October 4, 2006
Since the first one I drove, I’ve been a big fan of BMW 3-series sedans. And since the first one I drove, I haven’t much been a fan of all-wheel-drive BMW 3-series sedans.
Mostly, my lack of affection for them has to do with the fact that the regular 3-series is so good to begin with. That’s especially true of the current-generation 3. With its laser-accurate steering, balanced handling, and great brakes, it remains the benchmark against which its competitors develop their own product. Fitted with a good set of winter tires, it’s a delight to drive in the snow, too. So why would you want to spend an extra $2,500 to haul around a differential and two extra driveshafts that you’ll rarely need – and that will cut into the 3’s surprisingly frugal fuel consumption numbers?
There is very little wrong with the way the 330xi drives. On snowy roads, it’s easy to control, and confidence-inspiring in the way it seems to always do exactly what you ask of it. The little three-spoke steering wheel (part of a $3,000 sport package that also includes seats with adjustable side bolsters, 17-inch wheels in a different design, and some other tweaks) guides the front wheels almost telepathically, and the throttle and shifter are easy as pie. It’s a cinch to drive the 330xi smoothly, no matter what the weather.
Thing is, I could also have used the paragraph above to describe the way the 330i behaves. Sure, the all-wheel-drive system in the 330xi – it mostly behaves like a rear-drive car until the chassis’ computers deem the front wheels necessary to help keep you pointed in the right direction – gives added traction and stability in extreme circumstances. But if you’re pushing that hard in the winter, you’re either irresponsible, or actually trying to upset the car’s balance. Driven like a complete hooligan, the xi is easier to pitch into controlled slides as torque shuttles forward to help pull you straight, but that’s not really something you want to be doing on a regular basis.
Hauling around an extra 145 kg compared to the 330i, the xi doesn’t feel like quite as pure a driving machine. Most of the time, it’s pretty much indistinguishable, but hit small, sharp bumps on city streets, and the suspension can feel leaden, responding with a harsh thud where the rear-drive version would just glide. Perhaps thanks to its slightly increased ride height, the xi’s up-and-down body control also isn’t as good; initial bumps at highway speeds are dispatched with the usual BMW effectiveness, but there’s often an unexpected secondary bounce that can feel uncomfortable if you’re in the middle of a curve. The steering seems a bit heavier, too, and feels slightly duller than the regular 330.
To put it all in perspective a bit, the 330xi is still a fine-driving car, and compared with other compact all-wheel-drive luxury cars on the market like the Audi A4 3.2, is still one of the most entertaining of the bunch (an all-wheel-drive 306-hp Lexus IS350 would give it a serious run for its money, but as of now, you can only get an IS250 AWD, with 204 hp compared to the 330’s 255). Its Valvetronic inline-six is smooth and quiet when you’re cruising, appropriately snarly when you’re pushing hard, and surprisingly frugal – I managed to do less than 10 L/100 km in a week of mostly urban driving, which is an achievement for a car this powerful and entertaining. As with most other BMW gearboxes, the standard six-speed manual has fairly long throws, but the gates are well-defined and the action as slick as you could want.
Beyond the all-wheel-drive, the rest of the package is straight-ahead 3-series. Same controversial (but to my eyes, attractive, especially in the rare Barrique Red paint of my test car) flame-surfaced styling, this time with slightly more ground clearance. Same perception of excellent quality, inside and out, with tight shutlines, a solid-sounding thunk when you shut the doors, and neat details like backlit exterior door handles. Same nicely-crafted interior (a creamy shade of dakota leather dubbed Citron in my tester) with lots of useful storage spaces, simple-to-use controls, and widely adjustable driving position.
One of the most impressive things about the 3-series, aside from the way it drives, is its excellent packaging. It’s a relatively small car, but its interior is spacious enough to seat four in comfort for a long drive. The 3 is one of the few cars where a little guy like me and someone that’s well over six feet can get comfortable in the driver’s seat, and thanks to a wheelbase stretch with the current-generation car, it also has decent head- and legroom in the back. Credit also has to go to the scooped-out door panels, curved seatbacks, and a dash and console design that shrink away from you rather than getting in your face – along with the contrast of light leather and dark trim – for making it feel even more spacious than it is. Though it isn’t particularly large, the trunk is usefully shaped, with little intrusion from the suspension, easy to access via a low liftover, and has a couple of useful plastic storage trays on either side.
In the end, the combination of practicality with driving pleasure is what’s built the 3-series’ reputation. The new 330xi is a vehicle that feels equally at home commuting to the office in a snowstorm or haring about on a sunny Sunday morning. But while it’s a fine piece of engineering, and does provide an added measure of security and peace of mind, the 330xi doesn’t balance its practical side and its sporty side quite as deftly as its rear-drive counterpart. Budget that $2,500Êpremium over a 330i towards a good set of high-performance winter radials (your local BMW dealer will have many a great wheel design to choose from) and you end up with a car that’s almost as good in the snow, and is also the one that remains the benchmark driving experience for the class.
At a glance: 2006 BMW 330xi
Price (base/as tested): $50,500/$57,500
Engine: 3.0-litre inline-six
Power: 255 hp
Torque: 220 lb-ft
Fuel consumption (city/highway/as tested): 11.4/7.0/9.5 L/100 km
Manufacturer’s web site