Germany is a land of contradictions. On the one hand, Germany produced Beethoven and Bach. On the other, the Germans hold an annual David Hasselhoff music festival. They make some of the world's best beer and chocolate, but they're proud of such regional fare as sauerbraten (boiled sour meat). So it was no surprise that in the land of the unlimited-speed autobahn, we were about to be arrested...for speeding.
The vehicle we were apprehended in was not a pulse-pounding exotic or a low-slung roadster, but one of the most insipid German cars we could think of: a BMW 3-Series. This car, too, is a study in contradictions. It is capable of ferrying four passengers (or five if three small people sit in the back) in comfort, yet it has the power and reflexes of a sports car.
The BMW 3-Series we were driving was the latest in a 40-year string of successful sports sedans. It is a facelift of the model that debuted in 2005. After seeing the world's biggest BMW grille at the Munich airport and driving past the Klaatu-has-landed Allianz stadium, we were whisked to the BMW Welt, the company's flagship "customer interface building." It is a massive structure, more like a theme park than a car showroom.
There, the new 3 was introduced. Its looks are subtly updated, with new head- and taillights. The front light units look wider and are reshaped slightly. The turn indicators are now LED-type, while the rims of the dual circular headlights serve as daytime running lights. The reshaped, all-red taillights make for a much prettier backside.
The interior has also been altered, although it would take a current owner or a trained salesman to spot and explain the minor differences. The improvement to the iDrive controller that debuted on the 7-series also makes its way here. It's much more intuitive and there's less chance of fumbling about the menu just to change the radio station or check the mileage.
This being a BMW, there was no way they'd leave the already-excellent engines alone. Debuting in the facelifted sedan is the chest-thumping, twin-turbo in-line-six, previously available only in the coupe. This engine packs 306hp and 400nm worth of brawn. That afternoon, however, we sampled something arguably better--the diesel version, the 330d.
The 330d has an in-line-six diesel engine with a long list of technical innovations: aluminum crankcase; third-generation common-rail fuel system with piezo injectors; variable geometry turbo; Euro-5 emissions. We needed to know only two figures: 245hp and 520Nm. This engine uses ceramic spark plugs for smoother running and reduced emissions during startup. It certainly fires up in a quiet, near-vibration-less sequence. Wind it up and a gravelly straight-six soundtrack burbles out of the twin tailpipes.
Our car was equipped with a six-speed manual transmission. The lever throws are on the long side, but the action is precise and the clutch is easy to modulate. With that much torque starting at just off-idle, the 330d is always eager to spring forward with every jab of the throttle. We soon discovered a third relevant 330d statistic: 0-100kph in 6.1 seconds. The 330d makes quick work of darting forward to pass traffic on two-lane roads. Flooring the throttle has a similar effect to lighting up the Batmobile's rocket booster.
Also accompanying the improved iDrive interface is the superb new navigation system. Map data is stored in a hard drive--where music files can also be saved--for faster access. For our purposes, the navigation helped us scan the surrounding areas for squiggly lines--twisty roads on which to stretch the 3's legs a little.
After filling up with schnitzel and apple strudel (we were apparently near the Austrian border), we opened up the 330d. Insane speeds on narrow mountain passes followed. The 3's stiff chassis and robust suspension give the driver utmost confidence in his abilities, no matter how undeserved it may be. The 3-Series retains its signature trait: telegraphic steering that tells a driver through fingertips and palms precisely what the front wheels are up to, and how much grip is left before it lets go.
Germany's billiard-table-smooth highways posed no comfort problems for the 3's standard run-flat tires. But even when we drove through stone-paved narrow roads, the suspension would serve up subtle bumps and nothing more.
When the road itself contracted to just a dirt track, we turned 180 degrees (in a safe, non-Russ-Swift-like maneuver) to head back to Munich. Another blitzkrieg followed, which turned out to be a mistake. We whizzed by a Polizei van at triple-digit speeds in what turned out to be a 40kph zone. The cops flashed their headlamps as a warning.
The dutiful reporters that we were, we later stopped to take some pretty photos overlooking mountains and cable cars. This was where the police caught up with us. Maybe they suspected we'd just held up a grocery store and made off with all the weissbier. After ascertaining that my Singaporean counterpart and I could sprachen English, the policewoman asked if the 330d was our car. "Is it from Hertz? Sixt?" She suspected it was a rental; that's how unassuming this vehicle is.
"Er, no. We are driving this for a magazine. You know Top Gear? Clarkson?" I realized too late that this might not help, especially if she'd seen the episode in which Jeremy set fire to the German flag. I began to imagine what the inside of the police van looked like and how it would feel to be handcuffed and punished by the Fräulein. Is there a German version of COPS? Thankfully, she just inspected our passports, ran them through the police computer, and let us off with an encouragement to "enjoy the rest of your stay in Germany."
We kept an eye on the speedo all the way back. We still attempted to reach the 250kph speed governor, but only on the relevant sections of the autobahn. The 330d is capable of sustaining speeds of 230kph all day, the diesel variant stretching its range considerably versus the gasoline version. It's about 60 percent more fuel-efficient than the 335i. It's at its best just below 200kph; any faster and the steering begins to feel darty.
The 330d has such a deep reserve of capability that it's easy to take a mountain road and revel in its responsive handling, or whip it up to the limiter while enjoying its inherent stability.
The 330d feels enthusiastic at any speed. A slow, law-abiding drive back to the BMW head-quarters would be just fine.
Source: Top Gear Philippines, June 2009
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