A couple of months ago I finally managed to sample my first E90 based BMW 3 Series car, receiving a rental car spec 318d SE model in Spain. My conclusions were that it was very worthy, but that it was perhaps not the optimum model in the range. I postulated that to get something that felt really special, you probably needed to look further up the 3 series echelons. Only days later I spotted that Hertz in Germany had the 330i Convertible in their fleet, and the rental price for a weekend was pretty good value at less than £100 a day including all the insurances and taxes. It was an easy decision to book one, though when I reached the Franz Josef Strauss airport in Munich, Hertz had, for the third consecutive rental, interpreted my booking as an complimentary upgrade to a black Mercedes S Class. Luckily, when I asked, they did have a 3 series convertible available, although it turned out to be a 325 rather than the more potent 330 model. Still, with a forecast predicting one glorious sunny day (and one rather soggy one), it would have been churlish to refuse, so I headed out in an Mineral White SE model keen to see what I thought of the car.
Put the key into the slot beside the steering wheel, foot on the clutch and press the start/stop button above the key and the straight six fires into life. There is no doubt that this is a great engine, and it made a huge difference to the car compared to the rather ordinary diesel engine in the 318d that I sampled. Not quite as sonorous, perhaps, as the old “busso” engine in the V6 Alfas of yore, but the 3 litre engine in this car, which in 325i format produces 218 bhp is still an utter delight. All the words that reporters and have journalists have used to describe it, such as “creamy” and “smooth” are all true. It does not just sound good, but it also does good things and endows this car with excellent performance. Noting that this is “only” the 325 model, makes you realise that the more costly and potent relatives, 330i and 335i must be very rapid indeed. It is tractable too, so you don’t need constantly to change gear to get some acceleration out of it, though, of course, I did, simply for the joy of it, far more than once. The gear change is what I can best describe as “typical BMW”. It is not as light as you find in many cars, requiring a firm and positive movement but there is no undesired resistance encountered when you do slot the lever from any of the six forward gears to any other, just an appropriate feel to what you are doing. My test mileage was spent mainly on the autobahn, and a mix of it with the roof up and down.
I averaged 8.7 l/100 km, which translates to 32.6 mpg, which I thought was not too bad. BMW have achieved some very impressive statistics regarding the efficiency of their cars, which translate into low CO2 numbers, and one ingredient in this is that car has to be inherently economical even before all the other “tricks” are applied. Impressive though the performance is, the reason why the press still eulogise over the 3 series is for the rest of the driving experience. It starts with the chunky steering wheel which is nice to hold, and extends to steering which is superbly weighted and transmits plenty of feel so the driver knows exactly what the steered wheels are doing. Public roads are not the place to undertake the ultimate handling tests, of course, but suffice to say that I did enjoy driving this car, even in the rain, as it took all the corners and swooping curves of autobahn intersections well. The test car appeared to be fitted with the much-discussed runflats, but I did not find that they impaired the ride, which was just right for me. No issues with the brakes, which did their job just fine. A traditional pull up handbrake, located between the seats, is fitted.
Whilst the interior of that Spanish rental 318d seemed almost spartan, the inside of this car seemed far less so. Doubtless the rust brown merino leather trim helped, and also the fact that the dashboard has the extra hump in the middle to house the display unit for the satellite navigation system. That capability proved to be very useful as I had to find my hotel the other side of the city in the dark. It was easy to program, even using the once cursed iDrive, and although I never changed it to speak English, I am sure that it would have been just another mouse click away from the correct menu. Other than that, it all looked quite familiar, with a high quality black dash moulding inset with silver across the main fascia, on the centre console and on part of the door casing. The instruments are the same as in that 318d, so just two dials, for speedo and rev counter, with inset gauges for fuel level and water temperature, all very clearly marked and easy to read. No economy gauge features on this car, just a graphic suggesting a more appropriate gear if it feels that you could change up (or down). Chunky column stalks to the indicators and wipers, and the lights are operated by a rotary dial to the left of the column. The centre of the dash contains rotary dials and a series of buttons for the dual zone climate control system, below all of which are the controls for the audio unit. I confess I never tested the latter at all, but the climate control was tested by a particularly sultry evening when I arrived (it did an excellent job at cooling the cabin pretty quickly) and the following day when the temperature bordered on the level of “cold”.This was different to the 318d test car, as in that one, the audio unit was above the climate control, whereas here it was the other way around. Between the seats, you find a rotary knob for the iDrive and several fastpath buttons surrounding it. I found it all very easy to use. This occupies much of the space that in lesser models is a recessed area for oddments, as does the switch for the roof, which is a bit further back. Oddments stowage space in the cabin is quite limited, as the glove box is not very useful, and the door pockets, which are separated into a front and back element to them are also rather pokey and difficult to get stuff in and out of. There is a small, but moderately deep area under the central armrest.
