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2002 BMW 330xi Road Test

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Do you love to drive? If so, close your eyes and picture yourself behind the wheel of an “Ultimate Driving Machine,” a definitive vehicle that delivers 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 see how well reality reflects your expectations.
BMW claims the phrase,”The Ultimate Driving Machine,” as its own and proffers the 3-Series as a worthy expression of that image. It is available as a compact2-door coupe, a convertible, a wagon and a 4-door sedan with varied combinations of trim, engine size and transmission type. No high-priced, cramped 2- passenger sports car here. In fact, these dream machines exhibit an unexpected penchant for practicality that facilitates daily living; yet they do not relinquish the flair, power and drivability we envisioned.

 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

Spurred by a single-minded attitude towards refined drivability, BMW has created a sedan that feels like a fine Swiss watch and handles better than all but the most exotic sports cars. And our test car, with its all-wheel drive system, handles the elements as well. This330xi is an amazing engineering achievement that takes the already excellent previous 3-series, adds an extra dose of power in the form of a larger 3.0 liter straight six and marries it to the all-wheel drive system of the BMW X5. Apparently the precision-minded BMW engineers would respond tothe question of whether “the glass is half empty or half full” by saying, “The glass should be redesigned: it is twice as large as it needs to be!”

BMW left front

BMW offers the 330xi as either a 5-speed stick or a STEPTRONIC automatic. The STEPTRONIC is a five speed automatic transmission that adapts to your driving style. It also provides a manual mode that you can access by 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 the stick. And “what a good choice,” I thought, as my favorite winding country road beckoned.

dash md

The 3-series challenged my ongoing quest for the ultimate driving experience with a car that seemed to read my mind, combining agility with stability, excellent throttle response with smooth power delivery, tenacious cornering grip with a compliant ride. When I turned into a corner, the car “wanted” to turn, casting inertia to the wind. The razor-sharp steering allowed me to position the car exactly where I wanted it without affecting my ability to drive down a dead straight interstate and take my hands off the wheel with 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 gently wraps around the driver. The feeling is that of a cockpit, with all controls placed within easy reach. Each switch and button has an expensive feel and is logically placed. The instruments are proper black face dials with white numbers and pointers. At night, the numbers and pointers light up red, just like those on some fighter aircraft. The climate and radio controls come easily to hand without a stretch. Power window switches are on the console on either side of the shifter and are all one-touch up and down.

, 2002 BMW 330xi Road Test

Most of the controls are marked with international symbols that must initially be deciphered. It helps to keep the owner’s manual within easy reach until you’ve mastered what everything does. But once you learn the operation and placement of these controls, they become second nature. The four cruise control buttons on the right spoke of the steering wheel are a good example. The bottom left button marked I/O turns the cruise control on or off, the top left button with the image of a speedometer is the Set button while the + and – buttons increase and decrease the set speed.

Finding the right position behind the wheel is easy. The seats are firm and hold you in place comfortably. The steering column is adjustable for height and reach with the flick of a single, manual control. The shifter for the five speed stick feels smooth and is perfectly positioned. The self adjusting clutch requires some getting used to, engaging rather abruptly and sooner than expected. This made for a couple of embarrassing stalls at first; but by week’s end I began to prefer the clutch feel and to consider it a positive trait.

There is an internal ventilation system in the front seats that uses the cars ride motions to generate a pumping action as the occupant moves up and down sending fresh air through the seat to remove moisture. 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 cushion in order to provide thigh support for long-legged drivers.

BMW engine

Open the hood and you are instantly struck with the question “How did they shoehorn 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 six cylinder engine has steplessly variable intake and exhaust valve timing and electronically controlled engine cooling. This is a liquid-smooth, free revving power plant with a wonderful exhaust note.

Most upscale cars have found a way to dampen throttle response in their quest for 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 stiff neck. Well, that type of driver had better avoid this Bimmer because every twitch of the foot is faithfully translated to the road. Part of the reason for the excellent throttle response is the fully 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 ability to integrate cruise control, electronic traction control (All Season Traction) and the stability system (Dynamic Stability Control) without adding additional hardware.

The bottom line is that this technological wizardry produces an engine 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 with planetary center differential. From there, the torque is split 38% to the front wheels, 62% to the rear wheels.

On the road, the all-wheel-drive 3-Series feels every bit as good as the rear-wheel-drive models with the added advantage of all-weather capability. Handling predictably right up to the limits of its very capable all-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 beyond that. The car that I drove had the standard shoes and I can’t imagine it being any better with the optional rubber without adversely affecting the ride.

