Possibly our most impressive test of the year
The BMW 3230i is something of an institution. It actually took a while for the Three to evolve to having a Thirty Eye in its name — we never had the first 3 Series in SA and when the E36 ‘Dolphin' came here in the second edition in the early ‘80s, the flagship was the 323i, which later became the 325i and road and track fans will no doubt passionately recall the iS and Shadowlines.
E36 followed in 1990 — they hired Concorde to help launch it in here and take scribes supersonic over the Indian Ocean. Yup — they sure knew how to launch cars back in the day, but that Three soon stretched to a Twenty Eight Eye and they even made the Tripper — a limited issue 333i, while the first M3 came to SA in E36 spec too — I had one. 330i finally arrived in fourth generation E46 form and it has been with us since.
All of them were built in SA and all of the top Threes also carved incredible reputation for themselves in local Group N standard production car racing — they were all big-bore straight-sixes driving the rear wheels with an abundance of BMW Sheer Driving Pleasure and that 330i badge kind of epitomises the spirit of all this hoo-haa.
Now it’s all changed. The 3 Series is no longer built in Pretoria — it made way for the X3 at Plant Rosslyn, so this one’s an import. Never mind that 330i is no longer a straight-six either — this one's a two-litre petrol, so the first thing on our minds was whether to cut the mustard its badge suggests it should…
To be honest I was a tad apprehensive at first. How could a downsized four pot do the job of that six — even with a turbocharger, direct petrol injection and the rest? On the road I was immediately put at ease — it felt far stronger than its spec sheet suggests, albeit sans that Song of the Six, you'd never tell this was a humble four-cylinder — it feels more like what I’d expect from something far further up the range.
330i also delivers that Sheer Driving Pleasure in spades — OK, this one lacked the interaction of optional paddle shifters for its slick 8-speed auto and the electric power steering is a little mute, but for the rest, the new one delivers everything and then some that one has come to expect from a BMW 330i.
That much became even more apparent when we strapped our test kit to it to bear our initial thoughts performance out in a consistent sub-5 second 0-100km/h sprint. Think about that for a sec — it's close to a second quicker than its claimed figure to deliver super saloon ability across the board. It is quicker for instance than a year 2000 E46 M3 and even than an ’05 V10 M5, so this is certainly a sleeper of note.
On top of that, 330i is eerily frugal — we found it just as easy to beat its consumption claims as it is to better its performance promises and on the flip side, it rides and tugs along in exceptional comfort and ease when you don’t feel like flying. Of course, this new Three Series is packed full of all kinds of latest BMW tech from those super-cool interactive gauges to infotainment that even tells you the news on a corner of the screen, the kitchen sink and much more.
But that has some drawbacks. Gesture control is not too compatible with Italians. It took me a while figure our why the radio kept on going on and off or changing stations, or when the climate temperature and fan speed changed all by itself. Until I realised that it was because my left hand was talking Italian and the car was understanding something completely different to what I was gesticulating!
I also find certain facets of BMW’s recent tech logic to be quite daft — like the fact you need to press a button on the side of the lever to shift gear, or that it will not select gear if the door is ajar and I won’t even bother on that lane keeping nonsense. Maybe that works for someone else, but I find it bothersome and annoying and I know I am definitely not alone in that.
BMW is however certainly the only carmaker pushing that yellow line nanny down our necks — it’s a modern car scourge and something I really can do without, but then there are other driver assistance aspects I am most thankful for and you may really like the lane assistant, so I suppose I must live with it. Or just turn it off every time…
All in all however, the new BMW 330i proved to be the surprise of our test season so far — not only is it absolutely worthy of that badge in every aspect of its performance, but it also delivers sublimely in most all other areas as well — and all that for well this side of seven-hundred grand. Until I start talking to my mama on the hands free, that is — those free hands kinda made 330i do the last things I expected! — Michele Lupini
Images — Michele Lupini
ROAD TESTED: BMW 330i Sport Line
Engine: 190kW 400Nm 1998cc turbo petrol I4
Drive: 8-speed automatic RWD
0-60km/h: 2.27 sec
0-100km/h: 4.96 sec
0-160km/h: 12.06 sec
400m: 13.3 sec @ 168km/h
80-120km/h: 3.36 sec
120-160km/h: 5,18 sec
Fuel: 6.4 l/100km
CO2: 147 g/km
Warranty/Service: 2y Unl/5y 100Kkm
LIST PRICE: R676K