I got lucky again with this one. I had to see some customers in other states for a few days and a local branch of the car rental company put me in a nice fresh BMW. I only had it for a short handful of days, but I made the most of those days with it. I had three customers to visit, the first one in the opposite direction to the other two, so some miles would be involved. The Alpine White 330i looked like a great traveling companion- would it be?

Once inside, the first impression was comfortable but it required some adjustment. The seat seemed a little awkward until I started playing with the controls. It had more than the average assortment of adjustments, and the seatback’s bolster-width adjustment was the key that made the rest of if fit. The ergonomics worked fairly well for my big, tall frame, with one exception- getting out of the car. The doors are somewhat small, and I needed to have both the seat and the steering wheel far back. This resulted in the seatback being behind the edge of the doorway, and the wheel encroaching into the other side of the passage, making for a narrow gap between wheel and doorjamb through which to extricate myself. A little push on the sill from my left hand helped, a similar trick to one I used to use for getting out of the very low and wide-silled Turbo Esprit that I once owned. But the difficult egress was a small price to pay for the comfort.

Getting out isn’t easy for a big fella.

Another impression this car gives is of technology. The instrument cluster isn’t a cluster of instruments at all, but a single instrument in the form of a multifunction TFT display that conveys lots of information, all organised by which screen you’ve selected or which drive-mode is in use. The displayed information isn’t always intuitive to interpret, but it doesn’t take long to get the hang of what’s going on. BMW could have made the tech very Germanically cold, but they put a certain amount of ‘organicness’ in it that made it a little easier for humans to grow into. They also kept the dashboard fairly clean, putting most of the tech-controls on the centre console, but even that wasn’t overwhelmed with buttons and switches and knobs- just enough to let you know that a lot of features are accessible but not enough to discourage exploring them. I didn’t have time to dig into all the features, but those that I did were easy enough to understand and use. Speaking of user-friendly controls, I’ve often had less than great things to say about the ‘joystick with a flowchart’ school of gear-selector design. This BMW’s selector is of that type, and it takes a few tries to get the hang of how the buttons and nudges make it work, but once you get the hang of it, it’s far from the worst I’ve seen (looking at you, Cadillac XT5).

Levers and buttons and screens are all fine and good, but cars are for driving, and the 330i is a delight to drive. Comfort mode is the default setting, and in this mode the car is unobtrusive, just getting along as needed, perfect for most people’s everyday utilitarian driving from A to B. Pro Eco mode is for energy-efficiency, although I’m not what’s ‘pro’ about it. Sport mode is for fun. I found Pro Eco was most useful for long hauls on the highway, Comfort in the city, and Sport for when I wanted to get around the slowpokes or otherwise enjoy a brisker drive. BMW stick tightly to their tradition of rear wheel drive; as a result you can enjoy as much acceleration as you want without any torque-steer surprises. The handling is good and very smooth but don’t stay in Comfort-mode if you really enjoy cornering. The steering-feel is good, certainly better than the bland anonymity of most current cars’ electrically-assisted steering, but it still isn’t the great feel for which the BMW 3-series was famous in times past. There has GOT to be a way to improve this woe that afflicts so many cars these days.

Go for a drive.

Disappointments were few. The biggest one for me is the lack of a spare tire. Not even a space-saver, not even a compartment under the trunk floor to hope for a spare. I also wasn’t pleased that the only 12V socket for the front seats is at the front of the console, right by the cup-holders. If you use a big travel-cup, this gets a little crowded, and certainly isn’t as neat a solution as putting the socket inside the storage space under the armrest. And the socket didn’t even function in my rental car, but luckily my charging cables were long enough to reach from the socket on the rear of the console for back-seat passengers. If those passengers have legs, they won’t want to sit behind tall people: the legroom behind the driver seat all but disappeared once the seat was adjusted for my size. I was also surprised that the 330i was not equipped with heated seats, which are so common today that almost every car has them, even my seven-year-old Mazda 3.

Nice touches abound too. The TFT displays are bright and easy to read. The climate-control system is easy to understand and keeps up well with southern summer heat. The smart key is even thoughtfully designed, so that you don’t have to remove it from your packet to find the button to lock the car- just stick your hand in your pocket, and when your thumb finds the raised, rounded BMW roundel, give it a press. The car will also unlock automatically when the key gets close to a door, taking things a step further than the touch-unlock feature that many cars come with.

The BMW 330i’s MSRP starts around $41000, and options can make it climb steeply from there. For the money you get a comfortable, satisfying, well-designed car that is a joy to drive. Given the opportunity to spend more time with it, I definitely would.

