Arguably, BMW introduced the luxury sport sedan category to the States with the 1977 320i (1975 elsewhere). One might even argue they cracked that code even earlier if you consider its now-collectible sedan-based two-door 2002 predecessor. Since that time, the company has literally built its reputation upon and used the same “more rewarding to drive than its competition” strategy/skillset to expand its lineup over the years to variously include (1), 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and (8) Series cars plus a passel of SUVs.
Every seven-10 years (which is starting to look like an untenable epoch), BMW’s venerable 3 Series gets a whole-cloth replacement, and this sixth-generation (F30 in BMW code) has been with us since 2012. A year after that debut, a 335i xDrive proved its mettle, handily winning our Big Test: 2013/2014 Luxury Sport Sedans against an Audi S4, a Cadillac ATS4, a Lexus IS 350 AWD, and a Volvo S60 T6 AWD R-Design.
Since then, its once-controversial iDrive infotainment system, now in its fifth generation, is one of the best, and all standard drivetrains are now turbocharged. The first diesel-powered 328d appeared during this F30 era, as well as an efficient hybrid (ActiveHybrid 3 evolved into the 330e iPerformance plug-in hybrid model), and a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder turbocharged engine (N20) in the 328i was introduced, marking the return (for the U.S. market) of a four-cylinder since the third-generation E36 3 Series. Four years into its lifecycle, it received a less-than-major refresh for 2016, and for 2017 the turbo-four engine is again replaced with this car’s new 2.0-liter turbo-four (B46) that has different internal dimensions, and thus displacement, with a slight bump in power. Naturally, the badge on the back changes to 330i. Don’t ask us why. BMW model/engine alpha-numerics stopped making sense at least 10 years ago.
Sales Dip & Priorities Shift
The 3 Series has so dominated its segment and comparisons for these past 40 years because, unlike those that tried to copy the winning formula, BMW’s sport sedan adeptly walked the tightrope between being a luxury car and a sporty car that set several benchmarks. Its dynamics and driver feedback were noticeably better and more rewarding, but its comfort wasn’t necessarily sacrificed in the process. Sales peaked in 2007 at 142,490 but slipped to a low of 90,960 by 2009. The company, determined to increase the appeal and thus the sales of the 3 Series, began a phase where these BMW-hallmark driving dynamics were allowed to stagnate in favor of model diversity (by last count there are now 11 variants), competitive pricing (with materials/packaging choices and decreased standard feature content), improved ride comfort (at the expense of handling response), and the aim of greater fuel efficiency across the entire series. The strategy seems to have been effective. By 2014, U.S. 3 Series (including the newly minted 4 Series coupe) sales were back up to 142,232, but persistent whispers/blasphemy of the 3 Series cutting costs and that it was no longer “The Ultimate Driving Machine” flourished.
Track Performance & Fuel Economy
For its class, the power output of the new 330i engine (248 hp/258 lb-ft of torque) is middle of the road. On the low end, the Infiniti Q50 2.0t offers 208 hp, and on the high end lies the Alfa Romeo Giulia at 280 hp. We believe BMW went for smoothness and linearity instead of break-neck performance because when this engine and the 8HP50 eight-speed automatic are combined, it’s sweetheart marriage. Quieter and smoother than the outgoing 328i’s turbo-four, many people might even mistake this small turbocharged four-cylinder for the eminently smooth, linear, naturally aspirated straight-six for which the E36/E46/E90 were once known. Also, the transmission calibration is top notch with smooth, refined upshifts and rightly timed downshifts that include matched-revs throttle blips when done manually. We are very pleased with the easily located/actuated console-mounted drive-mode toggle (Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport, and Sport+) that makes noticeable changes to the driveline, plus the short-cuts to access more inspired progress (sport Drive, a manual gate on the shift stub, and shift paddles) that technical director Frank Markus often likens to holding pants up with “belt, suspenders, and Sansabelt.” Altogether, this is perhaps the most seamlessly integrated turbo-four and automatic in the segment, even if it’s not the most powerful.
At the track in the sportiest settings, we clocked a respectable 5.5-second sprint to 60 mph and a 14.2-second 98.5-mph quarter mile. That puts the 3,537-pound as-equipped 2017 BMW 330i in the midst of similar 2.0-liter-turbocharged sedans in its class, such as the Alfa Romeo Giulia, Audi A4, Cadillac ATS, Mercedes-Benz C300, and Volvo S60 T6. However, it’s 0.1 second behind the last 328i we tested in 2015. Incidentally, both of these recent performances beat the last 3,437-pound 330i we tested in 2006 that was powered by a naturally aspirated 255-hp/220 lb-ft inline-six engine. At or near the top of its class, the 2017 BMW 330i’s fuel economy is estimated by the EPA at 23/34/27 mpg city/highway/combined. We validated these results with our own in-house Real MPG measurements at 24.7/33.9/28.1 mpg. The window sticker can be trusted.
