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BMW 330xi (2001)

SEE ALSO: BMW Buyer's Guide

by Carey Russ

It seems that everything is cyclical. Take all-wheel drive (AWD), as an example. Back in the mid-1980s, AWD came into vogue in performance and regular sedans because of its advantages in traction and handling, in all conditions, but especially winter. Mid- '80s AWD systems had disadvantages, however, particularly in weight, which affected performance and fuel economy, and mechanical complexity. That complexity often also meant expense, both initially and in maintenance. And so AWD bloomed for a short time, and, with the exception of manufacturers that specialized in the technology, faded from the scene. Improvements in electronic engine and chassis controls led to traction and stability-control systems that could give a rear- or front-wheel drive car almost the capability of an AWD car, with less mechanical complexity.

An AWD BMW 3-Series was last available in 1991. Now, AWD is once again available in the 3-Series for 2001, and may be had on the 325 sedan and wagon and 330 sedan. Differences in appearance compared to the rear-drive versions are minimal, and roadholding is improved from the already-high levels of the 3-Series.

The 3-Series AWD system is based on that found in the X5 "Sport Activity Vehicle", and is a full-time system with no off-road low range. Sophisticated electronics from a modified Dynamic Stability Control system replace traditional four-wheel drive mechanical pieces like differential locks, and the "Automatic Differential Brake" (ABD-X) system activates the brake on any wheel that spins, diverting power to the wheels that can best use it. The all-wheel drive 3-Series is in no way an off-road vehicle, it is meant for use on roads in varied weather conditions. But the slight increase in ground clearance is welcome even in city and highway driving, where it can mean clearance over road debris and other hazards of everyday driving.

The all-wheel drive system works transparently, with no buttons or levers in the cockpit and no noticeable front-drive torque steer. I thoroughly enjoyed my week with a 330xi, which highlighted BMW's new 3.0-liter engine as well. It is an evolution of the previous 328i, but adds significantly more power and the availability of all-wheel drive traction, with no decrease in efficiency. Comfort, handling, power, and traction, what more could you want in a performance-luxury sedan?

APPEARANCE: The 330xi looks little different from any other current 3-Series sedan. It has the same definitely-BMW conservative, rounded, 5-Series-inspired styling, and the same twin- kidney grille and quad round headlamps under polycarbonate covers. But it has a "330xi" badge on its trunk and sits about three-quarters of an inch higher than its rear-drive brethren due to chassis changes for the all-wheel drive system. An all-wheel drive BMW sedan will never be mistaken for an off-road "crossover", though, and what may look like a skid plate under the engine is really for aerodynamic efficiency, not stump-bashing.

COMFORT: The 3-Series is as definably BMW in design inside as it is outside. Because of the sedan's relatively high roofline, interior space is greater than expected. The standard leatherette upholstery looks and feels more like leather than the leather of some competitors, and the seats are firmly-padded for long-distance comfort. Although power front seats are available and my test car was so equipped, there is nothing wrong with the standard lightweight and simple six-way manually-adjustable buckets. Standard interior trim is color-matched plastic; optional myrtle wood adds an upscale ambiance. Aluminum-finished trim rings around the instruments are new this year. The rear seat is roomy for the size of the car, and the trunk is functionally large despite the presence of a real spare wheel and tire underneath its floor. As has been tradition with BMW for a while now, a rechargeable flashlight is found in the glove box, and a real tool kit fits into the inside of the trunk lid.

SAFETY: The 2001 BMW 3-Series sedan has a sturdy unit- construction chassis, dual-stage front airbags, front side airbags, a head-protection side airbag, four-wheel antilock disc brakes with dynamic brake control, and dynamic stability control. Rear-seat side airbags are available.

ROADABILITY: All-wheel drive provides superior traction in all conditions, not just in rain and snow. Add all-wheel drive traction to a near-perfectly balanced BMW suspension and smile. The raised ride height makes no real difference in handling, and what little the AWD system's extra weight detracts from raw acceleration is more than made up for in increased traction and cornering ability. Think "ultimate cornering machine" for all road and weather conditions. The regular suspension is firm enough for precise control, but still provides plenty of supple comfort for daily driving. A sport suspension is available, of course. The 330xi's all-wheel drive system splits torque 38 percent front, 62 rear in most conditions, for a rear- drive feel with no torque steer.

PERFORMANCE: Inline six-cylinder engines are rare today, but are a long tradition at BMW. Inline sixes are wonderfully smooth, and BMW's new 3.0-liter dual overhead cam, 24-valve aluminum alloy engine is no exception. Horsepower peaks at 225 at 5900 rpm (versus the 193 of the 328), with 214 lb-ft of torque at 3500 rpm, and variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust camshafts and a dual-resonance intake manifold help give a wide spread of useful power at almost all engine speeds. The standard five-speed ZF gearbox has well-chosen gear ratios, and shifts easily. The engine is torquey enough that performance is not seriously decreased with the optional 5-speed automatic. The 330xi's all-wheel drive system adds 200 lbs, which means that acceleration is decreased slightly, about a half-second from zero to 60 mph.

CONCLUSIONS: Superior BMW handling + all-wheel drive grip + smooth, torquey power = :-) ++.

2001 BMW 330xi

Base Price              $ 33,990
Price As Tested         $ 37,955
Engine Type             dual overhead cam, 32-valve inline
                          6-cylinder with variable valve timing
                          on both camshafts
Engine Size             3.0 liters / 182 cu. in.
Horsepower              225 @ 5900 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)          214 @ 3500 rpm
Transmission            5-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length      107.3 in. / 176.0 in.
Curb Weight             3527 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower   15.7
Fuel Capacity           16.6 gal.
Fuel Requirement        premium unleaded, 92 octane
Tires                   P205/50 VR17 Continental Conti 
                          Touring Contact
Brakes, front/rear      vented disc / vented disc, antilock 
Suspension, front/rear  independent strut / independent multilink
Drivetrain              front engine, all-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      20 / 27 / 22
0 to 60 mph                6.9  sec
Coefficient of Drag (cd)   0.31

All-wheel drive                    $ 1,750
Wood interior trim                 $   500
Power front seats with memory      $   945
AM/FM/CD player                    $   200
Destination charge                 $   570