If Twin Power seems cryptic, it’s really pretty simple: a twin-scroll turbochager that has separate exhaust- inputs from pairs of cylinders of the same orientation in the power cycle, resulting in faster spinning.
Tall people in front means very little legroom in back.
TFT display is bright and easy to read, although some information isn’t intuitive to understand. Different drive-modes have their own versions of the instrument display; Pro Eco mode is shown here.
The reverse-camera’s guidance graphics are among the more useful ones.
Illumination for door handles seems nice, but ultimately is more of a solution looking for a problem.
BMW styling gets more and more futuristic, yet remains familiar.

Avid listeners already know that in addition to being car-crazy, I’m also really into motorcycles. I’ve ridden them for nearly twenty years, and my brand of choice since the beginning has been BMW. I’ve ridden them for somewhere around a hundred thousand miles, everywhere from Cape Canaveral to Big Bend to Devil’s Tower to southern Ontario, and I’ve served in various volunteer roles with the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America, including a term on the Board of Directors. You could say that I’m into BMW motorcycles. So when I received a copy of The Complete Book Of BMW Motorcycles, I dug into it with true gusto.

Author Ian Falloon is a well-known authority on many marques of motorcycle including BMW and has written many books on the subject, so this book comes with a great deal of confidence in its content. The book is less a narrative history -although there is some of that- than it is an encyclpaedic guide to almost every motorcycle ever produced by BMW. The C-series scooters have been omitted, but this will hardly be noticed by most BMW enthusiasts and only a die-hard C-fan will truly object. The rest of BMW’s two-wheeled products are detailed, from the R32 of 1923 through the many models of 2020.

The introduction tells the story of the origins of BMW as a producer of aircraft engines and how the young company transitioned to manufacturing motorcycles. Subsequent chapters generally follow the different design-generations in chronological order. Each chapter contains a few paragraphs about what new models or changes happened in each generation, followed by simple technical data for each model. If that sounds like a description of a fairly dull reference-work, it would be if not for how much more this book contains then mere technical details. This would be a much smaller book if it merely contained descriptions and data. What makes it shine far beyond that is how richly illustrated it is with a great multitude of excellent photographs, many previously unpublished, and a small number of technical drawings including some cutaways- I wish there were more of the drawings to illustrate how BMW’s many innovations worked, but that’s my own technical bent and not all readers may desire this. Also included are several sidebar articles about BMW’s many forays into racing- from the early regional events of Germany all the way through World Superbike, and of course the Paris-Dakar Rally, which BMW dominated several times, doing so at just the right time to bring attention to the then-fairly new line of G/S models which were the beginning of a line that would go on to become BMW’s best-selling bikes of all time.

If this book has any weaknesses, there are a small few factual gaffes but they are very minor things that only the most knowledgeable enthusiasts will notice. The fact that only three pages are devoted to the wartime-production of the R75 of 1941-44 appears at first to be another weakness, but those three pages contain a wealth of information about this dark period of BMW’s history, even if it comes across as a bit ‘sanitised.’

If you’re interested in BMW motorcycles, this book is an excellent resource and should be included in your library. Its 312 pages are full of useful and interesting information that any BMW-enthusiast will appreciate. It is also a large and handsome volume, stylishly designed and easy to read. You can order your copy from quartoknows.com, and you’ll be glad that you did.

It was another one of those hectic travel days. As I lay there trying to fall back asleep, my wife Jennifer nudged me and asked me what time I was supposed to get up. Then she told me that it was almost 45 minutes past that time. Panic, expletives, the most impressively-efficient shower I’ve ever taken, dress, grab my bag, hit the road for the train station. Made my usual train instead of an earlier one I’d intended. The reason for all this is that it was the Monday after Thanksgiving and I knew that the airport would be busier than usual. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to avoid having to fly that day to see a customer in northern New Jersey, via Philadelphia’s airport because flight choices at Newark weren’t very good. On top of that, bad winter weather was in the forecast for the northeast. I managed to get to the gate on time since the crowds were not as bad as I expected, and in a bit of luck, there was a short flight delay so I even got a bite of breakfast. The snow-dump that Philadelphia was expecting didn’t show up, so it all went smoothly. And as I stepped off the rental car shuttle, I wondered as usual if there was anything interesting available.

I did briefly spot this one car that I had written most of a review for and was waiting to rent one again so I could complete that review, but quickly forgot about it when I saw a shiny little black Mercedes-Benz crossover. Could a Mercedes really be available in the non-upgrade section? Yes, and I focused on it so quickly that I didn’t see the bigger black Mercedes SUV a few spaces down, which, as I was exiting later, pulled out in front of me suddenly-enough to find out that the brakes in the car I got were A-OK. That bigger model looked nice, but what I got was a GLA 250 4Matic, which was just fine for me and my gear. Small and nimble is usually better in my book. But I’m getting ahead of the story here. Once I decided to go for the cute little GLA, I noticed that whoever backed it into the parking space had backed it within inches of the guard-rail which meant that I would have to move it forward to load my gear.

