I had a chance to drive a 330ci for a weekend in early 2004. At first I was afraid of driving a rear wheel drive BMW in the winter, especially after just hopping out of my Audi Quattro winter car. Thoughts like, “You can’t drive that in the snow” is what I was thinking while walking up using the keyless remote to unlock the doors. I am sure that sentence is something many BMW drivers in the northern states have probably had thrown at them at least once. For me that comment also brings up a list of questions such as;
1. Are the people saying that correct in their thinking?
2. Is there some strange celestial force that helps BMW drivers control their cars even during dangerous weather?
3. Does the average BMW driver have godlike driving skills when compared to your average Malibu driver?
Perhaps BMW drivers are actually better then the rest of the population. After some time behind the wheel of a 2002 330ci in both Minnesota and Illinois, I have some personal insight on this theory.
Formerly working at a car dealership, having the types of friends I do, and being a freelance journalist has given me the ability to drive 100s of cars in my relatively short lifetime. Even with that amount of drivers’ seats behind me, I had yet to drive a BMW in the winter long enough for me to really get to know the vehicle.
Doing research on BMW, and talking to the owner, I learned a great deal about the current offerings from BMW. When most of the general population think of BMWs they think RWD (Rear Wheel Drive), and when you combine RWD with snow, memories of old Ford LTDs, and Chrysler Fifth Avenues spinning into the ditch may cross their minds. What many BMW outsiders don’t understand is how little those sleds can compare with current BMWs.
The only thing they have in common with a BMW is the fact that they have front mounted engines powering the Rear wheels. Unlike the RWD American cars of the past, Mostly all current BMW sedans and coupes offer a near 50/50 weight distribution. The BMW models themselves are also much lighter then your average LTD, 5th avenue, or even Caprice. This combination of light weight and balance makes BMWs less like a 4000 pound lawn dart, and more like a well balanced race car. Anyone that has walked on ice knows how important balance is to ensuring you don’t fall on your assets when you least expect it. Just like walking on ice, proper weight distribution can help greatly in maintaining balance and control during any kind of driving, especially in winter.
Newer BMWs also benefit from the assistance of DSC (Dynamic Stability Control) when driving on slippery winter surfaces. It is more then just traction control, as it also helps stabilize the car in the direction “you” want it to go when nature throws a curveball in your plans. DSC will utilize the corner braking, and ABS systems to help align the car with the direction the wheels are pointed. On top of the braking system, throttle will be controlled, meaning it will reduce power delivery in hopes of regaining vehicle control. The 2002 330ci I drove had 3 DSC modes to choose from.
1 ON. Standard setting, gives the car more control of what it is doing. Sometimes annoying when you wanted to blip the throttle to get the rear end to slide out a bit for more turn-in during slow maneuvers.
2 OFF. Lets you go more nuts, you can get the car to swing the back end out a bit more for those tight turns, but the computer can still step in if it feels that you have gone over your limits.
3 REALLY OFF. Push and hold the DSC button until the indicator on the instrument cluster turns on. Only use this mode if you are absolutely sure what you are doing, because if you go too far and have lost control, the car will not do anything to help itself or you.
I tended to keep the 330 on setting #2 as I like to think of myself as an educated driver, but not perfect. I didn’t dare use setting #3 as I didn’t want to hit any trees or curbs and have to explain what happened to the beautiful 330 to it’s owner. DSC turned out to be fun to play with, though driving up steep hills with it partly off was a bit freaky at first, especially when the rear decided to take a large step to the left. After that incident I figured having fun wasn’t worth replacing a wheel or worse, DSC was “Full On” after that moment.
The hardest part for me coming from an Audi and VW was getting used to the throttle on a BMW. Biggest change being the fact that the throttle is mounted to the floor, as opposed to floating in the air with a higher mount point. I scared the crap out of myself by doing a “mini burnout” at an intersection when I simply wanted to drive gracefully away. Needless to say my foot was in the wrong position on the throttle, and I learned my second lesson of the day to keep the heel of my foot farther forward. Getting going in deep snow or on slippery hills was the only time RWD played a big factor in my driving style, but it was never really a problem. I was impressed with the snow traction and balance, most likely due to the fact of decent weight distribution being in the rear.
