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BMW 330i with Performance Package - Road Test

 

During the early days of the E36 3-series production run (1992- 99), a BMW product planner came up with a radical idea. Returning from a Lamaze class with his wife, and contemplating impending parenthood, he said, "Perhaps we need a four-door model in the M3 lineup."

Radical, yes, but the concept found favor with top management, and the first-ever four-door M3 joined the lineup for the '97 model year. In the U.S., at least, the experiment was a success. Even though the four-door E36 went out of production in May 1998 to make room for the new E46 3-series sedans, 7760 were sold in 1997 and '98, accounting for more than 46 percent of M3 sales in the U.S. for those two years.

With that kind of track record, you might have expected to see a four-door M3 in the new body style. Nein. Owing to the need for extensive body revisions (read "fenders") to accommodate the M wheels and tires, BMW balked. Unlike the E36, the E46 four-door shares very little sheetmetal with the coupe and convertible. Since the U.S. was the only market with strong four-door M3 sales, the business case didn't add up. If you wanted M3 performance but you needed four portals, you were out of luck.

That's still true, but for about four grand, you can be a little less out of luck than before. That's the price of BMW's new Performance package, a collection of cosmetic and mechanical upgrades that make a 330i four-door quicker and slicker.

Cosmetic elements include a so-called aerodynamic package (deeper air-dam and rocker-panel extensions), Alcantara faux-suede seats and steering-wheel cover, black-anodized interior aluminum trim, and gauges with red needles. Reduced to verbiage, it sounds a little glitzy, but BMW's execution is subdued and tasteful.

In any case, it's the go-faster bits that set this enhanced Bimmer apart from the rest of the 330i establishment. The list includes reprogrammed engine management, hotter cams, a six-speed manual gearbox (a first for a non-M 3-series BMW), and a shorter final-drive ratio—3.07:1 versus the 2.93:1 rear end used in the base 330i with manual transmission.

The suspension components are a smidge stiffer than the setup in the base 330i, and the Performance package gets an 18-inch wheel-and-tire combo versus 17-inch wheels on the standard version. The package also substitutes Michelin Pilot Sport tires for the Continental ContiSportContacts that come in the Sport package, with a slightly lower profile and slightly bigger rear footprints: 225/40ZR-18 front and 255/35ZR-18 rear compared with the Sport's 225/45ZR-17 front and 245/40ZR-17 rear.

The engine tweaks don't add up to much—the redline goes up 300 rpm to 6800, peak horsepower goes up 10 to 235, and torque goes up eight pound-feet to 222. But a little more thrust and shorter gearing do pay off at the track. Our Performance-package 330i sprinted to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds and covered the quarter-mile in 14.3 seconds at 97 mph.

The quickest 330i test times we've recorded prior to exercising this enhanced edition came in our first instrumented encounter with the 3.0-liter 3-series back in December 2000: 0 to 60 in 6.1 seconds, the quarter in 14.8 at 95 mph. More contact patch pays off on the skidpad, where the Performance-package Bimmer pulled 0.86 g (compared with 0.83 in '00), and also in braking—158 feet from 70 mph versus 168.

On the subjective front, firmer suspension tuning, lower-profile tires, and reduced (by 0.6 inch) ride height add up to responses that are quicker than the base 330i's. The distinction isn't vast—a little less body roll, a little more enthusiasm in brisk direction changes—but it's noticeable. And the tuners have managed to achieve this without any real sacrifice in comfort. None of your hard-edged M3 ride here.

Of course, there's none of your hard-edged M3 go power, either. The last M3 we put through its paces ("Compact Adrenaline Delivery Systems," May 2003) hustled to 60 in 4.8 seconds and covered the quarter in 13.6 seconds at 105 mph—pretty much what you'd expect from 333 horsepower.

Obviously, you don't get that with the Performance package. But you do get a nice uptick in all-around performance, with virtually no sacrifice in comfort, and of course four doors, for about seven grand less than you'd have to pony up for an M3 coupe. That's a pretty good start on a college fund for the new baby. —Tony Swan

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