Comparative Review: BMW 323i (E46) vs. 325i/330i (E90)


March 2 , 2007


I recently had a variety of minor service encounters with my E46 323i (Y2K). The dealer, BMW of Austin, continues its excellent practice of free, late-model loaners. This exposes current owners to the capabilities of new models as well as variations one might never otherwise be interested in driving.

I drew a 2006 BMW 325i, E90, with 13,000 miles on it. In a later service session, for the scheduled major service inspection, I drew a similar car, with 15,000 miles on it. In a third session, I drew a 2006 330i with the low-low sports suspension package.



BMW Marketing refers to its models by YXX[z]. Y refers to the class of car (3, 5, and 7 series, corresponding to small, medium, and too-large luxury models). XX refers to the cubic capacity of the engines--sometimes. For example, the last generation of 323 was actually a 2.5 liter engine; 323 was apparently chosen since it was "further away" from 328, the 2.8 liter model. Go marketing weenies! [z] refers to the format of the car. [i] is a sedan (four doors--BMW invented the sports sedan), [is] a coupe, [Xi] 4-wheel drive sedan, etc. The cubic capacity of the engine (liter) is an indication of the relative power of the engine. The higher the cubic capacity, the more horsepower and the lower the fuel economy.

Thus, a BMW 325i is an entry-level 2.5-liter small sedan.

The core design--engine and systems--is referred to by a three-digit identifier. The current generation of 3-series cars is called the E90. The previous generation (1999+) was the E46. Before that, the E36, before that, the E30. Each core generation generally lasts 5-7 years. Each model year brings minor tweaks to the core design. This year (2007) we have the low/high versions of the 3-series being a 328 and 335.

Some marketing variants of the core model do not appear in all regions. For example, there is no BMW 318i in the United States, but there is in Europe, where short/complex roadways, tariffs and fuel prices influence a value proposition that is more important than power. And I even saw a 315i in South Africa when on a trip.

Clicking on the various pictures below will open a window with a larger version of the image.


The good:

- BMW replaced the cheap-looking plastic sunshades used in the E46, replacing them with a neat material that's also used on the top of the car. Alas, the airbags-for-complete-fucking-morons warning remains, and is inseparable from the material.

- Slightly bigger trunk, with extra storage space underneath. Note the absence of a spare. Reportedly the new cars use run-flats.

- The 325 and 330 drive well, good passing power reserves. With the low-rider package, the 330i feels friggin' GLUED to the road. The 300 hp is more apparent at cruising speeds, providing a nice passing reserve. At lower speeds, there's a bit of a rev-up lag. I suspect this is a function of the design of the automatic transmission system, which seems to aim for a low RPM target in a gear range in order to keep fuel economy low. This is just speculation.

- Nice shifter.

- Well-designed compartment in the center armrest. Much larger than the one in the E46 series, large enough to put useful things into.

The armrest compartment has a rubber shelf, cigarette adapter, and a soft drink can holder. There is an audio-in jack. The compartment is cooled from the car's air conditioning system. It's not clear whether there is insulating material in the compartment.

- Nice multifunction display on the dash. As before, it's an LED display, this time with very high resolution elements. The elements also appear to be dual color, to distinguish between cautions and warnings. Note the lack of a temperature indicator.

- The radio's a lot more sophisticated.

- Good acoustics.

- Left and right temperature control.

- I like the overall shape of the car, kind of a merging of the harder lines of the Z4.

- Interior illumination's improved.

- Interesting solution for cup holders: they pop out of the passenger's front panel (but see below)

- The Xenon headlights of the E46 are great, but the ones on this car are better. There's a lead-in system that will slightly tilt the lights in the direction of turn, so you can see what you're turning into. Long-distance illumination is also better. The E46 and E90 light up the countryside like no other car I've driven. The second loaner I got had incandescent bulbs and did not appear to have this system.

- There's a very cool external door handle illumination system, LEDs that shine underneath the handles to show the handle position.

- The interior door handle on the driver's side is a subtle work of inspiration.

