Saturday, 30th of July, 2005
The automatic shut-off on the gas station had apparently failed, and fortunately a nice guy on a Harley nearby saw the situation and came over and shut it off manually. After informing the gas station attendant of this, she went inside and got what looks like a bucket of soap water to dilute the gasoline. Then she said, "Oh yeah, this happens all the time!" Of course, she told me she's unable to cancel the 7 gallons of gasoline I paid for and got dumped outside my car.
I made repeated phone calls in the next 7 days to the gas station owner, who was never there. So I took the next step and called the local Fire Marshall, so they should expect an inspector soon. I also managed to get my credit card company to take care of this as a disputed transaction since the gas station owner is missing in action.
Monday, 25th of July, 2005
As far as how they sound, the first thing I noticed is that it's lacking at the ends of the audio spectrum. After taking the equalizer to fix that, it sounds better than any sub-$25 headphones I've ever listened to. The only thing I remember being better about the higher-end in-ear headphones I've listened to is the bass response. Fidelity is actually pretty impressive in the mid range - something I've been missing out on with my Altec Lansing ATP-3 speakers at home. Though the ATP-3s still beat the headphones in producing crisp bass and highs - which is where those speakers shine. But surely I can't complain for $11.
Sunday, 24th of July, 2005
The 530i's climate control was excellent - I set it to 78 and left it alone for the whole drive. The air conditioning did a good job of keeping it comfortable when I turned the car to face the sun, and then backing off when I turned away from the sun. This iteration of the iDrive is good - the upper dashboard really is a safe place to put a screen. And the amount of control the interface provides is amazing - I could change the amount of air flowing through each individual vent in the cabin through the iDrive system. The iDrive input device itself, that knob, is also an excellent input interface. It's nice to use and gives you feedback once you've hit the "end" of a series of menu items, and a little feedback as you go through each item in the menu so you can kind of "feel" your way through the menus without having to stare at the screen and perform more complicated hand-eye coordination.
The electronically variable steering rack was an interesting experience. The most noticeable intrusion into normal steering is in parking lots, where the car's steering inputs suddenly get multiplied two-fold, and it takes very little work to maneuver it around. On the road, turns feel good and it isn't an odd experience at all. What the car could use are better tires. The 225/50/17s that it came with didn't provide enough traction to haul the 3483-pound car to a stop as quickly as I'd want a luxury car to be able to do. As for the other, skinnier pedal, I wasn't expecting anything sporty from the 3.0 litre, but the new engine does a pretty good job. It's actually just sporty enough, and definitely really good considering it's only the middle engine option for this car.
Finally, I got a nice surprise at the end of the drive when I backed the car up into a parking spot. I pop it into reverse and the right mirror angles itself all the way down so I can see where the right side of the car is. And then I look up at the iDrive screen and it displays the read-out of all the sensors on the rear bumper that would help me find objects as I get close to them. Cool!
Well enough of being a couch potato - the highlight of the day is to take the new 330i out onto an autocross course and thrash it around. Now the 18-inch tires on the 330i with the sport package are good! They were really sticky - they pick up pebbles on the parking lot like the Falken Azenis do. I wonder if they do rank up there with those race-proven Azenis in terms of grip - they only lasted about 50 miles on the track. You can tell those tires were up to the beatings we were putting them through - we were at the end of the weekend and the sidewalls still looked pretty healthy - very little sidewall flex. They really do provide tons of grip, given that we've loaded 3450 pounds on them plus 4 people.
The 330i's steering rack ratio is pretty quick, making the car feel a little telepathic on the track like other quick-rack cars I've drive, such as the WRX STi. Putting the traction control on "Sport" mode allows you to trail brake a little, but it does prevent you from outright drifting around turns. The course we got to drive on was actually pretty good - some places to make mistakes, overcook a turn, things like that. There was a fun little sweeper at the end too - the lack of body roll on any of the cars driven today through that sweeper made it really easy. I'd definitely be hacking away at the steering wheel more if I were putting my Subaru through that.