Before climbing in, I did notice that the interiour looked very comfy and inviting and tastefully appointed. One visual thing that made an impression was that the floor mats were edged in the same colour as the seats. It’s a little thing for sure, but it screams NICE. The seats looked really comfy too, but I have yet to get into a rental car that didn’t need its seats adjusted to fit my tall frame, so I took note of the adjustment multi-button on the side of the seat and gave it good long pushes in both back and down. Then I sat down and found my head touching the ceiling! This didn’t seem right. Push the button in the downward direction again, and hold it for a good few seconds. Nothing. Hmmmmmmmm. I wondered if there was some seat-memory issue that was keeping me from adjusting the position, so I looked over to the door where most manufacturers put the memory buttons…and right there next to the memory buttons, was a set of buttons shaped like a side-view of a car seat. It makes sense on one level, but not on the obvious level since most manufacturers put those buttons on the side of the seat. I adjusted the seat for comfort and noted that it could go back REALLY far, much farther than even I need. Remember the 1970s TV-ad in which Wilt Chamberlain drove a Volkswagen Rabbit? He would have done even better in this car. What, then, did the button on the side of the seat do? Turns out that it controls the lumbar-support, which has no fewer than THREE different adjustable segments. If you’re a control-freak with a sensitive back, YOU NEED THIS CAR.

Notice seat adjustment buttons on door. Why???

Not to be out-done by the seat, the transmission then gave me its own challenge. No shift lever in the center console, no knob to select a gear, nothing obvious. Another Hmmmmmmmmm, then after a moment I spotted it. The stalk on the right side of the column, not very big or obtrusive, had some letters and arrows on it that suggested that it might be what I needed. Sure enough, move it up or down to get into reverse or drive respectively, and a little button on the end puts it in park. Finally, I was able to pull the car forward to load my gear. Remember the gear? With that and everything else done that needs doing when I get into a rental car, I was under way, but noticed before leaving the lot that I wasn’t done with confusing controls. The headlight switch isn’t visible from where my eyes are in this car, obscured by the steering wheel. It’s in the position on the left end of the dashboard that is familiar to other cars, but I still had to look around the wheel to see what the positions of the switch were. And as I got into the line for the check-out, it hit me that I didn’t see cruise control-controls anywhere. Really? I know that this isn’t an inexpensive car. How on earth can you sell a luxury car without cruise control? I did remember that a BMW X3 I’d had on a trip a while back was surprisingly spartan in its features, so maybe this was more of the same. But just by chance when I turned the steering wheel at one point, I saw a second stalk on the left side of the column, smaller than the one for the turn signals, and farther down…right where the wheel completely obscures it most of the time! And to add to the frustration, you have to give the wheel a good turn to see the markings that indicate which way to move the stalk to make the cruise control do which function. If I owned this car and drove it on the highway a lot, I’m sure that I would eventually remember which direction to push the stalk to do what, but during my time with it I did require some trial-and-error to get it right.

Where is the cruise control?

Hidden behind the steering wheel!

So, finally out on the road, my first impression was that this car felt like pretty much every car these days. Yes, we have reached the point where, the carmakers scared by the economies of scale in today’s gigantic market that give so little room for error, every car drives about the same. With more time behind the wheel, I formed the impression that the steering was light but precise. This combination can be good if you’re paying attention or bad if you’re not. Power from the turbocharged 2-litre 4-cyliner engine is okay but not spectacular, at a claimed 208 hp moving a 3340-lb curb weight via a 7-speed Dual-clutch automatic transmission and an automatic all-wheel-drive system. It’ll move when it needs to, but won’t leave you breathless. But This is a luxury car, not a sports car. The GLA 250 handled well on the wet pavement, and after about 45 minutes it began to snow- but at no point did the car show any sign that I should lose confidence, at least until once near my destination, I pulled into a parking lot and gave it a sharp turn to see how it did in the fluffier fresh snow…and it did very poorly, taking the steering input as a mere suggestion. I daresay that my six-year-old FWD Mazda 3 would have handled that moment better.

