A CarParts.com Road Test
2002 BMW 330xi Road Test
|Category:||$35,000 to $45,000 Compact Sport Sedan|
|Who should buy this car:||A person looking for a sophisticated small sedan that handles like the ablest of sports cars.|
|Comparable cars in this class:||Audi A4 Quattro, Jaguar X-Type, Volvo S60 AWD |
Lexus IS300*, Mercedes Benz C-320*
*Available in rear-wheel drive only
|Doyou love to drive? If so, close your eyes and picture yourself behind thewheel of an "Ultimate Driving Machine," a definitive vehicle thatdelivers the thrill of the road while coddling you with the utmost style,comfort and luxury. Now open your eyes and let's test drive a BMW to seehow well reality reflects your expectations. |
BMW claims the phrase,"The Ultimate Driving Machine," as its own and proffers the 3-Seriesas a worthyexpression of that image. It is available as a compact2-door coupe, a convertible, a wagon and a 4-door sedan with varied combinations oftrim, engine size and transmission type. No high-priced, cramped 2- passenger sportscar here. In fact, these dream machines exhibit an unexpected penchant for practicalitythat facilitates daily living; yet they do not relinquish the flair, power anddrivability we envisioned.
Spurred by a single-minded attitude towards refined drivability, BMW hascreated a sedan that feels like a fine Swiss watch and handles better than all but the most exoticsports cars. And our test car, with its all-wheel drive system, handles the elements as well. This330xi is an amazingengineering achievement that takes the already excellentprevious 3-series,adds an extra dose of power in the formof a larger 3.0 liter straight six and marries it to the all-wheel drive systemof the BMW X5. Apparently the precision-minded BMW engineers wouldrespond tothe question of whether "theglass is half empty or half full" by saying, "The glass should beredesigned: it is twice as large as it needs to be!"
BMW offers the 330xi as either a 5-speed stick or a STEPTRONICautomatic. The STEPTRONIC is a five speed automatic transmission thatadapts to your driving style. It also provides a manual mode that you canaccessby moving the shift lever into a special gate, then tapping the shifter forwardor back to select individual gears. For this report, like any true driving enthusiast,I chose thestick. And "what a good choice," I thought, as my favorite windingcountry road beckoned.
The 3-serieschallenged my ongoing quest for the ultimatedriving experience with a car that seemed to read my mind, combining agility with stability, excellent throttle response with smoothpower delivery, tenacious cornering grip with a compliant ride. When Iturned into acorner, the car "wanted" to turn, casting inertia to the wind. Therazor-sharp steering allowed me to position the car exactly where I wanted it without affecting my ability to drive downa dead straight interstate and take my hands off the wheelwith nary a twitch toward either side of the lane's center.
The interior of the 3-series is all business with a dash panel that gentlywraps around the driver. The feeling is that of a cockpit, with all controlsplaced within easy reach. Each switch and button has anexpensive feel and is logically placed. The instruments areproper black face dials with white numbers and pointers. At night, thenumbers and pointers light up red, just like those on some fighter aircraft. Theclimate and radio controls come easily to hand without a stretch. Powerwindow switches are on the console on either side of the shifter and are allone-touch up and down.
Most of thecontrols are marked with international symbols that must initially bedeciphered. It helps to keep the owner's manual within easy reach until you've mastered what everythingdoes. But once you learn the operation andplacement of these controls, they become second nature. The four cruisecontrol buttons on the right spoke of the steering wheel are a good example. The bottomleft button marked I/O turns the cruisecontrol on or off, the top left button with the image of a speedometer is the Setbutton while the + and - buttons increase and decrease the set speed.
Finding the right position behind the wheel is easy. Theseats are firm and hold you in place comfortably. The steering column is adjustable for heightand reach with the flick of a single, manual control. The shifter for thefive speed stick feels smooth and is perfectly positioned. The self adjusting clutch requires some getting used to, engaging ratherabruptly and sooner than expected. This made for a couple of embarrassingstalls at first; but by week's end I began toprefer the clutch feel and to consider it a positive trait.
There is an internal ventilation system in the front seatsthat uses the cars ride motions to generate a pumping action as theoccupant moves up and down sending fresh air through the seat to removemoisture. The optional seat heaters work quickly and have 3 heat levels. The forward edge of the front seats is manually adjustable to lengthen the seat cushionin order to provide thigh support for long-legged drivers.
Openthe hood and you are instantly struck with the question "How did theyshoehorn that big engine into that little compartment?" If the heart of any car is its engine, this is one stout-hearted car. Its highly refined 3.0 liter in-line sixcylinder engine has steplessly variable intake and exhaust valve timing and electronically controlled engine cooling. This is aliquid-smooth, free revving power plant with a wonderful exhaust note.
