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.
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.
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.