If you drive any of the sporty BMW models, and live in, or want to visit some of the northern states in winter, take a good look at what tires are wrapping your stylish wheels. Most BMWs with any type of Sport package will not be equipped with good enough tires for even the lightest coating of snow or slush. That statement is especially true if you buy an M3, or M5. BMW’s Website gives you ample warning regarding the Factory M series tires not being intended for winter driving.
Even if your BMW’s sport package or M series tires have knobby enough looking tread blocks, they are NOT of the correct compound for snow or ice. All season and especially snow tires are made of compounds that help prevent the small layer of water to build up between the ice and your tire, that layer of water is actually what makes your car slide or spin. If you are after snow tires, make sure whatever tire you select has the snowflake in the mountain symbol, as it is tested and passed performance guidelines for winter driving. If you are not sure about your tires being safe enough, Visit http://www.tirerack.com/winter/tech/severe.html. The Tire Rack is a great source of winter tires, and information for your snow tire needs.
The 330Ci I was driving came with the sport package, Including Motorsport wheels, and Ultra high performance tires. The owner equipped the 330ci with Dunlop Wintersport M2s 225/45 17s, and mounted them on E36 M3 Wheels. They provided great traction in both snow and in the dry. The only time I would have wanted a more aggressive winter tire, would have been on hard packed snow or ice conditions. The M2s were a great tire for keeping the car stable at my 70mph average highway traveling speeds, and didn’t suffer from much of the tire squash that many non performance oriented snow tires do. Taking Minnesota cloverleaf exits at speeds above 45 was no problem, and didn’t even make them squawk.
The interior of the 330 was nice and quiet at all speeds, and the wonderful 6 cylinder engine was music to my ears, whenever I chose not to listen to the BMW ‘Business’ CD system. Not exactly sure what Business oriented people listen to, but it played Prodigy, and Mephysto Odyssey just fine for me. The sound enhancement “speaker” button was fun to play with, and I often cycled it on and off multiple times in one song. Some songs sounded absolutely amazing with it turned on, while others did seem to echo or sound off center. This is one of the few factory stereo systems that actually sounded like it was imaged properly from the factory. The Harman Kardon system didn’t seem to need any upgrades, and to me sounded marginally better then Audi’s Bose equipped A4 I tested.
Accidentally leaving the car in 4th gear at highway speeds with the stereo was way up was easy to do, as the engine was smooth at all RPMs. If it wasn’t for the tachometer or fuel mileage gauge positioned at strange points, I most likely would have had the car in 4th through most of Wisconsin. At any speed the 330 felt calm, with no vibrations or indications to how hard you may or, may not, be working the engine. The Inline 6 was a great engine for all speeds and conditions with predictable smooth power output. Smooth output is greatly important in slippery conditions as any spike or dip in power at critical traction points can send you spinning or sliding.
Both of my winter driven personal cars, have great heat, and “bottom burning” heated seats, fortunately so did the 330. I have never driven a car that develops good warm heat as fast as this 330 did. On the day I departed for Chicago it was -10F outside, and after just starting the car, driving out of the neighborhood, and onto the main road, this car was putting out warm heat. One thing that I don’t have is electronic climate control, as I never really understood the price or the need for it. The 330 came equipped with this system, and for the most part it worked well at keeping me comfortable.
After logging over 10 hours behind the wheel of this BMW, I found myself back to the same 3 questions above in this article. The answer to the first two is a definite NO, while the 3rd is a possible maybe. Driving a BMW in the winter is a truly entertaining and safe feeling experience. Like almost any German car, the 330 tells you what’s going on in subtle and sometimes blunt ways, and always before it is too late to do anything to correct the situation. In my opinion the BMW 330ci is a great winter car. It is no Quattro, or even BMW’s own AWD system, but it does just fine when the going gets slippery,