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Car reviews - BMW - 3 Series - 330Ci coupe

Our Opinion

We like
Engine power and smoothness, chassis balance
Room for improvement
Limited vision and space

1 Aug 2001

IF you want to know what an M3 was like back in the 1990s, the old-timers say go and drive a 330Ci coupe now.

Fabulous performance and aural sensations from a signature BMW inline engine, a hint of unruliness from the rear-wheel drive chassis and powerful looks are all in the spirit of BMW's performance coupe.

Of course, the M3 resides now in another stratosphere of performance to its predecessors, and the 330Ci for that matter. It is also $40,000 more expensive than the 330Ci.

Not that at around $100,000 the 330Ci is inexpensive. It is indeed the top-of-the-line BMW 3 Series coupe you can buy without an M badge. It appeared here in September 2000, fundamentally as an engine upgrade for the original E46 body shape 328Ci coupe, that car first spied in Australia in June 1999.

And while a boost of around 200cc does not sound like much, let the figures do the talking the M54 unit produces 170kW at 5900rpm from 2979cc, up 20 per cent on the old M52. Torque is now 300Nm at 3500rpm, or 7 per cent up.

Claimed acceleration in the manual 330Ci to 100km/h is just 6.7 seconds, compared with 7.3 seconds for the 328i. Claimed fuel consumption actually drops from 10.4L/100km on the city cycle to 10.1L/100km, while out on the theoretical highway it stays at 6.2L/100km. The figures are improved even more in five-speed auto form.

The keys to the improvements are the latest version of BMW's twin VANOS variable intake and exhaust valve timing system to improve power delivery across the rev range, streamlining of the intake and exhaust manifolds to improve air flow and a fully electronic throttle butterfly for more sensitive throttle response, replacing an electro-mechanical system.

And the results are simply stunning. The engine is never lacking for urge, but head for the upper reaches of the rev range from about 4000rpm and it really snarls into vocal life. The urge turns to a linear surge and the tacho needle sweeps around the dial to the 6500rpm rev-limiter.

It's a struggle keep up with it, as you grab one gear after another. No problem considering the malleable clutch and authoritative shift of the five-speed gearbox - thanks be there are not six gears or you would get RSI.

Top is really an overdrive gear for highway cruising while third and second gear allow the fat of the torque and power curves to be exploited best when the road starts getting snakey.

And here's more evidence of the engine's power, which can overwhelm the fat low-profile rear tyres' ability to grip the road. Keep the ASC+T traction control system on and you won't have any problems but it is so obtrusive it quickly becomes annoying. Switch it off and watch the warning light start flashing on the dash - often.

It's a doddle to light up the rear tyres from a standing start or out of slow corners, and this would be disconcerting for someone used to front or four-wheel drive cars. There is more of a feeling of being on the edge, that you have to balance the car on the throttle - welcome to powerful rear-wheel driving. Get it right and it is a delight: I have never used the throttle more to purposely drift a car out of a corner.

The rest of the mechanical package is outstanding too. The suspension sorting is sensational - the 330Ci sits flat yet rides comfortably and the steering is light - perhaps too light for some - with a tendency to tram track. But it is also full of feel and directness.

The brakes are also beautifully sorted for Australian conditions, including our dirt roads, and only roar from the tyres lets the package down, which tells you how quiet everything else is.

The coupe's exterior looks remain fundamentally as before, distinguished from its predecessors from a new wide chrome strip surrounding the traditional BMW kidney-shaped grille, while the air inlets in the front bumper and the fog and headlamp panel inserts are now Titan Silver coloured.

Xenon headlamps, headlamp washers and rain sensors are now also standard along with Park Distance Control, with the sensors embedded in the rear bumper.

Inside, the changes are even fewer, with matt chrome now ringing the major gauges, which continue to be housed in a deep pod behind a sexy little fully adjustable leather sports steering wheel.

Otherwise it's very familiar with the same control area inclined toward the driver, the sat-nav/TV screen dominating the centre console accompanied by the usual intimidating array of buttons.

Specification levels are high with standard leather interior, quality audio, power windows/mirrors, cruise control and so forth. Only the climate control strikes a jarring note, seemingly incapable of coping with the challenges of the Australian climate.

With its high sill line, deep and snug sports and small rear windows, the 330Ci is not the easiest car to see out of, nor is it the most efficient of transporters - the rear seats are best left to children or used as an additional storage compartment.

But hey, what do you want? If you buy the 330Ci or any other coupe, it is not for functionality. It's just for fun.

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