Upgrading from a BMW 130i

I’ve been driving my 2007 BMW E81 130i Limited Edition for about a year now. It’s a small hatchback that doesn’t really drive like one. With its naturally aspirated 3 litre inline 6, it sounds and feels a bit special. And the shape has really grown on me. It looks poised and solid; purposeful but understated. However, it doesn’t inspire confidence cornering at high speed. I know I can do something about that — I have my eye on Birds B1 dynamic kit that includes new springs and dampers, a limited slip diff and stiffer anti-roll bars. But that isn’t going to be cheap and won’t add much to the resale value of the car. So should I modify it or start again?

For me, probably the best car I’ve driven is a Porsche 987 Boxster. It just gets everything right. It’s like driving my old Caterham except it doesn’t give me a headache. I would have one in a heartbeat, except that my car needs to do the school-run and I need back seats. So I decided to check out a few other options. Here are my thoughts after test-driving some alternatives.

997 Carrera 2S

Since I like the Boxster so much but need the back seats, a 911 seems like a logical choice. The car I test drive is really outside my budget but I’m convinced depreciation would be minimal and if I keep it a while it could even appreciate. It catches my eye because it’s had a Hartech engine rebuild, thus fixing the Achilles heel of all 996 and early 997s, particularly the larger 3.8 we have here.

I’ve never driven a 911 before, or even sat inside one. The first thing that strikes me is how big it seems, sitting on the driveway. This is not like one of those tiny little air-cooled 911s. In the photos it looks gorgeous, but in person, although it’s a good-looking car, there’s something very slightly odd about its size.

So we head out. Maybe it’s the weight of expectation but I’m not bowled over by the C2S. It feels solid, and the engine behind me feels like a serious piece of engineering. But it doesn’t steer like the Boxster. I feel the front going a little light when I put down my foot and it wavers and hunts for a split second.

Then there’s the performance. It’s quick, no doubt. But it doesn’t feel an order of magnitude faster than my little 130i, even though it beats it by 85 horses. Actually the power delivery feels quite similar.

Throughout the test drive I have the salesman sitting on my left. I suspect that if I’d had the car alone, and perhaps for longer, I might have started to get a different picture of the car. From what I’ve read a 911 does take a little while to adjust to. But I know as soon as we pull back into the drive that this car doesn’t feel like it’s worth 3 times my little BM. To stretch that far I’d need to be totally awestruck by the car and I’m not.

BMW E92 M3

The next car I try is an M3 coupe with a 4 litre V8 engine, a few weeks later. The exterior paintwork gleams: it’s just been given a machine polish. It is eye-catching but the shape is maybe a bit brash for me; I wonder if I would like the saloon better. The interior feels slightly lower-rent than 130i, first impressions not helped by the piece of rickety plastic that pokes out over my right shoulder and fails to deliver the seatbelt. I try again, twice, but end up having to reach over and grab it, the traditional way.

The controls feel fine, but a bit ordinary. I quite like the gear shift action, it feels shorter throw and more precise than the 130i shift which can feel a little bit sloppy at times.

I am not prepared for the effect of the engine. I think driving the C2S has made me a bit blasé about bigger engines. But putting my foot to the floor in the M3 scrambles my brain. This is a seriously mad car; an order of magnitude more aggressive than the C2S. Certainly more than the extra 70bhp (in a heavier car) would lead me to expect. The M3 really is a muscle car. The V8 sounds very different to a 6 pot, kind of exotic like a Ferrari.

So the experience of driving it is entirely dominated by the engine. The sound and the pull when you put your foot down. People go on about how great the handling is, but for the short while I drove it, it felt pretty much like a normal saloon car with minimal roll. Don’t expect Boxster levels of poise or feel. But the performance on offer is something completely else. This thing lurches forward like a muscle car when you put down your foot and it has the sound to match. On the other hand, it looks like a rep-mobile, and the interior is a bit tatty. It’s overpriced and something about it makes me hesitate.

Ultimately I think that level of muscle is unnecessary for me, and I’m searching for more of a pure sports car feel. If I can only find it with 4 seats. On paper the 911 should be the perfect choice for me so I’m not sure where to go next.

