This past couple of years have been quite ruinous ones in terms of me and cars. At the start of last year I owned an Audi TT 3.2 V6 coupe but that got sold and I bought an Elise. Now the Elise was a good car but was so ridiculously impractical I quite soon got bored of having to clamber in and out, and having nowhere to put anything in it, and getting 70mph rain in the face whilst on the motorway in a storm.
So I sold that at a four figure loss and bought a 911. The 911 was a 2000 3.2 Carrera 2 with a reconditioned engine. It was everything a 911 shouldn't be - automatic, convertible, 996. The engines in 996s have a habit of exploding but mine had a reconditioned engine fitted two years earlier so was safe.
It lasted 3 weeks before the engine exploded at 60mph and 6,000rpm. 22 litres of coolant and oil were thrown into the air as the engine locked up and we coasted to a halt. In the 3 weeks of ownership I had spent a small fortune on a new battery, alternator and sound system. I sold it for less than half what I had spent on it.
Oh, I bought a new bike too. A brand new Triumph Tiger 800 XCx.
Through all this has been my trusty Volvo XC60 D4 R-Design. It's a car I love for its ride, quality, tech, ease of use and general familiarity and comfort. But it's not exactly a dynamic vehicle. It's not one you'd take for a drive for the sake of it.
The Volvo is leased and the lease comes to an end in early 2017. I'd been thinking about what to replace it with since...ooh about Easter.
99% of our village owns a new Land Rover Discovery Sport. It's a lovely looking thing, especially in red with black wheels. I've looked at buying and leasing one but the finances just don't stack up for me. I like a discount on a car and Disco Sports are expensive for what they are. Evoques are cheaper but I haven't the urge to start a mobile hairdressing business yet.
So then I started looking at VW Golfs. If lease deals on Golf Rs were dirt cheap I would have signed up for one. But they aren't at the moment. So I started looking at buying a GTi. It's around £27k specced how I'd like it but you can get one discounted to about £23k if you know where to look.
But I had various conversations with my son (who I trust on these kind of things) about buying or leasing new vs buying used. One thing the Volvo has never been is mine. Any new car wouldn't ever be mine. Even if you're buying one it would be on a PCP deal and with that you give it back at the end of the term. And son reckoned owning a car would be better than not. And I agreed with him.
So I started thinking about budgets and monthly payments and decided I would buy a Mk6 Golf GTi. The Mk6 is the best looking Golf, is quick, has all the tech I want - heated seats, cruise control, bluetooth, is practical enough for us and is good to drive.
Decision made I gave myself a couple of months to find and buy the best I could find.
But then one week I thought about BMWs. Now me and BMW don't have the best history. I've had an E36 320i SE, an E36 323i Touring, an E46 318i SE and an E39 525td Touring. I didn't really like any of them. None were quick and the driving position was compromised in all the 3-Series I'd owned. The throttle pedal was too stiff in the 323i. They all annoyed me in some way or other.
The only BMW I ever liked was a 435i M Sport Coupe. That was pretty good.
I need a four or five door car so Kes, my border collie, can ride in the back. I also fancied an auto this time. Given a choice I'd rather have a bigger naturally aspirated engine than a smaller turbocharged one.
I did my research and could afford an early 320i F30 or a later E90 with a higher spec and decent engine. I pored over the online ads. I preferred the shape of the saloon E90 than the F30 which looks big and bloated in comparison.
I narrowed it down to wanting an E90 330i M Sport saloon with the auto gearbox. The M Sport not only offers a higher spec than lower models but looks much better with it's bodykit and 18 inch wheels. I didn't want to buy from a dealer so looked at the private ads only. A few looked good.
One Saturday I was headed to the Motorcycle Live show at the Birmingham NEC. There was a particularly good looking 330i only a few miles away so I went to have a look at it on the way.
As soon as I saw it I was hooked. Great looking in silver it was a 2007 car with only 53,000 miles on the clock and a full service history. I could have afforded a newer car but this one wanted for nothing and would save me a few quid over a later one. I left a cash deposit and returned the next day with the balance.
