I have always liked BMW motor cars. Of this fact, I
have made no secret. The BMW 330’s I tested a couple of times in the
last two years were truly delightful motor cars, and came the closest
to what I consider the ‘perfect’ motor car. Strong in all points.
Performance, comfort and all-round driveability. The 330 was the kind
of car you made excuses to run down to the shop, just to get behind
the wheel again.
When BMW said that the new 330 was available I was
really looking forward to the experience. If the previous 330 was
almost perfect, this new one must be the holy grail of the motor car
The styling of a motor car is a personal concept.
This new (Adrian van Hooydonk and Chris Bangle) styled 3 series just
doesn’t do it for my money. The compact understated styling of the
previous model has given way to a scaled down version of the 5 series,
with the ‘swoopy’ eyes and sculptured panels which BMW call
“flame” styling. And then there is the Bangle bottom. This bulbous
monstrosity appeared in the 7 series, looking like the add-on that
taxis use to cram more advertising on the rear of the car. It was
watered down a little for the 5 series, and now has been carried over
into the 3 series. I really have to give BMW some sort of award for
continuing and expanding a visual concept that has been roundly
rejected by the world. Perhaps all this might be worth it, if the new
3 series had a boot you could now use, and motor car manufacturers are
always keen to tell you the volume of the boot space. However, do not
try and carry a computer monitor. The opening is not large enough to
get one in, despite the increase in volume.
The new 3 series is bristling with technology, but
does all this make for a better motor car? Undoubtedly there will have
been some improvements, but on a car that was almost ‘perfect’
before, it becomes difficult to see anything less than quantum leaps.
However, it does become easy to see areas where the new car appears to
have gone backwards.
Take the key and starting method for example. Back
in the ‘good old days’ you got a key which you stuck in a keyhole
and turned it to the right and the car was powered up and then
started. To stop the engine, you turned the key to the left. Simple
and logical. Obviously, too simple and too logical! Now you get a
plastic key fob with no key. You stick the keyless device into a slot
in the dashboard which powers up the electrics. Having done that you
get a “start” button to push and the engine bursts into life. Two
manoeuvres instead of one.
To shut the car down is even more technological
fun. Like your Windows program on your PC, in which you have to click
on ‘start’ to be able to stop it, the 3 series BMW’s ‘start’
button also has to be pushed at the end of your trip, as it doubles as
the ‘stop’ button as well. Then you take the plastic keyless fob
out of its slot, which you do by pushing it further into the dash and
it will then pop out again, something like the memory chip in a
Now in BMW’s defense, the ‘start’ button does
also have ‘stop’ written on it, but there is only one problem –
you cannot see the button from the driver’s seat. BMW’s ergonomics
designer has hidden both the plastic keyless fob slot and the
start/stop button behind the left spoke of the steering wheel. This is
a step forward? Not in my book, at least.
Now, remember when cars had five wheels? Four on
the road and one spare, generally hidden in the boot somewhere.
Placement of this bulky item obviously gave car designers sleepless
nights, and various alternatives have been tried by many
manufacturers. Porsche persevered with the ‘space saver’ wheel,
which you had to inflate before use, using a small electric compressor
which plugged into the cigarette lighter. And you waited a lot while
it asthmatically wheezed the unwilling folded sidewall ‘space
saver’ into being something that looked vaguely like a wheel and
tyre, on which you could do up to 80 kph on your way to the repair
shop. Other manufacturers even had a fling with an aerosol can of
instant puncture repair goo, which never worked, especially if the
side wall was slashed.
technology has come to help us again. We now have the ‘run-flat’
tyre. You do not need to take it off when it is punctured. There is a
solid band inside the carcass and stiff sidewalls, so the rolling
diameter remains the same and home you toddle on your ‘flat’ tyre,
as long as home is within a radius of 250 kays. And no need to have a
spare tyre in the boot. Brilliant!
Unfortunately, in their headlong surge to embrace
the new technology, the designers (on the 3 series at least) seemed to
have ignored the simple concepts of ride and comfort. Driving the 330,
it felt as though the tyres were made of concrete and the suspension
dynamics were totally unable to cope. Expansion strips on the elevated
highway were traversed with a horrible thump and clatter, so much so
that the car was skipping and twitching as it went over them. This was
noticeable to both driver and passenger. But, at least we did not have
to carry a spare in the boot!
The test car was a local unit apparently, and not
fitted with the adaptive steering which is available on the CKD cars.
That is a shame, as the adaptive steering tested on the 5 series was
excellent, while the ‘standard’ steering on the 330 test car was
stiff and gave no feel, other than crossing expansion strips, when it
kicked the steering wheel violently.
So far not too many ticks on the 330i report card,
but we now come to the engine. This is a naturally aspirated six
cylinder unit delivering around 255 bhp if one believes the spec
sheets (and I do). The block is magnesium, to keep the weight down and
the rest aluminium. The electronically controlled variable valve
timing and valve lift allow this engine to be docile at low speeds but
still deliver a good push in the back as the engine goes past 4000 rpm
on its way to its 7000 rpm redline. There is a wonderfully subdued
engine note with heavy applications of the right foot, and it is
difficult not to fall into the trap of doing acceleration runs, just
for the sheer enjoyment of it all. However, my enjoyment was a little
compromised by some hesitation that could be experienced on
accelerating from low speeds with full throttle. I think this was a
tuning glitch, as other testers have not mentioned this, though I must
admit I do not pay much attention to other testers’ reports, which
tend to slavishly follow the manufacturer’s press releases.
The gearbox on the test 330i was the six speed
Steptronic, so you can drive around in fully automatic mode, or slip
the shift lever to the left and enjoy a degree of manual control, but
the electronic over-ride soon comes into play if you dwell in the
lower ratios too long. Personally, I think this is a good option, as
the Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG in BMW parlance) whilst being great
for track work, is a pain in Bangkok traffic, as is any manual
The previous incarnation of the 330i was what I have already
described as ‘almost’ the perfect car. This new version, for me at
least, is a backwards step, despite the power increase. The comfort
factor, or lack of it, would stop me buying one of these, even if the
price tag were not around four million baht, but something more