Brake pedal response and feel are slower/softer than we’ve come to expect from BMW, and stopping from 60 mph required 123 feet. This is at the long end of the sport sedan spectrum (and even prior 3 Series stopping distances), partly due to standard all-season run-flat tires. Summer tires are optional. Nonetheless, cornering grip is competitive at 0.88g as is a 26.1-second figure-eight lap time.
Nine Motor Trend staffers drove the car, and all were impressed with the new engine and driveline. “It still feels like there’s something more than a turbo-four under the hood to me,” said associate online editor Alex Nishimoto. “The engine just pulls and pulls. The transmission does a nice job of choosing the right gear for the job.”
In normal driving, the sound of the engine is muted and distant. But if you happen to be standing next to the car or inside with the windows down, the clatter of the fuel injectors makes the engine sound like a diesel. Regarding the common engine stop-start integration, we all felt it was quick to light the engine and among the least upsetting to the cabin—more so than the 328i. Again, integration and refinement are now king.
Senior features editor Jason Cammisa noticed that the car’s computer-controlled tachometer doesn’t follow the true speed of the engine during part-throttle upshifts. Rather, the needle drops in anticipation of an upshift prior to one actually occurring. “This shows a fundamental sea-change in the way BMW engineers their cars,” Cammisa said. “The driver is no longer the focus. They’ve lost the plot.”
Most who drove the 330i complimented its mostly well-controlled body motions and generally comfortable ride. With 51 percent of the car’s weight on the nose, executive editor Mark Rechtin said it feels composed, planted, and firm with one exception. More than one reviewer felt the car float and heave, particularly in the rear, over some bumps. “BMW needs to tighten up the damping on this car,” said associate editor Scott Evans. “Bumps are never one-and-done. They stick around in extra body motions.”
All were in agreement, however, that the 3 Series has lost its once-unimpeachable handling edge. The 3 Series used to feel eager, alert, and ready to dispatch a corner or a competitor. What once felt special and inspiring now feels like common transportation, a decent daily driver was a common backhanded compliment. “The suspension seems to come back to life under load,” Evans said. “Put it into a corner, and suddenly it works really well. Then you remember it’s a BMW. But only then.” Granted, our test car likely would have received more compliments for its handling had it been equipped with the $2,300 Track and Handling package that included adaptive M suspension and M Sport brakes plus specific high-performance summer tires. Prior 3 Series sedans didn’t require such a package to feel special, to feel like a BMW all the time. All of our driving impressions led to the same conclusion. “This chassis no longer strikes me as the best handling set up,” Markus said. “It’s time to kill the ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ association with this brand.” Ouch.
Interior & Cargo
The aging F30 3 Series, not due for replacement for another two years, is indeed showing its age. Sure, there’s something positive to be said and even a little comfort knowing exactly where things are and how they have operated since 1998. To wit, the headlight controller is unchanged. Resetting the trip meter with a single press of the black rectangle on the instrument panel remains. The push-button trunk release is still at our left shin, and there’s still a manual e-brake lever between the two front seats. Familiarity and intuitive operation is a really good thing. Yet our drivers lamented the lack of a height adjustable seatbelt anchor. We all thought the main touch point, the Sport Line-spec leather steering wheel, felt inexpensive and down market. The same holds true for the upholstery, gauges, and overall design. It’s as if time stands still inside the 3 Series while the rest of the world moves on. Even the optional Anthracite wood trim with pearl-effect looked and felt like they came out of a car from a generation ago. “It’s very hard for me to believe this car just underwent a refresh,” Nishimoto said. “It feels like the exact same car from five years ago. The exterior has held up OK, but the interior is showing its age.”
Sight lines are quite good, with relatively slender roof pillars and unobtrusive rear head restraints. Visibility is further complimented by optional LED headlights and foglights (as part of the Premium package) and optional rear-view camera and parking sensors ($950). We think those last two should be standard in this luxury class. For an additional $1,700, the 330i can be outfitted with side- and top-view cameras, blind-spot monitors, lane departure warning, forward-collision warning, pedestrian warning, slow-speed front-collision mitigation (auto braking), and speed limit information. That’s money well spent, yet adaptive cruise control with full stop-start capability is another $1,200 on top of that. Almost all of these features are available on a $23,000 Honda Civic.