BMW left front snow

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 the car under diverse weather conditions. By the end of the week, the 330xi felt like an old, trusted friend, willing to do my bidding in any weather condition, 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 course intended by the driver by monitoring sensors that detect steering wheel angle, individual wheel speed, throttle position and inertia in all directions. If the feedback indicates that the car is beginning to slide, the system applies individual brakes and modulates the throttle, coaxing the car back into the driver’s control.

An enhancement of the DSC-X system for all-wheel drive cars is that it lets the driver 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 an advantage during performance driving. On rear-wheel drive cars, the switch is there just to deactivate the DSC if a more experienced driver wants to eliminate some of the computer’s intervention. In my experience, unless you are an experienced race car driver, it is better to leave the system turned on.

Okay, so we know that the 330xi is a great performance car, but it is also a 4-door sedan that is suitable for carrying passengers. So let’s see how well 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 is somewhat tight but usable for four average sized adults. You may be able to fit a willing fifth person in the rear seat, but depending on their size, this may require someone on the outside of the car to push the rear door closed. The trunk is well shaped with a reasonable 10.7 cubic feet of space. If you need more room for “stuff,” the split rear seat folds down to expand the trunk capacity into the rear passenger area.

The automatic single-zone climate control system provides a comfortable environment and prevents pollutants from invading the interior by automatically switching to “recirculate” when its sensors indicate that external pollution levels are too high.

If you drive this car conservatively (fat chance), you will notice a quiet ride and a body structure that is as tight as a vault. Rough pavement may be transmitted to the interior, but not nearly as much as you would expect from a suspension that performs such magic at speed. Sure, wind and road noise are well controlled at 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 car provides comes from secure handling, not from too-plush seats or a cushy ride.

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 roads instead of theInterstate and you enjoy exploring the limits of a fine machine, we advise you to try the new teeth-whitening procedures before you choose this car. You will definitely be doing lots more grinning behind the wheel of this Bimmer.

BMW series left rear


Do you have any feedback on the BMW 3-Series? Any opinions or experiencesof your own? We would love to hear from you. Click here to send us your comments

Click here for more pictures of the 330xi

How would I improve this car?

  • Add Dual Zone A/C
  • Yeah, I know that I usually have three suggestions… I must be slipping.

How does the 330xi fit your driving style?

Conservative drivers will experience what it’s like to be in total control. This is the kind of car that will turn ordinary people into car enthusiasts.

Sporty drivers will love the direct steering and great throttle response. Power is effortless and the brakes are superb, enticing this type of driver to take the back roads whenever possible.

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.


Engine Type 3.0 Liter DOHC 24-valve inline 6-cylinder engine with Double VANOS steplessly variable intake- & exhaust-valve timing, Aluminum block & cylinder head
Horsepower 225 @ 5,900 RPM
Torque 214 @ 3,500 RPM
Fuel Recommended Premium 91 Octane Unleaded.
Transmission (std)
Transmission (opt)
5-speed manual transmission
5-speed STEPTRONIC automatic with Adaptive Transmission Control & Selectable Sport mode
Tires 205/50R-17 91H
Overall Length 176.0″
Wheelbase 107.3
Width 68.5″
Turning Diameter 34.4 ft Curb to Curb
Curb Weight 3,527
Fuel Tank 16.6 Gals.
Miles Per Gallon EPA city 21, hwy 30  (20 / 27 w AWD).
Acceleration 0 to 60 6.4 Seconds  (6.9 Seconds with AWD)
Base Sticker Price $35,740 + $645 destination charge

Standard Equipment

BMW 330xi All Wheel Drive Compact Sport Sedan

  • 3.0 liter dual overhead cam (DOHC), 24-valve inline 6-cylinder engine
  • Electronic throttle control
  • Five-speed manual transmission
  • Dynamic Stability Control (DSC-X), with All Season Traction
  • All-wheel drive
  • Hill Descent Control (HDC)
  • 4-wheel ventilated anti-lock disc brakes with Dynamic Brake Control
  • 17 x 7.0 Radial Spoke alloy wheels, 205/50R-17 all-season tires
  • Harman Kardon AM/FM stereo/CD audio system with 12 upgraded 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
  • Locking glovebox with rechargeable take-out flashlight
  • 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
  • Front-door-mounted side-impact airbags

Major Available Options

  • On-board GPS Navigation System
  • Fold Down Rear Seats with Ski Bag
  • Heated Front Seats
  • Leather Upholstery
  • Park Distance Control
  • Power Glass Moonroof
  • Rear Seat Side Impact Airbag
  • STEPTRONIC 5-Speed Automatic Transmission
  • Xenon Headlights
  • Sport Package Includes: 3-spoke leather-wrapped sport steering wheel, Special wheels & tires, 12-way adjustable front sport seats including 8 power adjustments, 3-position memory for driver seat and exterior mirrors, reverse tilt-down passenger exterior mirror, white turn signal lights and M aerodynamic package

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