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BMW 330D
BMW 330D - part 2
BMW 330D
BMW 330D
BMW 330D
Another exaggerated fuel economy claim

Powerful diesel provides great performance, but quiet it ain’t

A combination of annoying defects, disappointing diesel fuel economy, and crass service from the local dealer has left me wondering about the sanity of my purchase of a BMW 330d.

Low speed rattles from the diesel engine also raise doubts as to whether BMW has really tamed this technology.

The poor fuel economy – no better than a petrol-powered, six cylinder BMW 2,500 cc motor – should have been no surprise. I’ve never driven a car yet that came anywhere close to returning the inflated miles per gallon claims of the carmakers.

And in the first month the 330d had to be returned to the dealer three times.

Firstly, when an ominous looking patch of oil appeared in the road outside my house where the car had been parked. The local dealer, Chandlers of Brighton, who did not supply car, found a wrongly connected oil pipe and fixed that problem.

Next, the car began producing a horrendous rattling sound at low speeds, which at first baffled the engineers at Chandlers. A second visit managed to find the problem and the outrageous rattle, a lose bracket on the exhaust system, went away, to be replaced by the normal diesel crash bang wallop.

Chandlers eventually did a fine job fixing the problems. Their engineers were helpful and dedicated.

But their initial customer service reaction was poor. When I phoned to report the oil problem I was told, on a Monday, that Chandlers couldn’t look at the problem until Wednesday week, they couldn’t pick the car up, and if there was any extended technical problem, there was no chance of a courtesy car.

When I reported the rattle, on a Tuesday, things were a little better. Chandlers could look at the car next Monday if I brought it in, or a week on Thursday if I wanted the car to be picked up.

After a quiet word with the BMW UK’s press office, the service improved.

When I first tested a BMW 330d press fleet car last year I felt pretty smug about my headline – “Fearsomely fast, fantastically frugal” – because this apparently amazing new diesel-powered machine displayed what before had seemed like an oxymoron. It was a car with sports-car performance and, according to BMW, scrooge-like tendencies with fuel. My brief experience with the BMW press car confirmed the exciting performance, but didn’t allow for a check on the fuel economy. I believed the claims of, er, fantastic frugality.

Now I have a new 330d automatic of my own with about 4,500 miles under its belt, and I can report that indeed this car is a magnificent performer on the road, but it fails to make it in the economy stakes. The low-speed rattle from the diesel engine is also a disappointment.

BMW has now face-lifted the 3-series range, and included revised suspension settings and a more responsive steering rack. These improvements are obvious and welcome. The brakes, compared with the previous cars, also seem more powerful and responsive, although BMW doesn’t claim to have improved them.

BMW says that the 3 litre, high-technology, common rail diesel will deliver startling fuel economy, with up to 53.3 miles per gallon in the most favourable driving conditions for the manual version and up to 45.6 mpg for the automatic. Taking into account all types of driving, the manual should return around 42.2 mpg and the automatic 35.3 mpg.

My experience shows that these figures are just to good to be true. In the most favourable conditions – driving at a steady 80 mph down French motorways followed by loping along at 50 to 60 mph on French A roads – delivered 36.9 mpg at best. Now the car is delivering not quite 31 mpg in very favourable conditions.

Chandlers BMW examined the car and found nothing wrong. Things might get more economical after the first service, due at around 15,000 miles, Chandlers said.

And just in case you think that my driving style is not conducive to economy, let me tell you this. My previous car, a BMW 323i petrol engine-powered 2,500 cc six cylinder manual, returned up to 36 mpg on a similar trip across France, and about 31 mpg overall. What is the point of the diesel? And what is the point of manufacturers’ grossly inflated claims for fuel consumption, which bear no relation to the real world. Even tree-huggers’ dream cars like the hybrid petrol-electric Toyota Prius, which should do close to 60 miles per gallon – often can’t even manage 40 mpg.

You can also forget any notion that BMW has solved all the problems of diesel power. When you fire up the 330d from cold it sounds like a truck, although some of the problems I found with the earlier model have been solved. The steering wheel and dashboard don’t buzz and vibrate any more when starting from cold, but the neighbours will be peeking through their lace curtains wondering what big lorry is making all that noise. It can’t be that sleek little BMW parked across the street can it? I’m afraid it is.

With the engine idling this car is noisy. But put it into gear and move off and it soon becomes all vigour and smoothness. Not surprisingly, it is noisier than a petrol-powered equivalent like the BMW 325i and 330i but not intrusively so, once you are moving at more than about 30 mph. In fact the noise, more like a powerful growl, makes the petrol-powered cars seem a bit bland. Under hard acceleration, the engine sounds more like a V8 than a diesel.

In sports-mode the 330d automatic will give you seamless, hell-for-leather acceleration, with full power available as soon as a higher gear is engaged. This is where modern high-tech diesels have an advantage over traditional petrol engines, providing full power from about 2,000rpm up to about 4,500. The 330d reaches peak pulling power from 1,750 rpm to 3,200 rpm. Petrol powered cars often need to reach beyond 4,500 before giving full power.

The 330d’s combination of power and efficiency is down to its three litre, in-line six-cylinder diesel engine using the latest “common rail” system of diesel fuel delivery. The fuel is squeezed into the cylinders under high pressure. This produces 184bhp, compared with the 330i petrol engine’s 230bhp.

The 330d automatic will hit 62mph in 8.2 seconds, compared with 7.8 seconds for the manual, and compared with 6.5 seconds for the new 330i petrol-powered car. The diesel’s low down pulling power gives the 330d oomph where you really want it though - for safe and fast overtaking. The 50 to 75mph acceleration time is 6.9 seconds - faster than a BMW “5” series with a 3.5 litre petrol engine, and matching the 330i petrol car’s performance. BMW says the 330d will go on to reach 141mph.

The outside lane on the motorway is where the 330d comes into its own. On speed-limit-free zones like German autobahns, cruising at between 90 and 100 miles per hour in top gear, the car will leap forward eagerly when the accelerator is depressed. And this is where the car is at its most impressive. At a steady 90 miles per hour the engine is turning over at a mere 2,800 rpm, and the BMW fuel consumption gauge says 50 miles per gallon, although it would say that, wouldn’t it.

The car’s Steptronic automatic also allows clutchless manual gear changes through the five-speed gearbox and this works well, particularly when pulling off a motorway when you need a little engine braking. Push the lever to the left and a lower gear is quickly selected. Pull it back to change up and push it forward to change down. This is also useful for safe overtaking on minor roads when you can select the precise gear you want before blasting by. One annoying aspect of the Steptronic though is that if you select third gear too close to 60 mph for braking, the computer will overrule you and switch back to 4th gear.

The quality of the interior is superb. The leather seats ooze quality. The dashboard is a delight. The controls and switches are precise and sited just where they should be. The ride is wonderful, if a bit firmer than my old 323i. The uprated steering is light and prices, with all the feel you need.

And yet, I’m still not convinced. The low speed clatter of the diesel might just be acceptable if I was getting terrific fuel economy. I’m left with the nagging doubt that I really should have bought the 330i; maybe I’ll swap it for one. Or perhaps a two-year old S class Mercedes, or a one year old Porsche Boxster.

BMW 330d SE, metallic paint, leather seats, sunroof, automatic, 6 disc CD changer, wood trim - £30,255

Neil Winton, September 11, 2002

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