It's integrated into the left armrest, but instead of just being a pocket like most cars, it's sculpted to provide a real hand-hold for a human hand.

- The third loaner, with the über sports package, had a nice fat steering wheel, which felt great.

- The gas hatch is now tied in to the security system. It has a lock which is controlled by the remote. It has a weird logic mode where it can't be unlocked/locked with the driver's door open though.





- The coolant system is now only accessible through the reservoir, and has a nice big plastic cap.

- Rear A/C control!


The not so good/weird:

- I long ago got bored with the Steptronic concept: a manual gearbox it is not. It's fun to play with automatic downshifting, but for normal driving, there are so many overrev protections it's just easier driving the car in its automatic transmission mode. WHICH is better than any other automatic transmission out there, just a weak replacement for BMW's own manual gearboxes.

- The second car appeared to have BMW's faux leather. It feels great, and looks great, but my regular passenger and I noticed that it didn't breath like leather. As the first blast of warm weather hit Austin, we found we were sweaty on the seat side.

- The traditional switches on the center pedestal have moved to the dash and to the left-hand armrest. From a design perspective, this makes the car seem generic. I predict the next great BMW design innovation will be a bench front seat.

- The master unlock has gone to the dash, which is fine, but there should be a button on the driver's armrest too.

- The instrument panel retains the cheap "bling"-ey chrome circles around the instruments introduced on the 2001 model. This adds to instrument clutter and is visually unappealing. I understand some people like bling. Some people even like white-faced instruments. Why not make it a customer-specified option?

- No spare tire. They've provided run-flats instead, ostensibly to provide a slightly larger trunk.

- When I was a lad, I used to like large instruments, such as on Volvos. But when I got my first uh, *BMW*, I grew to appreciate smaller instruments. Smaller instruments mean you get more visual information out of a glance. That's good in a high-performance, driver-oriented car. I was thinking that they're big for peripheral vision, which might work for daytime driving. But at nighttime you lose that.

- The trunk remote works differently than on my car. You have to hold down the trunk button to unlock it. Not sure why.

- There was a compass on one car's rear mirror, split up into 8 ordinal directions (NE, N, etc). I am not 100% sure why car manufacturers think the compass belongs on the rear-view mirror. It seems counter-intuitive. Oh, yeah, for the kids in the back. The compass should be in fine print on the driver's console in degrees.

- The pop-out cup holders on the passenger side look useful, but the one apparently designed for the driver is too close to the radio and hangs over the shifter area. Spills are likely.

There's also a weird wedge-shaped thing behind the shifter which I guess could be used to jam cups of varying sizes into, but with flat surfaces, and a penchant for using styrofoam cups, a spill disaster or two is definitely in the future.


The bad:

- On the E46 sports control wheel, the radio controls were both on the left side of the wheel.





There were four buttons, two for volume, and two for selecting the station. This was a great design. On the E90, the station select buttons are on the opposite side. In general, this contributes to the feeling of the driver controls being a bit haphazard, ignoring the experience of the past.

- It is absolutely incomprehensible, but BMW, the driver's driver brand, is marginalizing the driver focus of the cockpit. This is what attracted me to the brand originally: the center console in the E36 was tilted at a pretty sharp angle. In the E46 series, they shallowed it out a bit. When the new 5 series came out, the tilt was gone, thus removing the 5 from my shopping list. I was hoping they'd spare the "family sedan" effect on the 3. But no. Now, the dash looks like it belongs in a generic airport rental car. What's next, back seat TV in the M3?

- The ignition system involves a fob (a digital key kind of resembling a Star Trek hand phaser) and a pushbutton.



Insert the fob. press the button, and you start the car. You can remove the fob, but if you do so without pressing on it first, the car will beep at you.

No Fob


Fob Inserted


Pressing the fob before removing it apparently locks the steering column. Removing the fob in Drive, the car beeps at you.

You can't start the car without being seated in the driver's seat.

Trends in the auto industry are great and all, but man, let's get a grip. Too many modes. This is just a poor functional design (on the other hand, as GOOD design, the fob itself separates into a key and fob, presumably for a fob battery-failure situation to allow one entry into the car).

