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Car reviews - BMW - 3 Series - 330i sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Smooth, powerful and melodic six-cylinder engine, quality
Room for improvement
Still not the most accommodating rear seat, some bump steer from larger wheels

BMW logo11 Apr 2001

By TIM BRITTEN

BMW is confusing us all with its recent model-naming practices.

Once, it was easy to determine engine size from the model description (a 323 had a 2.3-litre engine, a 528i had a 2.8-litre engine), but today it's more than a little confusing with a 316i using a 1.9-litre engine, a 318i also using a 1.9-litre engine and a 320i using a 2.2-litre engine.

Fortunately the new 330i range returns to normality: 330i equals a 3 Series BMW with a 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder engine.

And what an engine. The latest in BMW's family of powerplants confirms the company's position as a maker of the most delicious, aurally delightful engines to be experienced in the passenger car market. You'd need to look at Porsche or Ferrari to find similar mechanical symphonics.

The new all-alloy 3.0-litre straight six is not the first of this capacity for BMW, but it is undoubtedly more advanced than any of its predecessors of the same size.

It is basically the 2.8-litre BMW six with the bore lengthened from 84mm to 89.6mm - a move which plays a part in lifting power from 142kW to 170kW - and a refined "double-VANOS" infinitely variable valve timing system that increases intake valve lift and duration. The torque figure is impressive too, with 300Nm developed at 3500rpm - 90 per cent of which is available from 1500rpm.

Various measures taken with the bigger engine, such as reducing piston friction and lowering idle speed have meant fuel consumption remains the same as the previous, smaller engine. In the sedan, this means a city figure of 10.5 litres/100km and a highway figure of 6.6 litres/100km - excellent figures for a car able to accelerate from rest to 100km/h in 7.3 seconds and run out to a speed-limited maximum of 247km/h.

All 330i models are not equal, however. The engine comes in sedan, coupe and convertible models and all have slightly different specification levels with the sedan probably being the most pedestrian of the lot - if that's a word that can be applied to the top-line 3 Series.

The sedan comes with a whole swag of standard gear, including most of BMW's electronic stability systems (apart from its DSC dynamic stability control that remains optional).

Step inside the 330i and you will be greeted by leather-trimmed, part-electrically adjustable front seats (full electric in coupe and convertible), an impressive dash display complete with on-bard computer and TV monitor and an interesting use of painted inserts where you'd normally expect to find woodgrain.

Airbags lurk in all sorts of places, including the windscreen pillars, and there are lap-sash seatbelts for all passengers. The rear seat has a 60-40 split-fold function that allows an extension of the slightly limited luggage capacity provided in the boot.

The killer 10-speaker sound system, controlled either by buttons on the steering wheel or by the comprehensive console panel that also looks after the (optional) satellite navigation and (standard) trip computer, comes complete with a boot-mounted six-CD stacker.

A park-distance control system is standard to take some of the guesswork out of squeezing into tight spaces. Climate control air-conditioning is of course part of the deal and the 330i is ready to accept an integrated mobile phone system.

Rain-sensing windscreen wipers, Xenon headlights and park distance control are also part of the 330i package.

On top of all this the 330i offers a special driving experience.

The 170kW engine has deep reserves of torque, more than its immediate predecessor, and delivers useful response from relatively low engine speeds.

Considering BMWs were once better known for a propensity to rev rather than deliver low-down lugging power, this marks a continuing change in attitude towards BMW engine characteristics.

It also sings a delightful song, slightly hard-edged when wound out towards the (relatively conservative) redline and issuing a deeper, melodic thrum when cruising at lower rpm.

The five-speed Steptronic auto responds well to manual selection as it allows the driver to anticipate upcoming engine loads and generally avoids the hunting around for correct gear ratios that even a system as sophisticated as the BMW's is occasionally prone to suffer.

But leave the auto in "D" and it will do a commendable job of anticipating and holding the correct ratio.

The 330i is at all times ready to deliver a burst of power, whether for making fast work of an overtaking manoeuvre on the open road, or joining freeway traffic from the filter lane. Typically BMW, the 330i invites use because not only does it respond with gusto, but also sounds as if it enjoys working hard.

The 330i also steers precisely, faithfully tracking the line chosen by the driver without showing any signs of body lean, or tendency to run wide. The test car used the optional sports suspension which meant it sat a little lower, turned in more sharply and tended to be more affected by mid-corner bumps than a regularly-suspended 3 Series.

In fact the tendency of the bigger 17-inch wheels to subject the car to "tramlining" was the 330i's only real weak point. The driver needs to keep a firm hand on the wheel even in a straight line if the surface begins to rough up.

But this only underlines the BMW's orientation towards the sporty end of the scale when compared to, say, the new Mercedes C-class that generally feels larger and less immediately responsive than the lithe Bavarian.

Yet with the standard fitment of various electronic control systems the BMW at all times feels secure and safe, particularly with the big, four-wheel ventilated discs operating through their four-channel anti-lock system.

In the end, the 330i makes its point fluently: BMW is a car-maker focused on making its vehicles enjoyable for the driver as well as safe and comfortable for passengers.

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