Speaking of the other cars we drove side-by-side with the BMW, our comparison cars were the Infiniti G35 and the Audi A4 3.0. The G35's 235/45/18 tires were awful - I could tell even by looking at them from far away that the tires were rolling onto the sidewalls and getting battered. On the course, the traction control got busy to deal with this lack of grip, and the steering wheel starts shuddering madly and sending you into a plowing understeer. Applying the brakes for trail braking was completely overridden by the traction control computer.
The A4 3.0 Quattro was a disappointment. I couldn't do all the usual Subaru AWD tricks in rotating it around corners, and traction control always stepped in when I attempted trail braking. There was another driver in my driving group that managed to get it to rotate by just cranking the steering wheel well beyond the threshold grip limit, and the car would rotate. Though once you've got yourself skidding around a turn, the power output seems to get reduced to around 130 hp and any attempts to throttle steer are also squashed. The way the A4 handles is worse than the Mercedes C240 AWD I remember driving last summer. I must say, the A4 does win one comparison test for the day - the exhaust note. When you take off in the A4, you get a nice deep rumble that reminds me more of V8 engines than a V6.
After we did our personal comparison and evaluation, a professional driver took us around the track with the traction control off, rally style. Almost every turn was executed by drifting - pointing the steering wheel towards the turn way early, and letting the 50/50 weight distribution manage the controlled slide around the turn.
So the 330i wins, given the equipment that everyone was wearing. Since the G35's main problem is lack of grip, I don't want to make any comparison judgement on it until we get tires on it that are as good as the ones on the 330i. I am unimpressed with the A4 Quattro though - I'm afraid Audi might have lost a lot of its Rally racing heritage by now. In fact, I'd take the Mercedes C-class over the Audi. That leads me to the next speculation - I wonder if the C-class could hold its own against the 330, given some sticky tires.
As for the non-handling aspects of the comparison, they all had pretty good rear seat room too, much to my surprise. The G35's rear seats even recline. I do have to make a note, though, that the A4 was the only one lacking rear A/C vents. There was definitely a good amount of power in all 3 cars. These engines eventually won't be the fastest options provided for these cars, but they provide a reasonable propulsion system that you'd expect from a luxury car. What I don't seem to understand is how the 530i, which only weighs a few pounds more and has the exact same engine and transmission as the 330i, is significantly slower. According to BMW, it's a good 0.3 seconds slower to 60 mph. The 530i even has a lower coefficient of friction! It may just prove that suspension tuning and tire/wheel mass has a lot to do with a car's acceleration.
Comparing the 2006 330i with the last generation 330i that I drove, it feels like a totally different car. I suspect a lot of this discrepancy is the good "Sport" package that BMW has put together. It's a good thing they put a good, nicely tuned package together, because the competition has also made attempts at well-tuned "sport" packages. I'd give the Audi another shot one day at demonstrating its strengths to me with the traction control off. But I am taking it off my radar screen - I'm beginning to think I'd rather have that Mercedes C-class over the 3-series. Of course, the Subaru WRX STi would embarrass all three of these luxury cars on the track - that would be my choice. However, if you want rear A/C and reclining rear seats, there are a few nice sporty cars to pick from.
By the way, in our racing group of 18, I managed to win the award for "best performance". That makes me feel a little better, because I did manage to get one of the other group members who was riding with me sick - she had to sit out the last couple of rounds. And this was a person who wasn't a novice at performance driving either - she had apparently driven on Road Atlanta with a bunch of other Saab Viggen owners.
Wednesday, 6th of July, 2005
Picture - Here's a comparison of the underside of the new hood versus the stock one. The hood is high quality, and has an aluminum structure that is an exact replica of the stock hood.
Picture - I hardly ever use the windshield washer in the summer, so I decided, instead of attaching the windshield washers to the new hood, I'd convert it to an intercooler sprayer.
Picture - The new hood, installed.
Picture - Ah, now we are providing adequate air flow to the intercooler.
Monday, 4th of July, 2005
I went downtown with friends to see the fireworks at the riverfront tonight, going all the way down past the street the runs in front of the arch. They didn't provide the music supplementation to the show there, which I suppose can be a good thing since I've never been impressed with it in the past. It's still amazing how to manage to come up with new tricks with fireworks every year. The theme of these year seems to be fireworks that make shapes in the sky.
Sunday, 3rd of July, 2005