February 17, 2004
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Review and photos by Laurance Yap
This really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Not only is the BMW roundel one of the most recognizable and looked-up-to brand marks in the world – top on the list last year of Forbes magazine’s ranking of luxury brands – the company’s message is one of the longest-running and most consistent as well: hear BMW and you immediately think, ultimate driving machine. Not many brands can claim such instant recognition. Which goes a long way to explaining not only why people are willing to pay a price premium to drive a BMW, but also explains why the brand is so closely guarded.
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You may wonder, then, if there’s still the same consistency now that BMW’s cars are looking so much different than they used to be (while still sporting the same logo). While I’m a bit of a fan of most of chief designer Chris Bangle’s recent work, there are plenty of people that aren’t, and it’s worth asking how the brand will fare against criticism of the cars, whether BMW should have been managing its automotive shapes as obsessively as it does the use of its logo.
Take this 2004 330Ci coupe, for instance. Though it’s been treated to a bit of a nip-and-tuck courtesy of Bangle’s flame-surfacing tool – the headlights now squint from underneath pointed covers, the hood has a sharper and more pronounced power bulge – it still reflects old-school BMW’s almost anal-retentive design philosophy. The front bumper’s big air intakes are perfectly rendered, and even the complex double-spoke wheels have beautifully beveled edges and curved spokes. Unlike the Z4 and 7-series, it’s still got that recognizable shape, and details like the twin kidney grilles and the placement of those logos are still picture-perfect.
It’s an attention to detail, a finessing of the finer points, that translates directly through the driving experience as well. The entire car drives with a well-oiled precision, a sense of heft coupled with perfect balance, that always makes you look like a better driver than you actually are. People wonder why BMW drivers seem to be more aggressive on the road than most others: it’s not that they’re arrogant, insensitive people (as the stereotype goes); it’s just that the perfect clutch-shifter combination, the trusty weight and feel of the steering, and the stupendous braking performance, flatter BMW drivers into thinking themselves little Ralf Schumachers.
With 231 horses, the 330Ci, though certainly not up to M3 speeds, is plenty fast, and its well-controlled ride motions, superb body control, and great outward visibility mean it’s easy to get lulled into driving a bit too fast and a little too aggressively, slicing in and out of holes in traffic, circling on-ramps with reckless abandon. What’s perhaps more impressive is how well the 330 deals with being driven slowly as well, the 3.0-litre straight-six is flexible enough to lug along in sixth from 40 km/h, the precise throttle allowing you to meter out the horses one at a time. Fuel economy is impressive, too: in a week of fairly aggressive driving, I managed a decent 10.1 l/100 km.
My 330Ci tester (base price: $50,350) was outfitted with a few notable options: a $5400 M Sport package that included a tightened suspension, attractive body kit, sport seats and steering wheel, 18-inch wheel and tire package and other random trim bits, and the $490 adaptive headlight system, which uses various sensor for wheel speed and steering angle to make the front lights “look” around corners, to a maximum of 15 degrees. While the adaptive lights are extremely impressive on unlit country roads and around dark on-ramps, they’re of limited use for city slickers, given how well-lit most of the GTA is nowadays (you also need to remember to switch the lights to their automatic setting, rather than to full-on, as is my habit, to activate them).
I’m wholeheartedly for the other two options, however. BMW’s performance-enhancing packages have always represented a bit of a bargain, especially when compared to some of the other luxury-oriented add-ons you can order. The 18-inch tires offer a tangible dynamic benefit with their increased cornering grip – which comes at no expense to the ride, though there’s a bit more steering kickback – and the sport package’s cloth-and-faux-suede seats and wheel are an excellent complement to the more connected feel you get from the suspension. Plus, I like the way the 330 looks with the body kit. Spending your money on packages like these gives you a much more entertaining car than spending the equivalent on, say, power leather seats or an upgraded stereo.
Especially when even in fairly basic trim, the 330′s interior is such a nice place to be, with a fully adjustable driving position (the manual seat adjusters for reach, rake, and height are brilliant and the steering wheel tilts and telescopes), and a familiar, if not totally intuitive, control layout.
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What impresses most, though, is the quality and consistency – not just the way the materials and finishes match and play off each other, but how, for instance, the same typeface is used for everything from the gauge faces to the climate controls to the airbag labels and owner’s manual.
BMW’s gone a lot bolder with its exterior and interior designs lately than what you see in this 3-series, but even the 7, 5, and Z4 exhibit the same minute attention to detail in the way they’re executed. It’ll be interesting to see where the company takes the next 3-series; many BMW fans see this car (which probably has two years left in its life) as the last of the great old-school Bimmers, but I’m actually a fan of the new designs and can’t wait to see what Chris Bangle and company do to remake BMW’s mainstream model.
Having said that, if you need a car now, and are looking in this price range, you won’t find a better-balanced and more thoroughly-executed coupe.
|Options||M sport package ($5,400),adaptive headlights ($490)|
|Price as tested||$56,240|
|Layout||Longitudinal engine, rear-wheel drive|
|Engine||DOHC inline 6 cylinder, 24 valves|
|Horsepower||231 @ 5,900 rpm|
|Torque||214 ft. lb. @ 3,500 rpm|
|Curb weight||1,490 kg (3,285 lbs.)|
|Wheelbase||2,725 mm (107.3 in.)|
|Length||4,488 mm (176.7 in.)|
|Width||1,757 mm (69.2 in.)|
|Height||1,369 mm (53.9 in.)|
|Luggage capacity||410 litres (14.5 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 11.2 litres/100 km (24 mpg)|
|Highway: 7.2 litres/100 km (39 mpg)|
|Warranty||4 years/80,000 km|