Most upscale cars have found a way to dampen throttle response in their questfor smoothness in deference to some drivers who have a jerky right foot. Many of us have ridden with this type of driver and come away with a stiffneck. Well, that type of driver had better avoid this Bimmerbecause every twitch of the foot is faithfully translated to theroad. Part of the reason for the excellent throttle response is thefully electronic throttle system, (drive-by-wire) which allows the BMW engineers to precisely tune the throttle action for the best feel. An added bonus is the abilityto integrate cruise control, electronic traction control (All Season Traction) andthe stability system (Dynamic Stability Control) without adding additional hardware.
The bottom line is that this technological wizardry produces anengine that is smooth, torquey and responsive throughout its rpm range. On our test car, this power is delivered to the road through a 5-speed stick into an all-wheel-drive transfer case withplanetary center differential. From there, the torque is split 38% to the frontwheels, 62% to the rear wheels.
On the road, the all-wheel-drive 3-Series feels every bit as good as therear-wheel-drive models with the added advantage of all-weathercapability. Handling predictably right up to the limits of its very capableall-season tires, this car is an absolute pleasure to drive fast on winding roads.
This vehicle's brakes are large for a car of this size with 12.8 inch ventilated rotors upfront and 12.6 inch ventilated rotors in the rear. 17-in. wheels and 205/50HR-17 tires are standard on all 330s with several optional wheel-tire combinations beyondthat. The car that I drove had the standard shoes and I can't imagine itbeing any better with the optional rubber without adversely affecting the ride.
During the week that I drove this car, the weather changed abruptly from bright sun to rain to 4 inches of snow by week's end. This gave me a chance to sample thecar under diverse weather conditions. By the end of the week, the 330xifelt like an old, trusted friend, willing to do my bidding in any weathercondition, no questions asked.
There was plenty of technology on hand to make all this goodness possible,like Dynamic Stability Control (DSC or DSC-X on our all-wheel drive model)which combines all-speed traction control on all four wheelswith cornering/avoidance stabilization. The computer determines whether the car is following the courseintended by the driver bymonitoring sensors that detect steering wheelangle, individual wheel speed, throttle position and inertia in alldirections. If the feedback indicates that the car is beginning toslide, the system applies individual brakes and modulates the throttle, coaxing thecar back into the driver's control.
An enhancement of the DSC-X system for all-wheel drive cars is that it lets thedriver reset the DSC switch on the console to allow for more wheel spin or slip to accommodate driving in deep snow or sand. This feature is also anadvantage during performance driving. On rear-wheel drive cars, the switchis there just to deactivate the DSC if a more experienceddriver wants to eliminate some of the computer's intervention. In myexperience, unless you are an experienced race car driver, it is better to leavethe system turned on.
Okay, so we know that the 330xi is a great performance car, but it is alsoa 4-door sedan that is suitable for carrying passengers. So let's see howwell it performs the duties of a mundane family hauler.
Since this is a small sedan, it is nimble and easy to park in a tight spot. The compact interior issomewhat tight but usable for four average sized adults. You may be ableto fit a willing fifth person in the rear seat, but depending on their size,thismay require someone on the outside of the car to push the rear doorclosed. The trunk is well shaped with a reasonable 10.7 cubic feet ofspace. If you need more room for "stuff," the split rear seat folds down toexpand the trunk capacity into the rear passenger area.
The automatic single-zone climate control system provides a comfortableenvironment and prevents pollutants from invading the interior by automaticallyswitching to "recirculate" when its sensors indicate that externalpollution levels are too high.
If you drive this car conservatively (fat chance), you will notice a quiet ride and a bodystructure that is as tight as a vault. Rough pavement may be transmittedto the interior, but not nearly as much as you would expect from a suspensionthat performs such magic at speed. Sure, wind and road noise are well controlledat any double digit speed, but let's be honest: this is a sports car that happens to have room for5. This is an athlete, not a fashion model. The comfort this carprovides comes from secure handling, not from too-plush seats or a cushyride.
So, if your primary concern is a soft,gentle ride, a whisper quiet cabin and lots of bells and whistles, a Lexus maybe more your cup of tea. On the other hand, if you love to drive, if you prefer long winding roadsinstead of theInterstate and you enjoy exploring the limits of a fine machine, we advise youto try the new teeth-whitening procedures before you choose this car. You will definitely be doing lots more grinning behind thewheel of this Bimmer.
How would I improve this car?
How does the 330xi fit yourdriving style?
Fast drivers won't find a better handling car anywhere, for any price. If you want more power and you can afford to lose two of the doors, look at the M-3. That will bump you from 225 HP to 333 HP and give you a 6-speed stick. If that's not enough, go check out what Lockheed has to offer.
Major Available Options
For more information on the 3-Series, visit bmwusa.com
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