Shortly after that snowy skid I parked the car for the night, and the next morning it was covered with a 4-inch layer of snow with an icy base. I was pleased with how quickly the front and rear defrosters did their job, but this does bring me to the temperature controls. Thankfully they’re not as difficult to initially figure-out as the systems mentioned above, although I did notice one odd quirk. With many cars, instead of having a button for every possible way to aim the air, there is one or two buttons that allow you to toggle through the possibilities. In the case of my Mazda, it’s a button with a left and right arrow that you press either end of to scroll through the choices. This Merc has a pair of MODE buttons, one above the display and bearing an up-arrow, and one below the display and bearing a down-arrow. Not having the buttons immediately adjacent to each other is a little awkward, and that awkwardness is driven home by the fact that unlike cars such as my Mazda, you cannot use one button to scroll through a loop of the choices- press one MODE button enough times and you’ll reach the end, and must use the other button to go back through the choices.

The location of the climate controls down low near the console made them seem a bit far away, especially since the dashboard as a whole feels very tall and wall-like. Even as tall as I am, I did feel much of the time like I was down in a hole whenever I looked at the dashboard. The tallish band of textured silver plastic (poplar-wood can be had for $325, which I’d gladly pay to save me from staring at that too-coldly teutonic silver plastic all the time) that contains nothing except the upper vents only encourages this effect, as does the ledge of black that slightly protrudes above it, as does putting the audio and climate controls fairly low, and as does putting the tablet-like display screen way up high. And if that wasn’t enough, the lower edge of the windscreen is higher still. Forward visibility still isn’t bad though, but it does seem to clash with all that verticality inside the car.

The screen, like so many these days, seems more like a tablet stuck on the dashboard than like an integral part of the car.

Over the next few days I did note that once you get used to everything enough to relax, the GLA is very comfortable. The seats have plenty of support and adjustability, including the length of the thigh-support. The steering wheel feels good in hand, the climate control kept me cozy. The driving itself pleasant, the ride being smooth without feeling disconnected, and it was easy to put the car where I wanted to put it without thinking about it too much. I did find a twisty two-lane through the forest nearby, and gave the GLA a good thrashing there. I was impressed by the car’s abilities in that regard, especially since because the road was unfamiliar to me, I changed speeds a lot. The handling somewhat reminded me of a VW Mk IV GTI I once had, with its combination of sure grip, rubbery smoothness, and just enough sensory feedback. Ergonomics were good for my tallness, and I had no problems with ingress or egress. Cargo space is quite decent too, and will certainly meet the needs of anybody buying a compact SUV.

The GLA 250 4Matic has a starting MSRP of $36,250, which is $2000 more than the FWD version, and whether that difference is worth it to you is quite subjective- some people think that AWD is a MUST in a family-car these days, and I think that that is by far more true in marketing than it is in the real world. Mercedes-Benz’s website didn’t make it clear whether some features were package-only or could be had as standalone options, but I was really surprised that keyless entry is not a standard feature. There are plenty of features though, too many to go into much detail about, and there are several connected technology features that are free to use at first, for example one called ‘Mercedes me connect’ for which three years of use are included at no charge. There are of course many option-packages for everything from maintenance-plans to AMG exteriours. Smartphone integration requires a package rather than being a standard feature, but at least you get the option of the $350 Smartphone Integration Package (Android Auto, Apple Car Play) rather than being forced to swallow the $2300 Multimedia Package, which includes the same integrations plus several other features. If you check all the most expensive boxes in the options and packages on the website, you’ll arrive at a maximum price of $56,745. I seriously doubt that very many GLA 250s get sold at that level, and when I ran the version that I would prefer -moderate equipment, tasteful aesthetics, not fully tech-loaded and no AMG- it came to a much more sensible $41,600, not a bad stretch from the base MSRP when you consider how extremely you can raise the price of cars in the luxury market-segment by adding options. If I run my version again in the FWD version, I can get it under $40,000.

Overall, I liked the GLA 250 4Matic. It did take a little getting used to, and regular readers may recall that I mentioned quirky controls in a review of a Volvo XC60 too- but the Volvo’s quirky controls were much easier to get the hang of in a short time. But if everything else about the GLA appeals to you, don’t let the quirks hold you back. Compact luxury cars are a good thing, and this one definitely felt good. I can see living easily with this car. The luxury wasn’t so far over the top that it constantly reminded me that I was driving an up-market vehicle, and for that I give it much credit. If a compact luxury SUV sounds like your kind of easy living, check out the GLA 250.

Comfy accommodations up front, although the dashboard does see somewhat wall-like.
Instruments are uncluttered and easy to read.
Rear seats have plenty of headroom but not so much legroom.
High praise to Mercedes-Benz for the design of the button on the hatch that closes it. It is not only brightly coloured, but also illuminated and spells out that the button will also stop the hatch from closing. Contrast this with black, featureless buttons in other cars.
A helpful reminder.