A person looking for a sophisticated small sedan that handles like the ablest of sports cars.
Comparable cars in this class:
Audi A4, Infiniti G35, Jaguar X-Type, Lexus IS300, Mercedes Benz C-320, Volvo S60
Imitation, as they say is the sincerest form of flattery. When a good number of sport sedans compare themselves with the BMW 3 Series, you know that you have to take a closer look at the real thing before you decide on one of those pretenders. And once you do take a closer look, you think to yourself that those other cars are quite good at imitating the balance, the steering feel, the overall capabilities that make for a great sports sedan, but... There is something about driving the real thing that makes you realize that those other sports sedans are not quite there yet... Almost, but not quite.
We did a full review of the BMW 330xi with a 5-speed stick and all-wheel drive last year and the 2004 3-series has not changed much since that report. So this review will focus on our rear-wheel drive automatic version and the changes that were made since our lastfull road test.
Some of the new features for 2004 include:
A new 6-speed manual transmission that comes standard on all 330 models
A new optional 6-speed Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG).
Rain-sensing windshield wipers and automatic headlight control are now standard on all models
The 330xi with the Sport Package now includes run-flat tires and a Tire Pressure Monitor.
Adaptive brake lights, which signal hard braking to following cars
Shorter shift throws on the 6-speed stick from neutral to each gear.
The new 6-speeds ratios are approximately the same as the 5 speed for 1st through 5th gears. 6th gear provides an 0.85:1 overdrive for quieter, more fuel-efficient cruising. The previous 5-speed is still standard on the 325 models.
The optional 330i Performance Package includes a 235 horsepower engine (that's a ten hp boost) with a redline that has been increased to 6800 rpm and an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph. A 3.07:1 performance axle, short throw shifter and the M sport tuned suspension with 18" wheels and Z-rated performance tires round out the business end of the equation. For looks, (and some would argue, performance) there is the M aero package including a rear spoiler and high gloss black exterior trim. Unlike last year, this package is now available with the Steptronic automatic transmission as well as with the 6 speed manual transmission.
There is a third transmission available for 2004. It is a Formula 1 style Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG). This is a 6-speed manual box with electro-hydraulic controls that can shift automatically or allow you to shift it yourself, butwith automatic clutch operation (which means no clutch pedal). The driver can shift using a special console-mounted shifter, or with two paddles behind the steering wheel. This is not meant as a substitute for a regular automatic transmission. On this unit, shifting is firm, direct and quite noticeable. This transmission was formerly available only on the M model and is strictly for performance-minded drivers who are willing to forgo soft, smooth shifts when driving conservatively.
I was anxious to see how the more conventional Tiptronic automatic equipped 330i was able to keep "The Ultimate Driving Experience" alive and well, and I was not disappointed. This is a sweet-driving car that is not watered down by the automatic one bit. In fact, I liked it better than having to slog through bumper-to-bumper traffic in the New York Metro area constantly rowing the shifter and exercising my left leg to the point of getting a cramp.
In the automatic mode, shifts were all but imperceptible for relaxed cruising. Flip the shifter to the left and you are in Sport mode, where the transmission takes on a whole new persona. Up-shifts happen at a higher RPM of course, but if you are working the engine and suddenly get off the gas, the transmission holds the lower gear to provide engine braking just when you want it. Of course there is also a manual mode where you can shift it yourself. While in sport mode, you simply tap the shifter forward or back to select the gear that you want. But unlike most cars with manual control, to select a higher gear, you nudge the shifter back. To downshift, you push it forward. This is exactly opposite from the norm. Another difference in manual mode is that when you are in a gear and wind the engine to the redline, instead of bouncing off the rev limiter, the transmission simply shifts up to the next gear, and that is exactly what it should do. I mean, can you think of any reason that you would want to intentionally bounce off the rev limiter?
Steering, in traditional BMW fashion was precise and direct with absolutely no lost motion. Despite this precision, relaxed highway driving was never a problem. Winding roads gave you the impression that you could thread a needle better than any other car in this class, or any class for that matter. When you want to change directions, give the steering wheel a nudge and it happens NOW.
As far as the ride is concerned, I thought that it was quite good for a sports sedan, soaking up small road irregularities with ease, while never giving up on that solid, planted feel Beemers are famous for.
The 3 Series is due for a major redesign next year and that has a few purists concerned. To many BMW aficionados, the current design borders on perfection and they are worried that the next 3 will inherit the "Bustle Back" look that, for some unfathomable reason, seems to be in favor by the styling powers that be. But fear not, those of us who caught a glimpse of the new 3 undergoing track testing tell me that the styling will be evolutionary and quite clean and attractive. And that is as it should be.
4-wheel ventilated anti-lock disc brakes with Emergency Brake Assist
17 x 7.0 alloy wheels, 205/50R-17 all-season tires
Harman Kardon AM/FM stereo/CD audio system with 12 speakers
6-way power front seats with 2-way manual headrests; 3-driver memory for exterior mirror and seat positions
Automatic climate control with micro-filter and air recirculation
Tilt/telescopic steering wheel column
Power front and rear windows with "one-touch" up/down operation
Driver's and passenger's front airbag supplemental restraint system (SRS) with "smart" dual-threshold, dual-stage deployment and sensor to help prevent unnecessary passenger's airbag deployment
Major Available Options
On-board GPS Navigation System
Fold Down Rear Seats with Ski Bag
Rear Seat Side Air Bags
Heated Front Seats
Park Distance Control
Power Glass Moonroof
Rear Seat Side Impact Airbag
STEPTRONIC 5-Speed Automatic Transmission
Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG)
Sport Package Includes: 3-spoke leather-wrapped sport steering wheel, Special wheels & tires, 8-way adjustable front sport seats including, 3-position memory for driver seat and exterior mirrors, Performance wheel and tire package, reverse tilt-down passenger exterior mirror, white turn signal lights and M aerodynamic package
For more information on the 3-Series, visit bmwusa.com
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