- One also wonders what the design objective of the fob is. Is it to simply facilitate a retro push-button effect? The only functional benefit I can see is that you can leave the car running and depart it with the fob, thus allowing for remote control of the car's security features. That's an odd idea in an era with a great deal of concern about CO2 emissions.

- The turn lever uses a "soft switch." Traditional turn levers latch, then use reverse motion of the wheel to unlatch. If you want to unlatch manually, you just tap the lever. With the soft switches, you basically have five switch positions: way up, up, down, way down, and neutral. There's a little bit of resistance between the settings. They're spring-loaded to neutral. Overall, in both the 330i and 325i, I never got used to it. Slapping it down to release it doesn't work, and manually pulling it up usually results in signalling the opposite direction to the turn, which I'm sure will end up in crashes.

- There's a weight sensor or something in the right front passenger seat. My 60-lb dog likes to sit there (and to drive), so the car will beep about no seatbelts being fastened for two or three minutes. There's no override. Very annoying.

- The utility of the side mirrors has been reduced in a manner which again is non-driver focused, more design-focused.

Instead of having square mirrors for maximum visibility, the mirror holders are shaped like teardrops (design symmetry with the tail?), so the mirror area is reduced where you least want it reduced.

- Plastics at first glance look/feel cheap. I also noticed this when using an X3 last year. BMW's long had a reputation for poor interiors, but seemed on the path to turning that around with the E46 series. The effect is most noticeable on the black rubbery naughahyde-like covering on the steering wheel and glareshield. In recent loaners, I find this less distracting. Not sure if I got used to it or if they improved the quality.

- This car beeps incessantly. It beeps if you remove the fob without pushing on it. It beeps if you remove the fob with the engine on. It beeps if you remove the fob while leaving the car in drive. It beeps if you forget to leave your seat belts on. Unlike most cars, it will not stop beeping if you ignore the seatbelt warning. Beep, beep, beep. I would suggest a master warning light with an annunciation of the offending logic state, and spare the user (I was going to say "driver" but as is clear by now the driver is anything but) the increasingly long checklist of violations to look for.

- The caution system is confusing. On the second loaner, the 15000-mile model, the car was low on both coolant and oil. The car would warn of an abnormal state with a "hazard" symbol, then show an icon when the car was shut down. The owner's pouch wasn't in the car, so I was left to wonder what the picture of a pitcher with waves under it meant. In the end, I found it meant "oil" but after calling the service department, it wasn't viewed as a serious alert. Not a red light engine warning. Googling this problem seems to indicate it's become a nuisance warning (tip for designers: icons have never been what they were cracked up to be. They're usually contrived, are culturally confusing, and have no speed-of-recognition value. When the user has to study the manual to learn the meaning of the icons, you have FAILED. Use text warnings instead).

- There is no oil dipstick. This makes user evaluation of issues such as the one I encountered with the loaner problematic. The mind reels.

- The design of the switches on the driver armrest are poor.

They are small, poorly distinguished, and very far forward (I'm 6"1) on the curve of the armrest. I find I have to lean forward to actuate the forward windows.

- Still no rear legroom.

- They dumped the clever pop-out-the-grill latch lever that was on the E46. I loved that thing. Now, the car has a fumble-under-the-hood latch release system like any other car. Very disappointing.





• The 3-Series is morphing into a relatively driver-neutral, family light sedan, but the vehicle dynamics and quality of build remain excellent.

• The E46 series was slightly anemic even at the time of release, but the series has made up the horsepower gap. The 330i is a real muscle car.

• BMW needs to minimize the number of modal aural alerts and focus the car on the driver as the primary user.

• The turn indicator lever is almost unusable.


Text and images Copyright © 2007 by Robert Dorsett. All Rights Reserved. Permission to reproduce this article for non-commercial purposes is granted, provided that this disclaimer is included. Commercial requests may be made by going to http://www.dorsett.us and using the feedback link.


The 3-Series is morphing into a relatively driver-neutral, family light sedan, but the vehicle dynamics and quality of build remain excellent.