Please give a warm welcome to Nick and his Rental Review, sent to me on November 17, 2020 but just published now! I’m sitting on a backlog of great contributions that will be trickling out in the month to come. If you’d like to see your name in here, let me know — jb
Making good on a promise to my youngest son, I picked up a Melbourne Red 2020 BMW 330i (G20) with a Premium Pack from Enterprise, upgrading from a full-size using points accumulated from a few 15-passenger van rentals and a little work travel. The plan – cannonball 1,100 miles to and from Northeast Indiana to Statesville, NC and back in a weekend for some mining, creeking, and fluming.
With my BMW experience limited to driving a friend’s dad’s E36 330i 6MT and a racing teammates’ 228i M-Sport 6MT, I went into this with an open mind and hoped for an improvement over the CVT Fusion Hybrid or Malibu in the full-size area, and the Chrysler 300 in the PXAR zone.
I made the wrong choice.
The 330i beats the hybrid Fusion and matches the real-world fuel burn of the Malibu, generates plenty of shove from the 2.0T/8-speed combo, but rides poorly, lacks Corolla-level radar cruise and lane-keeping assistance, and the hideously uncomfortable base seats will make you look for ways to exchange it for something else on a long trip.
Initial impressions of the BMW’s interior created a good impression, if your view of ‘luxury’ consists of ephemeral pixel counts and refresh rates. The “Live Cockpit Professional” digi-gages and big-ass high-res center stack screen clearly display information in bright sunlight. Wireless CarPlay quickly and easily paired with my phone, rendering the confusing BMW menus moot.
The dial knob reminded me of a worse version of the Mazda rotary controller, but at least BMW lets you touch the screen while underway. You’ll have to hack your Mazda to allow that.
The speedo and backwards-running tach (possibly a metaphor for BMW’s iX ad campaign), however, can’t be seen in my preferred driving position. Much like a Charger, a speedo repeater in the center left of the display makes it easy to keep an eye on velocity. The tach side of the dash displays horsepower, torque, fuel economy, and a few other bits of information.
Buttons for the three drive modes – Sport, Comfort, and Eco Pro – positioned next to the shifter, alter throttle, transmission, and steering response on command. Eco Pro turns the instrument cluster a refreshing blue, but retards the throttle to the point of it being an on-off button – no forward motion unless you smash it through the downshift detent.
Under way, it is immediately apparent this ‘compact’ sport sedan weighs as much as a Charger (3800lbs vs 3900 lbs in base-ish trim). Other autowriters hail the G20 as return to form for the 3-series from the F30.
Never having spent any time in a F30 BMW, I can only assume it was a Panther-platform derivative given how the base G20 felt on the road.
BMW attempts to mask the weight with a low-compliance suspension, and it did turn in crisply on low-profile Contis on the way home to load up.
The 2.0T, however, sounded as bad as the 2.0 Atkinson cycle MZR 4-pot lashed to an unhappy CVT in the Fusion Hybrid I rented in February to head to Barber Motorsports Park in the ‘before times’.
While the BMW had plenty of shove across its range and freely revved to redline, excess power doesn’t matter on long highway trips, particularly when about a third of the drive is across heavily-patrolled Ohio.
Only on I-77 did I utilize the turbocharger. Gaps to pass on the way up were few and far between. Lag-free turbo torque allowed rapid acceleration to advance up the Appalachians. This is a strong engine that flies in the 228i and is all you’ll ever need in a G20 platform 3-series.
Brakes, when needed, were more than adequate, but lacked feel and were very grabby. I’ll chalk some of that up to 27,000 hard rental miles. In any event, they were not as good as the C4 Corvette setup found on a certain Pontiac Transport I used to race.
Regardless, I’d gladly trade the surplus ponies for the Fusion’s highway ride, and would have paid double to be able to switch to the Chrysler 300.
About the time I started ascending I-77, my son pointed out the lack of legroom in the back. I had him behind the driver, thinking there’d be plenty of room in a car with a wheelbase longer than a standard-size E32 7-series.
There wasn’t. At a stop in West Virginia, I moved his booster behind the passenger seat and shoved the front seat forward to make more room, ending the complaining, but clarifying the 330i is far from space-efficient.
This also was the time the seat discomfort became unsolvable. The non-M Sport seats are garbage – hard with ridiculous lumbar adjustment, and just impossible to find a good seating position. The 228i M-Sport I’d driven had substantially better seats.
Being mainly an Audible and podcast junkie, I’m not qualified to opine on the stereo other than to say it was fine. Road noise is present, but wind noise isn’t. Overall, the cabin almost reaches the level of quietness my similarly-priced F-150 does with none of the extra room.
Over the summer, I drove the same route in a 106hp 6MT Yaris iA badged Mazda 2 to Charlotte Motor Speedway, where I raced against a number of E30s and E36s.
The little Mazda, at a lean 2300lbs, does a much better job at channeling the BMWs racers love than the current 3-series. Its Euro ND Miata 1.5 Skyactiv quickly revs, the seats are all-day comfortable, and it rides substantially better, although crosswinds push it around much more than the, uh, road-hugging Bimmer. No question, it is louder and the lack of a center armrest is annoying, but it’s a far more rewarding thing to drive in every situation than the lease-special status symbol BMW.
The BMW’s strong point came at the pumps. I went from a Pilot Travel Center in Wytheville, VA to my house – 468 miles – nonstop at a reported 39mpg (a lot of time on US 35 in Ohio helped raise it) and the trip computer said I could go another 80 miles before running out of gas.
While my son was fine after some seat rearranging, I regretted upgrading to the Ultimate Driving Machine. I’d have been far better served with a full-size rental spec lowercase ‘c’ car, let alone a Chrysler 300.
Supposedly, I’m in BMW’s target demographic. The G20 330i left me with spinal pain and a strong desire to never consider a BMW for anything. I returned it full of self-satisfaction about my choice to stock my driveway with a resale friendly F-150 and cheap and cheerful Yaris iA.