The BMW 3 Series is a timeless machine and the most familiar automobile in BMW’s lineup. A compact, fun-to-drive sedan that was originally a coupe helped save BMW at the time and aided to bring BMW into the mainstream US automotive market. As the base version of the BMW 3 Series, is the BMW 330i fast enough for most buyers, or do you need to spend a little more?
The 3 Series started its journey in 1975 as a replacement for the legendary but now aging BMW 02 Series. Ever since, it has served as the entry-level luxury model for BMW, effortlessly combining luxury and sportiness.
Now in its seventh generation, it has remained true to its roots but has evolved significantly over time. This evolution was necessary for it to stay competitive, but the 3 Series has remained far more than just competitive, and the BMW 330i is a bit of a well-kept secret at the moment.
The current generation is offered in a variety of powertrain combinations, including the base turbo four-cylinder in the 2023 BMW 330i, a plug-in-hybrid combining the 330i’s engine with an electric motor in the 330e, and the turbo inline-six in the top dog M340i.
All of them are perfectly refined and can be paired with all-wheel drive. For this article, we will be evaluating the base BMW 330i to see if it’s worth buying.
We will take a look at its over 45-year history, involving the past six generations, to see if the base four-cylinder BMW 330i has matured enough to be enough for most buyers.
BMW 3 Series first generation, 1975
The first generation can be credited with setting the path for generations to come. Many traditions that the 3 Series still follows were started from this. The signature short overhangs, the double-kidney grille, a “Hoffmeister Kink” at the base of the C-pillar, twin headlights, and a center control stack angled at the driver, are still an essential part of every 3 Series.
The first generation was only offered in 320i trim in the US. It used a four-cylinder engine with a 2.0-liter capacity, which was later downsized to 1.8 liters. The top-of-the-line six-cylinder was not offered in the US due to emission regulations.
The four-cylinder produced power of 125 hp with acceleration times of 100 km/h (62 mph) in 10.5 seconds and a top speed of 180 km/h (112 mph). The first generation used sophisticated suspensions all around and powerful engines. Combined with its light curb weight, it delivered the best sports driving pleasure at the time. It was fast and comfortable and still possesses this characteristic.
BMW 3 Series second generation, 1982
The second generation was introduced in 1982, continuing the success of its predecessor. The inline-six was also offered in the US, as well as all-wheel drive in the top trim. The range was expanded to appeal to a wider audience. The power figures of four-cylinder engines saw a substantial increase, and with the introduction of the inline-six engine, the 3 Series transformed into a true luxury sports vehicle.
The 325i brought increased performance in 1987, and a host of small improvements continued to update the E30 3 Series until it was discontinued after the 1992 model year.
This was also the first time a dedicated performance version, the infamous M3, was spawned. Using an inline-four engine, the first-generation M3 served up 192 hp in its debut form, later dialing that up to 212 hp.
The 3 Series turned into a driver’s car with its various trim levels offering increased performance. It was still a luxury car and a great commuter.
BMW 3 Series third generation, 1990
Introduced in 1990, while the previous generation was still in production, the 3 Series didn’t arrive in the US until 1993. The 3 Series transitioned to modern design with the debut of this generation. It was a market success by now, and every engine version offered plenty of performance along with luxury and handling to match.
A new hatchback model was briefly added to the lineup, only offered with the base four-cylinder engine. The rest of the range included sedan, coupe, and convertible models.
The engine output ranged from 114 hp from the four-cylinder in base form to 240 hp from the six-cylinder in M3 form. At the time, the base four-cylinder gave enough performance to rival its competitors, which have also grown over time.
The suspensions were thoroughly upgraded to ensure stability, comfort, and performance. The rear suspension was upgraded to a much better multi-link suspension setup, although no all-wheel drive version was available.
This generation cemented the 3 Series’ status as a sport driving machine, offering performance right out of the box. It was so good that it made it to the Car and Driver magazine’s 10 best lists for every year it was on sale.
BMW 3 Series fourth generation, 1997
The fourth-generation E46 3 Series was a major improvement inside and out. Offered in the US in 1999 as the 2000 model year, it grew substantially in size when compared to the original and had a rounder appearance and smoother body lines. The chassis was reworked, and the car was better integrated with the electronics.
The four-cylinder engine was completely dropped from the lineup in the US market, and only the inline-six was available. While still being offered with rear-wheel drive by default, the all-wheel drive also returned to the 3 Series. The M3 was expanded to include a CSL model with an increased power output of 355 hp and better handling.
With better electronics and hardware, the 3 Series remained true to its roots. The E46 was the first 3 Series to be offered with an engine using Valvetronic (variable valve lift). It once again proved that the BMW 3 Series was an industry standard. It was the bestselling 3-series to date, with over 3 million of them built globally.
BMW 3 Series fifth generation, 2005
The fifth generation was the last generation to be offered with naturally aspirated engines and the first one to use different internal designations for different body forms. The hatchback/compact was spawned into the 1 Series lineup.