Front and rear headroom in the 330i are generous for the segment, but that’s where the advantages end. Seating accommodations are what one would expect in this compact sedan, with legroom and shoulder room measurements being on par with competitors. Rear legroom, however, was compromised by the unforgiving, hard seatback of the front seats. Seat comfort from our car’s optional sport seats varied greatly by body size/type. Firm padding, especially in the seat bottoms, might not be a good match for all backsides. And while front passengers enjoy standard dual-zone automatic climate, optionally heated seats ($500), and a single USB port, there are no temperature controls, USB ports, nor 110-volt power outlet in the back. The rear armrest also conceals a handy-when-you-need-it ski pass through.
Cargo volume is seriously commodious compared to others in its class. At 17.0 cubic feet, the 330i’s trunk is 6.6 cubic feet larger than one of the smallest (Cadillac ATS), and still noticeably larger than an average 13.0-cubic-feet trunk. There are also releases for the 60/40 split-fold rear seats, however, there’s no magic kick-sensor to open the lid.
Features & Options
Our test car was equipped with standard (and greatly improved) iDrive 5, plus the $1,950 Navigation system with a touchpad. More than simply an 8.8-inch high-res wide-screen/split-screen navigation system with real-time traffic (three-year subscription), it also offers pinch-zoom on the control knob/pad, voice-activation capability, BMW Online services, remote services (including stolen-vehicle recovery, remote door unlock), the smart-phone enabled My BMW Remote app (10-year subscription), and a host of other BMW apps. As good as iDrive has become with simplified/redundant menus, where BMW offers a welcome difference to other infotainment systems is the inclusion of eight hard, preset buttons that can store anything from mixed-source audio stations to destinations (such as home) to tire-pressure monitor display and even shutting off the display itself with the press one button. We particularly love this feature.
A $2,450 Premium package added keyless unlocking/locking and ignition, a power glass sunroof, power lumbar adjustment for the front seats, LED headlights, and SiriusXM satellite radio with a one-year subscription. Along with the previously mentioned $950 Driver Assistance package (front/rear parking sensors and rear-view camera), our car also had $300 wireless Apple CarPlay capability. Seriously? These expensive options are quickly becoming standard equipment on many cars, even entry-level cars. You can see how our car’s $6,750 in options quickly contributed to the $46,495 as-tested price and suddenly, value becomes a question.
Time Stands Still for No One
There’s no question that the 2017 BMW 330i is still handsome and well-respected with good manners and a solid reputation. Yet the car, at least in this trim and as equipped, appears to be stuck in time and just doesn’t offer the innovation, inspiring dynamics, or overt athleticism it once did. Besides infotainment/connectivity options, there’s little innovation inside. Asking consumers to pay extra for things that are now widely provided as standard equipment, such as a rear-view camera or parking sensors, doesn’t feel right in a luxury car.
At the test track, it matched the self-set performances of what the 3 Series was expected to post—and did post 5 years ago. BMW’s problem is that the compact, luxury sport sedan goal post has since moved. Once true, but now merely claiming to be the Ultimate Driving Machine, BMW drew fire from both foreign and domestic competitors. It was bound to happen. In a handful of years, Alfa Romeo, Audi, Cadillac, Jaguar, and Mercedes-Benz managed to produce more compelling sedans than the 2017 BMW 330i.
Although it’s true that on paper, all of those listed will produce very similar objective performance, fuel economy, and numbers, how the 330i drives—the subjective thing that won the 3 Series so much praise and so many awards through the years—has gone missing. Where BMWs once were exceptional for their ability to provide an unrivaled connection to the machine and the road, it would appear that the company now focuses on powertrain sophistication and model/trim diversity in an effort to please all of the people all of the time. Well, not all of the people—only those who haven’t driven a 3 Series from a previous generation. These people, our people, are driving enthusiasts who care about the subjective qualities and are not merely brand-conscious automotive consumers looking for an innocuous luxury sedan as a daily driver. Parking a new BMW 3 Series in the driveway might suggest to some of your neighbors that you’re an enthusiast. They’ve seen the ads. But real enthusiasts know that it’s only a tagline now. Expected in 2019, the seventh-generation (G20) 3 Series can’t come soon enough.