2004 BMW 330xi
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Review and photos by Haney Louka

Sometimes it’s more difficult to stay at the top than it is to make it there in the first place. Just ask Paul Martin. BMW, on the other hand, makes it look like child’s play.

BMW’s decision to enter the sport-utility market with the X5, and more recently the X3, hasn’t been welcomed by everybody, particularly those who take joy in driving a well-mannered vehicle. Thankfully, these concessions to market demand have not diluted the Bavarian maker’s penchant for producing some of the best road-going sedans on the market.

Our case in point is the subject of this week’s review, the BMW 330xi. BMW’s 3-Series has long been the leader in the entry-luxury class. You don’t need to take my word for it: check with any manufacturer with a car in this class and ask them whom they benchmarked when designing their product. Invariably, the answer will be BMW and their venerable 3.

The 3-Series lineup

The 3-Series from BMW starts at a very palatable $34,950 for the 320i sedan. Unfortunately for the power and style hungry, that sum buys just 168 horsepower and plastic wheel covers. There are various body styles and drivetrains available, with the selection topping out (not including the high-performance M3) at $70,850 for the 330Ci M Cabriolet.

My test vehicle found itself near the middle of that spectrum, at least before options were added: base price for the all-wheel-drive 330xi sedan is $49,950. Lucky for me, my tester was equipped with the M Sport package, which included sport seats and steering wheel, body work, aluminum interior trim, snazzy 17-inch parallel-spoke alloys, and a few other goodies. Price of the M Sport package: $5,200. Also on my test example was the $5,300 Premium Package, which included (among other things) Montana leather seats (power-operated with memory for the driver) and a Harman Kardon sound system. The as-tested price of my little 3-Series tester was $63,440.

Nuts and bolts

2004 BMW 330xi

2004 BMW 330xi

2004 BMW 330xi

2004 BMW 330xi

2004 BMW 330xi

2004 BMW 330xi
Click image to enlarge

While we all expect a BMW sports sedan to hum to the tune of an inline six propelling the rear wheels, this particular model (given away by the ‘x’ in its name) pumps power to all four wheels, all the time.

Power from the 3.0 litre mill is rated at 225 at 5,900 rpm and 214 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm. I should point out, though, that these are some of the strongest horses on the market – resulting in a power delivery that belies those seemingly tame figures in the midst of today’s horsepower wars.

The all-wheel drivetrain in BMW’s xi models eschews mechanical differential locks in favour of fully electronic control of power distribution. 62 percent of the power generated by the inline six is directed to the rear axle, while 38 percent makes its way to the front. This, says BMW, ensures that it handles more like a rear-driver, with no hint of torque-steer.

The system adds about 90 kilograms to the car’s overall weight, most of which sits over the front wheels. Distribution is still almost ideal, though, since the front rubber bears 52% of the car’s weight (compared with the stern drive’s 50/50 split).

The 3 is suspended on familiar MacPherson front struts with an independent “Z axle” rear suspension. Four-wheel vented discs aided by a host of electronic controls do their best to keep things under control.

The driving experience

The driver’s environment represents the functional simplicity that makes this car such a hit with well-to-do enthusiasts. There’s a minimalist approach to the styling inside (apart from the semi-flashy cubed aluminum trim) that may look like nothing special at first but proves itself as a model of functionality once the wheels are in motion.

BMW gearboxes are typically the subject of much admiration, but for me it always takes a few blocks of driving before I get used to the Bavarian’s set-up. Clutch take-up is a bit abrupt with a springy kick that requires attention to make stepping off the line a smooth affair. Once underway, the silky engine encourages a quick shift into second but the gearbox doesn’t take kindly to such childish antics.

I made the preceding observations after first getting behind the wheel. After a few minutes, of course, I was too busy putting the inline six through its paces to think about the shifter’s finickiness.

The big-bore-six engine emits a deep, muted growl under acceleration that encourages such juvenile activities as hitting the gas and then slowing down just to do it all over again.

My test vehicle was equipped with snow tires, but impressively they didn’t take much away from its dry-weather performance. In fact, the first quick move I did in the car was to avoid a small obstacle on the road. Before I knew it I was in the next lane. Credit BMW’s quick steering ratio (15.5:1) and precise turn-in for the surprising response. One could also credit the fact that I had just gotten out of a Suzuki Verona before stepping into the 330.

Lucky for me, the M package gave the 330 a thick-rimmed wheel that was easy to hold on to and aggressively bolstered seats that kept me securely planted.

The only disturbing aspect of the 330’s drive was a creak coming from the driver’s door during turns – a sound that was completely unexpected given the build quality of the rest of the car.

The Competition

The 330xi is not about bang for the buck – Infiniti’s G35 fits that bill, at the expense of the grace and mostly vault-like construction of the Bavarian incumbent. The sporty end of the entry-luxury market is also home to the following hopefuls:

  • Audi A4 (AWD available)

  • Cadillac CTS
  • Infiniti G35 (AWD available)
  • Jaguar X-Type (AWD standard)
  • Lexus IS 300
  • Mercedes C320 (AWD available)
  • Saab 9-3
  • VW Passat (AWD available)
  • Volvo S60 (AWD available)

Technical Data: 2004 BMW 330xi

Base price $49,950
Options $11,795 (M sport package $5,200, Premium Pkg $5,300, 5-speed automatic $1,295)
Freight $1,595
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $63,440
Type four-door, 5-passenger compact sedan
Layout longitudinal front engine, all-wheel drive
Engine 3.0 litre inline 6 cylinder, DOHC, 24 valves
Horsepower 225 @ 5,900 rpm
Torque 214 lb-ft @ 3,500 rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual
Curb weight 1,580 kg (3,483 lbs.)
Wheelbase 2,725 mm (107.3 in.)
Length 4,471 mm (176.0 in.)
Width 1,739 mm (68.5 in.)
Height 1,434 mm (56.5 in.)
Trunk space 440 litres (15.5 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 11.9 litres/100 km (24 mpg)
  Highway: 7.9 litres/100 km (36 mpg)
Warranty 4 years/80,000 km

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