The engines and powertrain were again upgraded over the last generation. The 2006 E90 arrived with a 3.0-liter naturally aspirated N52 inline-six engine in two states of tune–215 hp/185 lb-ft in the 325 models and 255 hp/220 lb-ft in the 330 models. There was also a 335 model that had a 300 hp N54 twin-turbocharged inline-six. It was later upgraded to 330 hp in the 335is for the 2011 model year.
The fifth generation M3 was the only M3 to come with a naturally aspirated V8. The sweet engine worked in harmony with the sweet chassis and suspension to deliver exhilarating driving.
These new engines encountered some reliability issues over time, but that was largely due to using more advanced technologies. For better or worse, the E90 fifth generation was larger, roomier, and more technologically advanced. But one thing was not compromised, and that was its performance. It remained a driver’s car with whatever engine it came with.
2011 Sixth Generation
BMW dropped naturally aspirated engines, and the sixth generation became the first one to be offered only with forced induction turbocharging. The four-cylinder also returned to the lineup as the base engine, providing decent performance and fuel economy. The coupé and convertible models were spun off to create the new BMW 4 Series nameplate, making this generation 4-door only.
The 328i was the initial base offering in 2012 and came with the N20 2.0-liter Turbocharged Inline-Four tuned to provide 240 hp and 255 lb-ft of torque. For 2013, the 320i arrived as the base trim level, with the same engine as the 328i but a lower output of 181 hp.
The M3 saw the biggest improvement, with a power output of 425 hp, it was more powerful than before. The M3 Competition further raised the bar to 444 hp.
This generation was lighter, more aerodynamic, and, combined with perfectly powered engines and handling, they were still great to drive. But with electric power steering replacing hydraulic, the 3 Series lost its steering feedback. For generations to come, it would be the only flaw in the 3 Series.
Current (Seventh) Generation
Today, the base 330i still uses a four-pot mill as a standard engine, with standard rear-wheel drive. The only thing which I will consider a shortcoming is that there is no manual offered this time around. But the eight-speed automatic is exceptionally good at performing its job.
The B48 engine of the 2023 BMW 330i produces 255 hp of power and 295 lb-ft of torque. All-wheel drive is optional, and so are several suspension setups, aimed at making the already engaging car more drive-worthy. These, and several other options, enable you to tailor your BMW to your specific tastes.
The engine is perky, having lots of low-end torque, and the transition from comfortable to sporty mode is instant. The car doesn’t feel bothered and all the driver inputs are translated well on the road. The chassis and suspension work together, resulting in a compliant ride and steady corners. An assortment of packages can be added to help magnify these experiences, namely the Track Handling Package and the M Sport Pack.
The only thing this car lacks is proper steering feedback. Nevertheless, the car is still the epitome of driving pleasure in its segment. It does not, in any way, seem underpowered or unathletic.
The current generation is also still offered in M3 form. If your need for speed seeks it, you can always go up the trim levels to the enthusiast-famous M3, which has a beast of an engine to fulfill your power craving and a communicating chassis, making it equally capable on the track. Its performance outclasses its rivals, and it is still the most entertaining-to-drive car in the segment, outshining the Alfa Romeo Giulia.
Is the BMW 330i fast enough?
In conclusion, keeping in view the current situation of everyday driving, the BMW 3 Series in 330i form is enough for most buyers, whatever they expect from it. It’s speedy enough to reach highway speeds effortlessly, perform sporty and adrenaline-inducing maneuvers, and return decent mileage, all while providing great luxury and creature comforts.
It manages to do what only a handful of cars can do. Furthermore, you can always spec your car according to your desires and it will not disappoint.
Sure, the roads are congested, so you would rarely find a chance to fully explore its impressive powertrain, but the rest of the vehicle is similarly exciting to explore and nothing short of excellent. Even at lower speeds, the BMW 330i is more than just enjoyable to drive.
The BMW 330i is a car that wants to be driven and provides all the necessary feedback you expect from an ultimate driving machine. The car talks to you and involves you in the process. This engagement is lacking in many modern cars, but it’s still a vital element for almost anything BMW produces.
This level of engagement would usually demand the availability of a manual transmission, but modern tastes and preferences mean that’s something you can’t have anymore.
The BMW 330i is well received by automotive enthusiasts and critics alike and is regarded as a benchmark in its segment. It remains ahead of its competition thanks to its well-rounded nature and sporty soul.
The 3 Series has something for everyone and depending on what you want to configure it to do, it will deliver whole-heartedly. It doesn’t matter if you want to be carving the corners on a backroad, blasting down the interstate, or arriving refreshed and buttoned up for a swanky party. The new BMW 3 Series 330i manages to deliver on every occasion.
Of course, there are more powerful and more thrilling models in the 3 Series. But if you’re stretching your budget and you can’t afford a higher specification than the BMW 330i, I can promise that you won’t be disappointed.
This is one of those very rare cars where terms like “base model” and “entry-level” are almost laughable when you get to know it. Is the BMW 330i fast enough for most buyers? You bet it is.