, with the car coming alive from a standstill and at high revs. We only found it slightly lacking in the mid-range torque department, but that can be ignored given the super-smooth nature of the award-winning BMW sixer, and the fact that it can still zip from zero to 100 kph in less than seven seconds with either the six-speed manual or, as in our tester, the smooth six-speed tiptronic. During highway cruising, the 330i is extremely quiet, with only a muffled grunt from the engine under throttle, and a hint of wind noise, doing 120 kph in the middle of a sandstorm. Fuel economy easily matched anything with a V6 from Japan.
Braking performance is as good as high-dollar sports cars from Porsche and Ferrari, with short stopping distances, and a helping of electronic nannies besides the usual ABS. But we were fazed by the overly sensitive nature of the soft brake pedal, leading to jerky stops at low city speeds. Otherwise, brake operation was uneventful yet impressive.
The BMW 330i is a car that is certainly hard to hate, unless you hate good things in general. The price is, of course, steeper than we’d like for a well-built compact sedan. But we believe it offers a better drive than anything Audi, Cadillac and others currently have on offer. And that might be worth the premium to some, with or without the BMW badge.
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