Barbarians at the vortex.
2017 BMW 3-series BMW 3-series 2017 4.5 1.0 5.0
The battle for the soul of BMW rages on, although one side is clearly winning: those driving the company toward mainstream appeal in its core models as well as futurists who advocate for electric cars, increased hybridization, and across-the-board adoption of semi-autonomous driving systems. The other side is aligned with BMW’s once-granitic core, the Ultimate Driving Machine faithful, dedicated to fine-tuning several thousand pounds of metal and rubber and passion to respond as if it were hard-wired to your brain. You can probably guess how we stand on this.
Into this vortex rolls the 2017 BMW 330i sedan. Don’t confuse it with the 3.0-liter six-cylinder powered four-door of the same name that last appeared here in 2006. The 2017 330i is a sedan with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that replaces last year’s 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder 328i. In place of the former engine, the 330i employs the new B46 powerplant, which first appeared last year in the X1 and then rolled into the 2-series and even the Mini Cooper S. It’s part of the lightweight, low-friction modular engine family that also spawned the turbocharged inline-six in the new 340i.
For the B46, BMW shrunk the bore but increased the stroke and, combined with some other internal engine improvements, achieved an output of 248 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. Unlike the 328’s N20, which developed its 255 lb-ft of peak torque at just 1250 rpm, the 330’s B46 wants 1450 rpm to peak, so BMW adjusted gearing accordingly. (The 2017 car has a wider ratio spread in its eight-speed ZF automatic and uses a numerically lower final-drive ratio.)
Yet despite all of this fiddling around with drivetrains, the 2017 330i feels remarkably similar to the 2016 328i. That’s good if you think recent four-cylinder BMWs are great. It’s not so great if you’re bothered by the slight thrumming and belt-sander-esque sound of modern four-cylinder BMWs at full throat. Having been seduced by the silken song and velvety power delivery of the BMW inline-six, which has graced the engine bays of 3-series sedans since 1983, it’s hard to snuggle up to the four-banger. Just sayin’.
Powered Up but Not Faster
As for the added eight horsepower and taller gearing, we really didn’t feel it. Not that the 330i is sluggish—far from it. In our testing, the 330i achieved 60 mph from rest in 5.4 seconds, just a tenth or two off the 5.2- and 5.3-second runs of the 2016 328i and the 328i xDrive and 0.6 second behind the 4.8-second run of the turbo-six-powered 2016 340i. There was zero turbo lag with the engine’s twin-scroll setup. BMW has stated that a key goal for the new modular Efficient Dynamics engine family is improved fuel economy. At an EPA-estimated 23 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway, the new 330i automatic comes in a bit short of last year’s 328i, rated at 23/35. But our 25-mpg observed fuel economy for the 330i over two weeks of hammering it hard over our favorite test roads may be more revealing; the last 328i we tested returned just 21 mpg. Also encouraging is that the 330i yielded 41 mpg on our 200-mile, 75-mph highway test.
In our braking and lateral-grip tests, the new 330i’s 168-foot stop from 70 mph and 0.83-g skidpad performance were within spitting distance of the numbers achieved by the 2016 328i xDrive. Passable, considering the less-than-sticky Continental ContiSportContact summer tires mounted to our test car. But 0.83 g would have tied with the Toyota Camry SE, the loser in our most recent comparison test of four mid-size family sedans, a decidedly nonsporty bunch. The braking figure, at least, is better than average. We experienced more free travel than we’d like at the top of the brake pedal, but the binders firmed up and were plenty strong and easy to modulate once you got there—with zero fade.
Fuzzy Around the Edges
It’s in subjective areas where the roundel has lost more of its shine. The current F30 3-series is entering its sixth year in this market and, despite a mild freshening for 2016 models. looks and feels dated. We’re not talking only about the 3-series’ electrically boosted steering that continues to please with its surgical precision but frustrates due to a deficit in feedback. Compared with, say, the new Audi A4 or Mercedes-Benz C-class. the BMW sedan feels more confining and more plasticky inside.
There are other fuzzy edges. The 330i’s fuel-saving stop/start system is very abrupt on startup, and it isn’t as smooth as those we’ve experienced recently in some Mercedes-Benz or even Chevrolet products. BMW long ago decided to favor run-flat tires to reduce vehicle mass while optimizing trunk space, but the optional 18-inch wheel-and-tire setup on our test car suffered some brutal impact harshness over almost unseen concrete dividers and potholes. Road sizzle, particularly with the larger 18-inch wheel (17s are standard), intrudes from the rear, especially, when traveling over brushed concrete or high-aggregate-content asphalt pavement. You have to turn up the radio or talk louder to compensate. We noted that the ride quality was, outside of the choppy run-flat tires, quite good—but the body bounced and floated on some bumpy back roads, not traditional BMW behaviors. The car still transitions into corners well, and its primary controls have a harmonious, single-purpose feel that makes driving quickly a breeze.
The 3-series is basically a sedan with coupe proportions, so the 330i’s rear-seat legroom is tight. And the 330i’s center-stack display screen is pretty small by today’s standards.
The 330i we tested represents the core of the BMW brand as it stands today, being softer and more comfort-focused than in generations past. The four-cylinder turbo automatic is the best-selling 3-series drivetrain combination in the United States. And the 3-series, whether or not you include the mechanically similar 4-series coupes and convertibles, is both the top-selling BMW and easily the sales leader in the entry-luxury sports-sedan segment. At a $47,645 as-tested price and displaying remarkable restraint in the options department, this 330i is the kind of sports sedan you might spec out yourself or recommend to a friend. On top of the $39,745 base price, our test 330i was upgraded with leather trim ($1450); a driver-assistance package consisting of a backup camera and sonar park-distance control ($950); a premium package with keyless entry, a sunroof, adjustable front-seat lumbar support, and SiriusXM satellite radio ($2450); 18-inch aluminum wheels ($600); heated front seats ($500); and navigation ($1950).
Despite its lost luster, the BMW 3-series remains the entry-luxe sports sedan that all other carmakers judge theirs against—the sales numbers are hard to deny. We keep poking BMW to improve steering feedback, but the 3er does have competent dynamics; firm, supportive front seats; great ergonomics; and a right-size feeling to recommend it. But the current F30 generation is showing some gray around the temples, something the brand needs to address with an all-new version—that, and performance numbers that suggest that competitors who’ve aimed at BMW’s icon are hitting the target. If the battle swirling around the BMW roundel is any indication, a quicker response would be better than a delayed one.
Highs and Lows
Responsive steering, efficient and strong four-cylinder engine, top-shelf ergonomics.
Four-banger not as velvety as the six, steering remains lifeless, some gray showing at the temples.
VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
PRICE AS TESTED: $47,645 (base price: $39,745)
ENGINE TYPE: turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 16-valve inline-4, aluminum block and head, direct fuel injection
TRANSMISSION: 8-speed automatic with manual shifting mode
Wheelbase: 110.6 in
Length: 182.8 in
Width: 71.3 in Height: 56.3 in
Passenger volume: 96 cu ft
Cargo volume: 17 cu ft
Curb weight: 3569 lb
EPA city/highway driving: 23/34 mpg
C/D observed: 25 mpg
C/D observed highway driving: 41 mpg
C/D observed highway range: 640 mi