Long touted as the best compact luxury car to drive, the BMW 3 Series was redesigned in 1999 (E46 generation). Succeeding the E36 generation (1990-2000), the BMW 3 Series made strides in comfort and refinement while honing its driving dynamics. How did I stumble upon this BMW? It all started with my friend. She got an “old” BMW, but did not know which it was. As a lover of old German cars, I jumped at the chance to review it. She said, “Okay, but it has to be really fast”. I then found out that the BMW was a 2001 330i, and the time frame was only 15 minutes. 15 minutes! And the car is not even washed. Can you really evaluate a car in 15 minutes? Only one way to find out.
Initially, the front styling may appear to be austere due to the use of simple shapes and minimal stylistic design elements embedded within. BMW design traits such as the kidney grille, and the Hofmeister kink (rear window outline) remain in the styling. The side profile is clean and conventional. The rear has the same austere effect as the front. The way I see it, the styling is simple and clean, which has led to its timeless appeal. Even 13 years later, this 330i still looks like a proper BMW (in a good way). The interior reflects the exterior. It is simple, but it still manages to age well. The number of buttons is refreshingly low, and the wood feels genuine.
The driving experience is the best part about this car. The steering is communicative, and you always know what the front wheels are doing. It may be heavy at light speeds, but it becomes more manageable at higher speeds. It is sharp. Body lean is well contained. But the driving experience goes deeper than that. When I was driving this car, I was amazed at how pure and fluid it drives. It does not employ any fancy technology like BMWs nowadays, and the result is incredible agility. It is very composed on winding roads. Back in 2000, the ride may have been tolerable, but compared to newer BMWs, it is slightly uncomfortable. It is still taut, but road bumps are more pronounced in normal driving. The brakes have good stopping performances, and exhibit excellent feel.
The 330i designation denotes a 3.0 liter inline six cylinder engine putting out 225 horsepower. The inline six cylinder engine delivers unparalleled smoothness. It does not falter in any areas in terms of performance, and acceleration is effortless. Complementing the engine is a smooth five speed automatic transmission. If it were my choice, I would go for the six speed manual transmission. If you are concerned about fuel economy, do not bother with this version and go for the more fuel efficient 325i.
Refinement could be better. In normal driving, the cabin is a cacophony of road and wind noise. The road surfaces are amplified in the cabin, as is wind noise. The six cylinder is somewhat gritty, but becomes sonorous at wide throttle. The engine is unparalleled in its engine noise as it is a unique blend of whirs and growl.
Fit and finish is excellent, although some plastics feel brittle to the touch. The controls are straightforward, and the small number of buttons make it easy to master. The placement of the window switches by the gear shifter is counterintuitive. The steering wheel feels lovely to hold. The gauges are crisp and display all relevant information. The driving position is excellent as are the seats. While it is tolerable in the front, the rear is downright cramped. Legroom and headroom are lacking. Visibility is decent. The trunk space is middling.
I had low expectations for this car, as I felt that I could not do much in 15 minutes. The funny thing is that I was wrong. I was able to establish the virtues and shortcomings of this car. Despite leaking steering system and numerous problems with this car, I was enthralled. In today’s society, power and fancy technology is the name of the game. Driving this car proved to be a refreshing change as this car’s focus is on its driving abilities, not its power, or modern enhancing technology. BMW’s motto was “Ultimate Driving Machine”, and it is clearly reflected in this E46 generation. Sure, the ride quality is iffy, the fuel economy is not great, and the cabin is cramped, but for me, the drive is worth it. It’s all about the simple things.