Electric adjustments for the driver’s seat meant that I was readily able to find the right driving position, being able to set the seat low enough. The seat proved very comfortable. The test car was fitted with the rear wind deflector, which is quite a simple device which clips across the rear of the cabin, with an element that stays horizontal, covering the seat area and two flaps that are folded up so they are vertical. Certainly., driving the car on the autobahn with this in situ and the side windows up, but the roof down was perfectly viable, with none of the sort of buffeting that can occur which forces the roof to be erected. One advantage of having the roof lowered, over and above the access to all the lovely sunshine and fresh air is that visibility is then excellent. BMW’s all round park Assist Control was fitted, which in addition to having beeping sensors, displayed an image on the sat nav screen so you could which corner or the car was getting close to an obstacle. Good, though the parking camera in the Nissan I drove the previous weekend was clearly better still.
Like so many convertibles currently offered, the 3 series has a metal folding roof. When closed, you really do have no sensation at all that you are driving a convertible, as not only is the roof well fitting, and excellent at suppressing any potential wind and other sources of noise, but it permits a larger glass area than is more typical of cloth roof cars, so there are none of the visibility limitations that you can experience. Provided the protecting divider is in place in the boot, to open the roof, all you need to to do is to push on the button in the centre console while a complex operation takes place which ends in the roof being neatly stowed in the boot.
The downside to this is that it does take up almost the entire boot space, and what little remains – a very shallow area under the divider – is almost completely inaccessible. I was just able to squeeze in my lap top bag and a similarly sized overnight bag, provided they were laying on their side. Even with the roof up, and the divider hoisted up and out of the way, the boot is far from generous, as the central area, between the wheel arches, which is the deepest bit is neither very large, nor actually very deep. You would have to plan very carefully were you to take this car on a long trip, and want even a modicum of luggage.
Room inside the cabin is not a strong point, either. For two people, things are absolutely fine, but space in the back is very limited, with legroom varying from modest if the front seat is well forward as it was for my driving position, to almost non-existent when I had a taller passenger alongside. The rear is definitely intended only for 2, as there are separate seats, divided by a console, and a large transmission tunnel which contain air vents, a couple of covered cubbies and cup holders. The seats themselves were comfortable enough, and there is decent shoulder width, and even with the roof up, head room was not particularly limited.
As with many a premium rental car, when you go to the gather information about the spec, you discover that what you experienced was far from the basic model, and that would seem to be the case here. Standard equipment does include leather seats, a single slot CD audio unit, automated dual zone climate control, xenon lights and rear parking sensors, As well as the metallic paint finish, which is almost a sine qua non on any car these days, the interior was far from standard, with the merino leather trim a rather pricey extra £2110. Other options, I believe, included the £1550 BMW media package, folding electric mirrors, and the rear wind deflector, and the all around park distance control all of which brings the recommended retail price to a whisker under £40,000. That’s a lot in anyone’s budget, though even though there are more than a few 3 series around, residuals remain very strong, and if you compare the cost with that of the other convertible that Hertz had available, a Volvo C70, which has become a very pricey car indeed, it evens start to look more reasonable.
When I returned the car to Munich Airport, the Hertz agent told me that this is absolutely his dream car and his favourite in the fleet. He then added ruefully that of course he cannot afford it. There is no doubt that once the options list has been raided, this is not a cheap car, even though it is far from the top of the 3 series tree, but there is equally little doubt that it is a supremely competent and desirable car. Assuming you could live with the limited space for rear seat passengers and luggage (and if you could not, there’s always the Coupe model, or even the Saloon and Estate models to consider), I can see no reason why anyone who bought a 325i Convertible would be anything other delighted. So, was my hypothesis about needing to look higher than a 318d correct? I’d say it was. I very much enjoyed my weekend driving this car. Would I prefer it to its most direct rivals from Mercedes and Audi? That is harder to tell, as I have yet to drive either of their latest models.