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Car reviews - BMW - 3 Series - 330i sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Beautifully honed engine, sporty chassis, crisp design
Room for improvement
No spare wheel, still not rear-seat class-leader despite size increase

BMW logo25 Nov 2005

By TIM BRITTEN

STYLISTICALLY, BMW seems to tread a less radical path with its new 3 Series than it has so far followed with the 7 and 5 Series.

The latest E90 3 Series takes many styling cues from the 7 and 5 Series, but effectively neutralises them so the car doesn’t offend.

It’s worth remembering the importance of not alienating anybody with any new car design, particularly in as significant a model range as BMW’s volume-selling 3 Series.

A new 3 Series is always anticipated with interest, moreso than most mid-size prestige-class contenders, simply because it’s been the segment leader for so long.

So the new model arrives with an unmistakable new look that connects with larger BMWs in an overall sense without resorting to radicalism. It also wheels out the expected technofest of improved safety, dynamic and passenger-pleasing design features.

The new 3 Series looks noticeably bigger than the outgoing E46 because it is.

The wheelbase has been bumped up by 35mm to 2760mm, and front and rear tracks have been widened by 29mm, but the most significant is an increase in overall body width from 1739mm to 1817mm, which plays a part in giving the interior a spacious new look. Overall height and length are up on the E46 too, by 6mm and 49mm respectively.

All this means there are measurable improvements in passenger space – particularly up front - and in the boot, which is now a sizeable 460 litres, or 20 litres more than the previous model.

The styling indulges in some of the knife-edged profiles of the bigger BMs but, maybe because we’re getting accustomed to the company’s new design language, the 3 Series somehow looks more integrated and harmonious.

It’s got the high-sided, shallow-window profile of the 5 Series but is relieved from any suggestions of slabbiness by the pronounced crease that runs from the top of the front wheel arch to the tail lights. That, plus the bulging wheel arches, provides some dynamic interest while giving the car its signature sports-sedan look.

BMW also points out that the overall proportions, where the long bonnet is more or less dictated by the longitudinal six-cylinder engine, are more coupe-like than ever.

The interior does nothing to shock either, only subtly suggesting the outward-curving profile of the 7 Series dashboard and adding an extra hump in the middle when satellite-navigation is fitted.

The main instruments are displayed in two simple round dials facing the driver and there’s even a conventional central handbrake on the centre console.

If you opt for a 330i, then you get iDrive as standard along with satellite "radio" navigation. This means you add the complication of the menu-driven iDrive, plus the twin-hump dash.

Of course this wouldn’t be a new 3 Series without some significant mechanical upgrades and the new one has these in abundance.

Weight-saving programmes included all-new engines with magnesium alloy added to the now commonly-used aluminium, meaning the E90 3 Series generally weighs less than the previous model.

The slightly long-stroke 3.0-litre engine incorporates the usual BMW Double Vanos variable camshaft timing system as well as Valvetronic valve lift and duration to squeeze out a quite sensational 190 tractable kilowatts (20kW up on E46) as well as a commendable 300Nm of torque.

The kilowatts come in at higher revs (6600rpm) than before, but the maximum torque arrives at an impressively low 2500rpm.

This engine drives through the now commonly used six-speed auto transmission that is standard on 330i (lesser models are available also with a new six-speed manual transmission) and delivers a decent thrust in the back which has the car reaching 100km/h in just 6.6 seconds. Yet it’s more economical than before, with a quoted average of 9.0 litres/100km.

Treating the performance responsibly means a new suspension that uses 7 Series technology up front via two lower arms (rather than a single arm) that help give a small positive steering offset, more steering caster and more brake space. The lower arm uses rubber/hydraulic cushions to reduce road shock.

The 330i gets bigger brakes too, up in size over the lesser-engined models and factoring in an augmented Dynamic Stability Control system (DSC+) to work hand-in-hand with BMW’s array of electronic systems such as Cornering Brake Control (CBC), Dynamic Brake Control (DBC), Dynamic Traction Control (DTC), ASC+T and Dynamic Stability Control (DSC).

To be sure, the new 3 Series feels dynamic from the moment the 3.0-litre six springs eagerly to life.

The strong low-speed torque is evident from the moment it rolls away, responsive to a mere tickle from the accelerator pedal, shifting quickly and crisply through the early ratios in a way that makes you question the validity of manual transmissions.

The 330i has a sort of edge to it that generally seems to elude most other car-makers attempting to build a sporting sedan that can also function perfectly well as a day-to-day conveyance.

It’s eminently tractable, yet very happy to explore the upper end of the rpm band. Where others begin to sound thrashy and uncomfortable, the 330i asks for more - the essential BMW essence is in safe hands here.

That the 330i is a rapid mid-size sedan there is no doubt, and it’s augmented by sharp and precise steering (the test car wasn’t optioned with the "active" steering debuted in the 5 Series), strong road grip and a nicely calculated ride that straddles the gap between soft and cushy and bolted-down sporty – erring slightly towards the latter.

The lightweight six-cylinder engine (10kg lighter than the previous engine) helps the overall balance of the car so the 330i always feels poised and ready.

The steering finds a nice balance between weight and lightness too, and conveys a good sense of what’s going on at the tyre contact point.

There’s other technology never evident to the driver, but always working away behind the scenes.

Examples include Brake Standby, which detects when the brakes are about to be applied urgently and begins the stopping process before the driver even hits the pedal, and Rain Brake Support, which uses imperceptible applications of the brakes in wet conditions to keep the discs clean and able to apply maximum retardation if necessary.

True to BMW tradition, the 3 Series is clearly a driver’s car and this is evident in not just the performance.

The driver’s seat, for example (power adjusted with three-stage memory on 330i), offers more rearward travel to suit a wider range of driver shapes, and the cushions are shaped to hold occupants snugly in place.

The rear seat gets more knee-room (19mm) but remains tighter than we would like and is still, at its lowest setting, short of footroom under the front seat.

There is, at least, a split-fold rear backrest that gives access to the decent-size and decent-shaped boot.

The E90 series 330i is a carefully conceived and carefully executed upgrade of the outgoing model. It doesn’t do anything spectacularly different, but it certainly does most things better, without any penalties in fuel costs.

The only nagging shortfall comes when you try to cram tallish passengers into both front and rear seats. That’s something 3 Series has always been afflicted with and, while everything's improved in the E90, it’s a pity to see no complete cure has yet been found.

Otherwise, 3 Series is the place to go if you aspire to the pinnacle of prestige motoring and want a car with a definitely sporty edge.

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