Golf GTI mk 5 DSG

I don’t really consider the GTI as a viable option but it’s my mum’s car so I figure I might as well have a go. The Golf and the 130i are almost the same size. But they feel completely different in almost every way. The Golf feels lighter and simpler to drive. You point it and go. You don’t really think about the car or the experience. You don’t listen to the engine. You just drive somewhere. In this sense it feels more of a ‘normal’ car. But there is something appealing in that: it is more casual, more chuckable. The controls are lighter. The DSG is kind of impressive: the changes are pretty fast. But I struggle to get the hang of manual mode because I can’t really hear or feel exactly what the engine needs. Seems simpler to just leave it in auto, but then I’ve lost half the pleasure in driving. I think a normal manual box would be the way to go. But I have to be frank: after the 130i the Golf is a bit boring.

BMW E46 M3

I go to see a nice, clean, low-mileage E46 M3 manual. 2005 model, carbon black with red leather seats. Although the shape seems a little dated, it’s a nice-looking car and has something special about it, some presence.

Getting inside, this thing feels very different from the E92. It seems much smaller, in the same ballpark as my 130i. The size feels right enough that you don’t notice or think about it while you’re driving. It’s good, like a cockpit in a fighter plane.

I’ve heard and read so much about the S54 engine that it’s a bit of a disappointment to be honest. I don’t think the throttle response is as sharp as in the 130i. And the noise is not nearly as nice at low revs. When you blip the throttle in the 130i, you get a traditional sports car noise. I love that engine. But in the M3 I feel slightly more detached from the power. True enough, at the top end of the revs it does sound furious and race-car like. And it pulls. But the raspy, metallic exhaust sound doesn’t have the soul for me of the N52, which is deeper and more alive. Neither does it have the fabulous, exotic noise and insane performance of the V8, which feels like its in a different league from both other BMWs.

And yet in terms of handling and steering the E46 M3 is sublime. The steering is spot on. The ride is perfect. After 10 minutes or so I find myself driving down a B-road and I just relax. This car does feel like an extension of me: it’s so natural. I can feel what’s going on and I know the car is doing what I want it to. To me it feels better balanced and more intutive than the bigger E92.

It is like the E46 M3 is dancing. By contrast when I hop back in the 130i it feels like it is plodding. Instead of flowing over and with the road, it feels like it sits on top of it. It makes me realise that I really owe it to the little 1 series to try and sort out the suspension.

Overall I’m very impressed with the E46 M3. But I do have that slight reservation about the powertrain and gearbox. The gear change is OK, not as bad as I feared. But something about it feels a bit old and dated. Do I really want to plough all that money into a car that was designed 20 years ago? I am closer to pulling the trigger on this than any of the other options, even though it’s expensive for an E46. I can see myself driving this for years. And yet… something makes me hesitate. Would I end up having to rebuild the Vanos? The extra reliability of the 130i is reassuring.

Birds Dynamic Package

I guess maybe about 6 years passed between the initial design of the E46 in the late 1990s and the design of the first generation 1 series. Crucially I think a lot of things improved in those years. So although it’s only 2 years newer, my 130i feels more modern than the E46 M3 I drove. And yet by about 2009 the turbo was taking over and arguably BMWs became a bit too accomplished and refined. So perhaps the 130i sits in the sweet spot: a light alloy engine block, decent fuel economy, no turbos, no direct injection.

OK, so maybe sticking with the 130i is the answer. With this in mind, I head off to visit Kevin Bird just outside Slough for a demo of his 130i with the full dynamic package: Quaife Limited Slip Diff, revised springs and dampers, and stiffer anti-roll bars.

Kevin takes me for a spin and he can definitely drive! (Better than I can) He has a precise but relaxed driving style and obviously knows the car and the local B roads like the back of his hand. The car feels very agile and responsive. It’s impressive, but then I learn that I won’t be allowed to test drive the car myself. This is a bit of a blow, and not what I’d expected, but it’s an insurance issue. I should have checked before I set out! Kevin reckons I should be able to feel what I need to know from the passenger seat, but as I have spent zero time in the passenger seat of my own 130i driving fast, and never driven those roads before, I don’t really have anything to compare it to. So I find the experience almost impossible to make any sense of. And certainly I can’t get any impression of the change in steering feel. It’s a shame because I have a hunch this car probably feels very good to drive. Bit annoying as it took me 4 hours driving to get there and back.

I’m left thinking that £3.5K is really a lot to spend on a car that isn’t worth more than £8K and I’ll probably just stick with my car as it is for now. At some point in the near future I may be able to do without the rear seats and then my options open out. I’ll probably just buy a Boxster. For now the 130i is still a great car to drive daily. It’s still growing on me.

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