We are fortunate enough to have a loan car for a couple of weeks as we wait for our new car, so I figured I should write a short review of it while I had the chance. It is a 2017 BMW 330i finished in BMW’s hallmark colour of Alpine White.
The 3 Series is indisputably BMW’s signature model. With a nameplate stretching back to May 1975 in E21 guise, the 3 Series has established itself over six generations as the class benchmark with its sublime combination of luxury and driving pleasure. The current F30 generation has copped criticism from many (mainly purists who are stuck in the Stone Age) as being bland and a disgrace to the 3 Series lineage.
I do beg to differ after my experience with the 330i. Despite not having driven any of its rivals, it is immediately obvious to see why everyone refers to the 3 Series as the class benchmark, as it is an extremely competent machine wherever you look.
Okay, I will admit this up front – the 330i’s interior does lack the initial wow factor of an Audi A4. But after spending more time in the 3 Series’s cockpit, I started to appreciate its classic design and impeccable ergonomics, fundamentals that its rivals simply lack. Not to mention the 3 Series possesses a first-rate infotainment system in the form of iDrive, top-notch material quality and a plethora of standard equipment – ranging from a head-up display all the way through to ambient lighting, which is a swish addition to the cabin, particularly at night.
The 3 Series’s all-round competence continues into the drivetrain. The B48 TwinPower unit pumps out 185kW and 350Nm to the rear wheels, and when paired with the ZF eight-speed sports automatic, the 0–100km/h dash in the 330i is a swift 5.8 seconds.
The tuning and enhancements BMW has made to the ZF gearbox are remarkable. Gear changes are seamless when pottering about in Comfort mode, but when in Sport or Sport+, they are sharper and snappier. This is very apparent during upshifts or downshifts via the paddles, which are gorgeously shaped out of ice-cold metal, and feel great to touch (they complement the soft and chunky M Sport steering wheel).
The engine is a peppy thing and handles the daily grind well. It has impressive low-down torque from the twin-scroll turbocharger and a more than adequate response off the line. While there is a tad bit of turbo lag, you have to go searching for it, and this is to be expected from a small-turbo unit like the B48. If you really want to eliminate the lag, switching to Sport mode will be sufficient enough for anybody who isn’t on a drag strip.
Speaking of the B48 and its minor shortcomings, when I went for my first blast in the 330i, I was quietly amused by all the fake engine noise that was being piped into the cabin as Dad pushed the RPM needle closer to redline. Even he thought it sounded fake. The Active Sound isn’t as obvious in other BMW cars, which leads me to think they have dialled it up in the 3 Series... A lot.
But to be honest, it isn’t something to grumble about for too long. To quote James Ward, “It is all part of the sensory experience that makes you feel more involved with the driving experience as a whole”. Also, I suppose it isn’t much of an issue for most, as you don't have to tell your friends that the noise is fake. You can keep that to yourself and blow them away with a (fake) good-sounding engine!
But the Active Sound serves an important purpose, as there isn’t much happening behind you from the exhaust, and without it you might be mistaken for thinking you are in a Tesla. For a car with some sincerely admirable performance credentials, I would have anticipated some more bark in the 330i’s exhaust note. You get a trivial 'blaart' from the exhaust under heavy acceleration, but you’d need the hearing prowess of a young puppy to notice it.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a totally personal preference, but some greater exhaust theatrics would make the driving experience more involving in the 3 Series. Perhaps that is because I’m pretty young, and perhaps a little childish when it comes to cool-sounding cars.
That is not to say the 3 Series isn’t involving to begin with; in fact, it is quite the opposite. The F30 3 Series, to many people’s bewilderment, retains the trademark handling and dynamism that the blue and white roundel is renowned for. Even from the passenger seat, you can feel the stiffness and willingness of the chassis when entering a corner. The body is balanced, and you feel connected to the car and its movements.
The front end – much like the rest of the car – is nippy to respond to steering inputs, and the whole car follows. The 3er is like a symphony orchestra – everyone works in harmony with one another producing an entertaining experience for the audience (or the driver in regard to the 3 Series). It certainly does bring 'Sheer Driving Pleasure'.
When you dial back the 3 Series to about three- or four-tenths, which is where you’ll be at most of the time, it turns into a very cossetting luxury sedan. Cars such as the C-Class with plush AirMatic Suspension might be better at soaking up every little bump in the road, but no rival possess the all-round capabilities of the 3 Series. In Comfort mode there is a genuine change in the dampers' stiffness (much to my surprise). They soften up pleasantly, ironing out most road imperfections and giving the 3er a comfortable ride, without becoming disconcertingly floaty at higher speeds.
The appearance of the 3 Series, as always, is totally subjective. Personally, I find it to be a very classy-looking sedan with great proportions and details – such as the sharp LED designs on the front and rear lights. It does look a little bland in certain specifications, particularly this white on silver look that our loan car has.
Ditto for the interior combination of black leather and woodgrain trim. This combination looks good in our X5, but probably isn’t suited to a 3 Series. Plus, this polished wood trim gets tiny swirl marks in it. They are ultimately invisible to everyone else, aside from the person who has fastidiously cleaned the car from day one, which in this case is yours truly!
Clearly, the person at BMW who specified this car is not on the same wavelength as me when it comes to choosing an attractive (and practical) specification for a 3 Series. If it was my 330i, I would suggest optioning it in a brighter colour – such as Sunset Orange – with the more stylish M-Sport wheels, M Brake Package (it is amazing what some blue callipers can do) and optioning the Shadow Line Exterior Trim. But I know I don’t have a budget at my age, and I am probably out of touch with the cost of these extras, but it is nice to dream.
It really is hard to believe that the 3 Series is nearly a seven-year-old car; it truly is a car that belies its age. That being said, while the 3 Series retains its benchmark status, for now, its lead over newer rivals such as the Audi A4 or Alfa Romeo Giulia is narrowing at a rapid pace.
The current F30 3 Series, relative to its competitors, is a 53-year-old pro-athlete that has just announced his retirement. It still has the moves to impress the fans, and you can see glimpses of the charm and victory they once had on the field, but they’re starting to struggle to keep up with the new kids on the block, or they have to bust their gut to do so.
It is still class leading, but for how much longer? That is the question, as the younger kids are nipping at his heels for mid-size luxury sedan supremacy. Hopefully the 53-year-old will hold onto top honours for the next 18 months until his son is ready to take over, and when he does, I can guarantee he will set the bar higher than ever before, just like his old man did.