Some folks have suggested that cars, like pets, are subconsciously selected on the basis of their resemblances to their owners. I don't happen to agree; but I do think that there is at least one right car for every driver. Furthermore, I propose that a lot of frustration accrues to those who would ignore this point of view.
I know, for example, of a number of middle-age wannabes who think that the mere introduction of a sporty roadster into their workaday routine will transform them, at the flip of an ignition switch, from Dagwood Bumstead into Russell Crowe. When it doesn't, I get to hear about how awful and cramped and noisy Honda's brilliant little S2000 pocket rocket has turned out to be. Why couldn't this fella just have bought, say, a new Nissan Quest minivan with room to spare, a DVD in-van theater complex and a monster sound system for all those old Moody Blues records?
It pays, in other words, to know thyself when shopping for a new vehicle; and an "appetite audit," by which you psychoanalyze your need-versus-want expectations, ought to be the first step in narrowing down the test-drive list.
I let slip this gratuitous Freudism because I have just spent a week with a very tasty morsel of a sport sedan, and I'm downright flummoxed by the task of trying to analyze it. It is BMW's 330i with a $3900 optional Performance Package that was introduced in 2003. In some ways, it is a nearly perfect car: four-door convenience, superlative mechanicals, impeccable status credentials. I simply cannot avoid concluding, however, that this is not the car for everyone.
A certain appetite for performance is, as the option designation suggests, a prerequisite for anyone considering this somewhat excitable boy. As a limited-edition model, BMW's 3-Series Performance sedan starts life as a 330i whose 3.0-liter in-line six-cylinder motor has been substantially tweaked. There are aggressive camshafts, extensive re-programming of the electronic engine management computer and a lighter flywheel. The upshot is ten more horsepower, eight more pound-feet of torque and 300 more rpm at redline. The 330i Performance is a half-second quicker than its unmodified sibling, turning in a zero-to-60 time of 5.9 seconds.
Packaged into a sedan that weighs an admirably trim 3285 pounds, BMW's specially tuned motor delivers zesty performance without becoming an uncompromising handful of runaway hot-rod. It is civilized, in other words; and BMW has shrewdly spiced up the aesthetics with a few psychological tricks: The exhaust note is a bit louder and "growlier," and the six-speed manual shifter is a quick-action "short-throw" design. For auto-shifter devotées, a five-speed automatic, with Steptronic clutchless manual shifting capability, edges its way into the 2004 Performance Package as an option.
In any case, the result is a cockpit experience that is a very decent facsimile of motorsports driving, but without the bone-jarring, ear-splitting, creature-comfortless qualities of the real thing. In fact, the 330i Performance sports an exotic interior that couldn't be farther from the spartan minimalism of a racecar. Set-and-forget, rain-sensing wipers are now standard; Sirius satellite radio, Bluetooth wireless telephony, GPS navigation and BMW Assist for real-time personal roadside assistance are enticing, high-tech options. Velvety Alcantara faux-suede swathes the seats; and a stubby, fat steering wheel from BMW's M-cars is completely upholstered with the stuff. It's like steering with a fuzzy Persian cat in each hand.
BMW's psychological manipulations extend to the exterior as well. There are special body elements borrowed from the M-cars, including a lower, more aggressive front spoiler, side skirts and rear diffuser. A discreet spoiler at rear gives the trunk lid a jaunty flip. Gray "anthracite" accents surround the headlamps and fog lights, conveying a moody, dark-eyeshadow sort of effect.
Most dramatically of all are the double-spoke 18-inch wheels, shod with wide 40-profile tires up front and an even wider 35-profile pair at rear. This no-nonsense quantity of rubber is meant to complement BMW's no-nonsense approach to handling. Perhaps more than any other aspect of a BMW's personality, its road feel is unique in the world; and the 330i Performance is a worthy exemplar. Cornering is flat and aggressive. The sedan remains confidently balanced in tight turns, communicating all manner of sensory cues through the steering wheel. Rear-wheel drive allows subtle mid-course corrections of both steering angle and power.
With its performance package, the 330i wears firmer springs and stiffer shock absorbers; but it is one BMW's particular attractions that ride comfort overall remains pleasant and not in the least bit harsh. It is, one must admit, firm; but it is yielding, too, when the car encounters bumps and road imperfections.
Herein lies the analytical secret of BMW's 330i Performance sedan. The car is nothing if not firm in all of the impressions that it makes. Exterior styling is firm, verging upon severe. Interior appointments are firmly practical; even the seat cushions and bolsters are crisply firm. Instruments and controls are studiously efficient: all four windows use one-touch switches for both up and down functions, for example. And if you can't figure out how to program the on-board information center, it's certainly not the fault of its efficient, Teutonic design.
All of which is meant to suggest that there is a personality to a BMW — and to this 330i Performance sedan in particular — that exudes firmness of resolve and certainty of purpose. It is a sports sedan. It is not a commuter car. It is not even much of a people mover, despite its five-passenger layout, since the rear seats are cramped and the 10.7 cubic-foot trunk is tiny. People with a problem relating to authority figures are likely to find themselves occasionally at odds with the unyielding temperament of BMW's 330i Performance sedan. Those, on the other hand, who play well with others, particularly those who crave an authoritative mentor to help them get ahead in the world, will find much to learn from and to enjoy behind the wheel of BMW's stunning hot-rod of a 3-Series sedan.
2004 BMW 330i
Base price: $34,800; $40,095 as tested
Engine: 3.0-liter in-line six, 235 hp/222 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 176.8 x 70.1 x 54.0
Wheelbase: 100.0 in
Curb weight: 3285 lb
EPA fuel economy (city/hwy): 21/30 mpg
Safety equipment: Front airbags, anti-lock brakes, electronic brake force distribution
Major standard equipment: A/C, power windows, rain-sensing wipers
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles