2003 I was so close to buying a bmw as an all purpose car. The horrid EVO7 had gone, I wasn't planning to go back to caterham ownership till maybe 2005 and what i was after was a great 4 door luxury family car that could cover all bases. The main BM that I was fixed on for months and months was the E46 M5 but in my exploratory quest I also drove two M3's, a 330ci clubsport, a regular 330ci, a 328i, a 530D, a 528i and an X5.
These are my opinions here and don't for one minute think that anyone out there is necessarily interested in what I've got to say but occasional sunday boredom does mean that I churn this sort of stuff from time to time. Whether reviews agree or disagree with your own findings it can still be interesting comparing. I for one am always interested in how people found a particular car to drive.
The first idea for me in 2003 was actually a 3 series. When I started investigating, the range topping special, the 330ci 'clubsport' had just been released (although cosmetic rather than stripped out racer as its misleading name would suggest) so I took one for a spin. If you can get over the horrendous image, the fact that every 3rd car you see in the UK is a 3 series, and approach the car for what it is then you're in for a pleasant surprise.
The 330ci is without doubt a beautifully finished car and simply oozes quality and class both inside and out. Behind the wheel all the sensations, although hugely damped and distanced, feel equally as high quality; everything has a very solid well-engineered feeling about it and I found this a constant source of pleasure. The steering is more or less completely numb but it does have some weight to it. The damping is pretty good giving a very comfortable soft ride that just has a hint of sportiness about it and the body control is adequate. The car feels stable and solid until you push it through some country lanes at which point it crumbles into mash potato land, chassis finally doing its thing around 3 weeks later than the rest of the car. But like I say, you need to approach this thing for what it is.
Not a rally car, not a "caterelisefield" drivers special, not a 911 with 4 seats... not in fact a sports or performance car. No, the 330ci is a luxury barge and that it does very very well. It floats along nicely and in supreme comfort, there's enough decent useable performance for the road and it arrives so very smoothly with a pleasing muted grumble from that sublime straight six. Inisde the 330ci the world outside appears a better place, all that teutonic cosseting quality just makes you feel real good no matter what your current mood. The 3 series is rwd of course so there is *some* fun to be had in corners but don't expect to step out laughing. Would I buy one ? Not likely ! For a start they made more than 100 of them and secondly its quite small and not really big enough in the rear or the boot to be a useable family car. Although overall I did warm to the 330 and was seduced by the interior, the overwhelming sense of quality and German prowess I was not entirely convinced by the chassis and whilst the auto was fine for a barge the quality of the manual change was just sheer horror. For me, its just not special enough at 30 odd grand... i'd sooner take 5k of Mk3 golf which will perform the tasks at hand equally as well.
Onto the M3 then. At the time I reasoned that the flagship car might have the handling and the engine to sway the space limitations. I've always loved the looks of the M car and did really want to like one so I could buy.
Hmmm, well after the Noble this car has to be one of the biggest disappointments I've ever encountered. Strangely its also another example thats had inexorable and astronomical levels of praise by the motoring press. First thing that hit me was the steering or rather the fact that there wasn't any. Turn the wheel and you're not sure if you've actually turned anything or not. Its just so light, way lighter than the 330ci .... it made me feel nauseous at the time and I could detect the onset of stomach cramps. No weight, no resistance.... just like pushing a tiny needle through a cup full of water. In fact, if you sellotaped one of your hairs onto the leather rim, I swear you could drive all day long within the congestion charge zone just pulling on the end of that stray grey hair of yours. For me steering is a deal breaker, whatever that means ? If its crap then i get out immediately. I am unable to tolerate poor steering feel in something that goes under the umbrella of performance/sports/drivers/track car. Its the primary interface, not only the biggest source of involvement but also the primary communication channel. If the car can't tell you what its doing then why bother, get a taxi and let some other poor sod do the driving instead.
What else did I not like about the M3. Well, quite a few things in fact. We'll start with the front end, the fidgety nose over bumps, bumpsteer if you like. Whether on 18 or 19" rims the M3 seemed to intrusively scrabble its nose on uneven surfaces (i.e. everywhere in the UK). Granted it was more pronounced on the 19" but as I've said so many times before, someone other than Lotus try to make a car that corners hard and flat but also rides well and copes with undulations on the straight and mid-corner and what happens ? They make a complete pigs ear of it. The M3's I drove both had a nasty cumbersome over-damped feeling up front. Too much fidget, not enough resolve.
Experiencing this though, I thought maybe we're in for a treat round corners. If the ride has been seriously compromised going along the village high street at 8mph and it'll tramline over a stray postage stamp then maybe its biased for proper hard driving ....? Well, first roundabout, engage 2nd, turn in, give it some gas, listen to the car, feel the chassis..... err, 'where's the chassis Mr. salesman' ? There is no chassis there, no tight tautness, no structure that I am aware of, no threaded line or rollercoaster track that the car is following. No honest neutral feel at all and no precision, just lots of tintop grip and the BMW just sort of sloshing and bouncing round the corner like someone flinging a stodgy old pancake across the kitchen - a vague hint of some terrible engineering accident which happened long ago, underneath you.
