Vol. IV No. 47 - Saturday November 19 - November 25, 2005
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Automania

BMW 330 – Has BMW lost the plot?

BMW 330i

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 world.

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 digital camera.

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.

However, 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 shifter.

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 affordable.


Autotrivia Quiz

Last week I mentioned that the Brooklands racing circuit once saw a Charron stop for no apparent reason, until it was noticed that the fuel tank had fallen off! Quite the opposite was a famous NASCAR episode where the scrutineers had removed the fuel tank of one car to check its capacity, and the car was driven off without it. I wanted to know who prepared this car? It was the legendary Smokey Yunick. Legend has it that when Smokey’s ‘68 Chevelle picked up its 16th violation, he got in the car and drove it back to his garage in Daytona with the fuel tank still sitting in the inspection area. His parting shot was, “make it 17.”

So to this week. What was the common component in the 1923 Fadag, Lindcar and Swaze vehicles? Google that one!

For the Automania FREE beer this week, be the first correct answer to email [email protected]

Good luck!


“Cold” electric bisikuns

If you want to buy an electric bicycle, or scooter, or even a mobility vehicle, Ecobrand is a good choice. These electric vehicles and scooters and bikes are the ideal non-polluting way to get around town, and with the escalating price of fuel, make good sense (that’s why my robbers took mine, I am sure!). Charge them up overnight and use them the next day. If you want to know more, go to www.eco-brand.com. I will be featuring some Ecobrand products next week.


Look out for hot electric bisikuns!

Over the years I have written about electric bicycles (“bisikuns” as my wife christened them). A great environmentally sound way to get around for local errands. In fact I used an Ecobrand Harrier electric bicycle for three of the Charity Bike Rides run as part of the Jesters Children’s Fair down on the Eastern Seaboard. We even had another, a Honda Raccoon, complete with basket as the toddle down to the shops transport for the maid.

Note that I have been using past tense here, as somebody stole them both from my front patio in the middle of the night. It would have needed two people, as they came in from the front yard of the vacant house next door, as its gate is not locked. Lowering them into the next door’s area, they would have then wheeled them away.

How will you recognize my bisikuns? Easy, the chargers were inside the house, as was the key for the Ecobrand Harrier sporty model. So if you are offered either bike without key or charger, I would appreciate a call to the Chiangmai Mail, 053 234 102.