It’s heartening to report that, even in Sport Plus mode, the 330i M Sport’s four-cylinder engine isn’t made to sound too digitally contrived by the car’s audio system’s engine noise impression routine. Equally, the engine’s audible character isn’t quite left unmolested, so you’re just about aware that there’s a bit of digital remastering going on when you’re delving deep into the car’s accelerator pedal travel.
Genuine or otherwise, the engine doesn’t sound like a perfectly balanced straight six, and it doesn’t rev out with quite the silken freedom of one either. It’s something you won’t fail to notice if you’re familiar with older, higher-end 3 Series - but that you do feel unfair complaining about when, in 2019, there is only one sport saloon left on the market that offers multi-cylinder petrol power for 330i M Sport money: the Kia Stinger GT S. Everything else in this niche now uses a high-output four-cylinder engine, just like the BMW. And, for the record, while you’d probably give the 330i’s motor the nod, for its mix of responsiveness, range, outright performance and smoothness, over any direct rival made by Jaguar, Mercedes or Audi, you’d have to admit that an Alfa Romeo Giulia Veloce’s turbo four-pot is a little bit more potent- and zesty-feeling.
The 330i’s engine can certainly be refined when you want it to be – and pretty frugal too given that 40mpg is easy to hit in mixed, unhurried use. The car’s eight-speed automatic gearbox combines well with it whatever the style you’re adopting, engaging gears smartly and choosing them well in ‘D’; being more eager to downshift and hold revs in ‘S’ without becoming hyperactive; and shifting quickly and with assurance in manual mode.
The car’s ride and handling has similar versatility – assuming, that is, you’ve plumped for adaptive dampers. The 330i M Sport comes with passive sport suspension, 18in alloy wheels and run-flat tyres as standard, but if you splurge on BMW’s M Sport Plus option package, you get 19in rims, adaptive dampers, performance tyres (Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S) and BMW’s M Sport active diff at extra cost.
We had a chance to compare our 330i M Sport with that option pack (diff notwithstanding) back to back with a 320d M Sport without it – and while the wheel and tyre upgrade doesn’t do much to improve cabin isolation (which is by no means objectionable anyway), the adaptive suspension does calm down and round off the 3 Series’ passively damped M Sport primary ride a bit. It remains more animated and firm than the compact executive saloon class norm, but isn’t a long way from irksome or uncomfortable as a result.
What the 3 Series gains as a result of that suspension tuning is handling agility and driver engagement that nothing else like it can equal. An Alfa Giulia Veloce feels slightly narrower, lower and lighter on the road, and is similarly agile – but isn’t as precise or assured when turning in, and its electronic driver aids are much more intrusive.