I was the owner of a 2007 330i M Sport with auto transmission. Since then I've put a good few miles on it, done some motorway work, driven into London and gone for a couple of drives purely for the sake of it.
I love its looks, its sharp, clean lines and its lack of vulgarity. I also love the fact it feels solid, a quality motor that belies its age. Stick a modern infotainment system in it and it could pass for a much newer car.
The drivetrain is almost perfect. The engine is the N52 3-litre inline 6-cylinder which produces 250hp and 230lb ft of torque. It's a thing of wonder. It sounds fantastic and has a decent spread of torque across the range with none of the lag or low rev weakness of a turbocharged engine. The gearbox is a 6-speed automatic with sport mode for later changes and allies well with the engine.
The car looks good outside and in. Previous BMWs I've owned have had quite slabby and not very supportive seats but the seats in this car are comfortable and supportive, and body figure hugging. They're comfortable on a long drive and sporty when you're pressing on.
The interior is light years ahead of that in older BMWs. With flourishes of aluminium trim and improved design and layout it feels as good as it looks. The steering wheel is chunky and the dials clear - although I would have preferred a digital speed readout.
It has almost all the tech I've got used to in the Volvo and other new cars but falls over in the infotainment area.
My 330i has iDrive. iDrive was an early attempt to remove some functionality from buttons and dials and embed it in a screen based system. Some climate controls, almost all the entertainment and most of the car's dynamic controls are accessed via iDrive. It works from a single rotary knob and a button. It also contains a satnav which, because it's a few years old, is pretty hopeless.
Yes it is easy to use whilst on the move but no it is not intuitive. It does not have DAB radio and it does not have a USB connection (although it was available as an option at the time) or Bluetooth for music, although bizarrely it does have Bluetooth for phone calls.
To play music I either have to play CDs or plug my phone to the Aux in socket, which is OK for longer journeys.
Those in the front are quite cosseted with plenty of room, a pair of cup holders, decent door pockets, heated seats and individual climate controls. Those in the back have less room but still much more than in older 3-Series. The boot is quite big and the floor surprisingly low for a rear wheel drive car.
Ah yes, rear wheel drive. The 3-Series' dynamic masterstroke. So what is it like to drive?
I've driven everything from a BRZ to a 911 via a Rolls Royce Wraith. I've driven a Lotus Evora around the track at Hethel, I've chucked a Cayman R around the Porsche track at Silverstone and I've wrung the neck of a Radical SR3 RS around the Grand Prix track at Silverstone. I've got to know rear wheel drive cars in front, mid and rear engined forms quite a lot over the years.
The 330i M Sport makes a damn good show of itself. On the motorways and A-roads it's a comfortable cruiser that's quiet and refined. But find somewhere more challenging and it becomes a different beast.
You forget the rear seats and boot. You forget you are in a saloon. You sit low in the car and you drive it like a coupe. The engine is strong and the gearbox fast moving - as long as you've selected sport.
The front end of the car has slightly less feel than I would have liked but the rear makes up for it. After a bit of practice you can lean on the rear and feel it moving, leaning on the suspension as it powers round a corner.
If the road is slightly unsettled or if you drive it like you have hooves instead of feet the traction control button flashes like a Christmas light. Turn it off and the rear wheels lose grip quickly.
Yet the front never loses grip.
Some cars are more than the sum of their parts and this is one such. When driving you can feel its fluidity, the chassis giving great feedback, allowing you to position it on the road just as you would like.
At high and low speeds and with short and long radius bends it feels superb to drive. And it does this without commotion. Its feathers never feel unruffled. It stays refined even when the driver's eyes are on stalks and his palms sweating.
It does have its faults. The gearbox is a bit hesitant to change down when not in Sport mode and the wheels can follow tracks and ruts in the road.
I set out to buy a car that was both practical and fun to drive, and I succeeded. They say that the sign of a great car is that when you pull into your drive and walk toward your front door you turn and look back at it. I do this every time I drive mine.
By Matt Hubbard