Nope, most cars sit in a groove, they stiffen up and as it loads you feel wired (by degrees of remoteness) to the structure below, the wheels and suspension underneath you. And when you feel that, you play, you control it with your arms, your feet, the handbrake, the NOS button or whatever else takes your fancy. The M3 was seriously disappointing in this respect and as much as I tried, even going back for a second test drive to try and discover what so many magazines had and I hadn't, it was always the same, just a remote, dull bouncy feeling, the over sprung and damped suspension completely poisoning the experience with diddly squat in the way of the awareness of wheels, of a chassis, of the cars attitude and limits of grip. Honest, there's ten times the amount of pure car in a basic 15 year old 205 Gti. Im no impreza fan by any stretch but even a scoob gives you more resolve and ineligibility.
On to the good part, that engine. Yes, I really did like the engine. The huge rev limit, the race tuned raspy growl, the endless normally aspirated linear acceleration and just generally speaking, the basic grunt as the M3 is no doubt a fast road car. But when it was all over that's all that tasted good, the car is the engine. A drivers car it aint, rather, a 3 series for those that have to have the best, a 3 series with a stonking engine in it. But in that respect the 330ci works out by far the better car; it knows what it is and doesn't pretend to be anything other. The M3 tries to step into drivers car territory and although I personally know owners who will argue the point to the death, the way I saw it is its not even close to being there. As for the asides, well I drove the manual and SMG and didn't like either much. The brakes were so so for a car with this much speed.
So the quality is there as in the 330 and the M3 looks the part but to this date I fail to see what all the fuss is about. I can see the M3 for what it is and its a fine car in many respects but mix it up with elises, caterhams, hondas, 993's, MX5's, hot hatches and any number of real top draw drivers cars and its only its engine that stops it from looking completely embarrassed.
The M5. Now here is a real car. Where the M3 fails the M5 scores maximum. First time I drove one it really put the M3 into perspective. For teh first time I discovered that BMW did indeed have the ability to create something truly stunning.
The 5 series M takes off where the M3 ends in that its a very fast cruiser with all the toys, the luxury and build quality but firstly you get a chassis that in my experience is infinitely better than the 3. Secondly you get one incredible ride quality... the earlier comment about Lotus was tongue in cheek because BMW have got the ride and suspension on this car just so well sorted. And the engine, well smooth linear non-stop NA power but more of it, more torque and just the most sensational noise. The M5 lump goes one better than the M3's.
A harsh section of dual carriageway, misaligned bumpy slabs of concrete, the M5 thunders over it with barely a hint of just how bad the road surface is. The security at high speed is big but there's also just enough softness to give that slight, wonderfully floaty, liquid feeling. Body control is simply awesome. Press the pedal and the shove starts very low down and never lets up. Of course you lose the redline factor but with shove that's this huge and thick you don't lose out. Heavy cars give you momentum, the M5 on the move felt quicker than the M3 and certainly as quick as any tintop ive ever been in; autocars recent 10.5sec 0-100mph figure certainly would make more sense to me than the official, slightly slower performance figures.
Down to a few roundabouts, turn in and there's a perfect level of initial softness, as a road car should be in my opinion. As you reach your angle and the car loads up you feel everything in quite detailed fashion underneath you. The larger wheelbase chassis is right there, nice and stiff and imparting lots of grip and security. The M5 corners with great resolve and purity. It feels simple, honest and uncluttered. Depress the sport button, play heavy with the throttle and the rear will play.
No doubt hideously expensive to run and you'll need warranty up till the day you're on your deathbed but as a sensible road car I have yet to drive anything as accomplished. The full package is so beautifully realised in the M5. Its no weekend racecar fun but for everything else I'd have one. In fact, I almost did, ........twice. I spent 6 months researching these cars and watching the market but in the end I saw a caterham that I simply couldn't refuse.
Finally we get onto the 530D sport. The M5 was the one for me but lets be honest the 530D is the sensible cerebral buy. Much lower running costs, much lower petrol bills, looks as sexy, almost as much torque, real world acceleration where you need it and still the same great chassis and ride quality. The 530D is again a seriously complete package and unlike the M5 it has low depreciation on its side as well. Of course the acceleration will never really stir you and dynamically its a barge with a weeny sporting edge but as a family 5 beater its damm hard to beat.
A must see: download 106mb movie of a 996 chasing Sabine in the M5 ring taxi at the Nurburgring
download 41mb Top Gear M5 feature with Tiff Needel + lots of sideways
download 0.3mb M5 G power exhaust drive away, gorgeous noise
download 0.3mb M5 G power exhaust static rev
What else did I drive in my travels. Well one interesting car was the Audi S6, the one before the RS6. Now here's an utterly divine looking car and a genuine E46 M5 rival on paper, with the same sort of used prices. In the right colour with the aluminium coloured side trim this beast, for sheer quality looks, upstages most other kit out there in my opinion. The spec of these cars is awesome, the shove huge, the auto box a genuine unobtrusive delight ...... but the suspension, and body control. Well, if I tell you that it made the M3 feel as fluid as an elise ! Take the S6 out on the backroads and the thing just falls apart. If it was purely motorways and A roads then it would be a great car to consider but when the whistle goes the M5 just feels so much more a bespoke driver's car.