In the summer of 1977, my friend Dave O'Neal and I
used to test-drive expensive cars for fun. We'd get out of high school, head home to change out of Levi's cords and t-shirts into slacks and Oxford shirts, then ride our bikes to the local BMW, Lotus, Porsche, or Maserati dealer. After parking our steeds out of view around the corner, we'd stroll into the showroom armed with a casually delivered cock-and-bull story about how one of our parents had promised to buy us an expensive new car if our grades held up, and might we take one out for a spin to let mom and dad know which one to put a bow on?
It usually worked. And in those days, they'd let you take the car on your own--no buzz-killing salesman riding along. Our first score with this routine was a 1977 BMW 320i, white over black. The experience was life-altering. We took turns charging that car around the foothills behind Stanford University for more than an hour, and I thought I would never find a car I loved as much. My modded Datsun 510 suddenly seemed lame, and I even stopped scheming to take possession of my dad's Datsun 240Z. The 320i was it.
Fast-forward to 2005. I've owned some great cars and driven a whole bunch more from the CNET stables, most of which are long on tech and low on soul. So I was delighted when I took the new 2006 BMW 330i from our test fleet and was transported straight back to 1977 in all the right ways. There again was that tough, silky power train, the point-and-shoot handling, the comfy businesslike cockpit, and yes, a liberal dose of technology. I was grinning like an idiot--albeit, an idiot 27 years older.
Now, before you click away, bored with yet another BMW paean by a German car sycophant, know that I have never owned a BMW and don't plan to. I can't relate to the brand, no matter how much I love the car. Beginning with the arrival of the original 320i, BMW was embraced by an abundance of poseurs who spent too much time playing tennis and trying to impress girls. Later it became the de facto car of nouveau riche men and women who knew nothing about cars but plenty about status. And don't even get me started on the guys in silk shirts unbuttoned to their navels who seem to be the only buyers of the erstwhile 8 Series.
So it is against that backdrop of strong prejudices toward the BMW image that the 330i still impressed me mightily.
Let's walk the car:
- Styling. The new 3 Series has been banged on by Chris Bangle the least, which is a good thing. But it's still damaged goods to my eye, just not so damaged as to obscure the rest of the car. In general, I think it looks like it put on some weight with those deeper sides and heavier-seeming rump.
- Power train. Unlike almost every other car I've driven lately, BMW has not forgotten that a car should accelerate instantly when you hit the pedal--not pause, check the throttle position sensor, mull the oxygen ratio in the manifold, stir the pot looking for the right gear, then accelerate. I can't tell you how refreshing the 3 Series' urgency is.
- Technology. The extra-wide-screen LCD in the dash has both a fine resolution and an elegant user interface. The iDrive system has improved enough to be good if not great, and the use of haptic feedback in the knob is inspired. Outside, the brake calipers are smart enough to automatically kiss the rotors every minute or so in rainy conditions to keep them dry and ready for predictable braking performance. And that 3.0-liter in-line 6 engine has enough technologies built in it to, well, make an in-line 6 an engine to lust for.
- Interior. Quality abounds in the BMW 3 Series, with a bank-vault-like solidness underneath it. The word thunk comes to mind when you close a door. You can scour that cabin all day and not find a piece of poorly executed plastic. Shapes are Bauhausian, finishes are muted and handsome. The controls are sparse and make sense; just look at the climate control center. And no knob or button feels like it's about to snap off. This car remains the absolute antithesis of what Detroit turns out.
- Price. Well, four out of five isn't bad.
What car changed your life?
So what is it that can keep a car so impressive for so long? I think it's a troika of engineering, balance, and heritage: engineering that allows each part of the car to be excellent, balance that means no one part of the car lets you down or distracts from the whole, and heritage that reminds this company that cars are, at their best, a passion, not an appliance.
But perhaps a very different car became your yardstick many years ago? I'd like to hear about it and why. Let us all know the story with TalkBack.