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A review of the 2002 BMW 330i, Audi A4 Quattro, and Lexus IS300
Written 3/13/2002 by MarvelPhx

I decided on my week of vacation between jobs that I would spend some time inside and outside of the 2002 BMW 330i and a few of it's direct marketing competitors: the Audi A4 3.0 Quattro and Lexus IS300. I have seen plenty of opinions online about these fine automobiles and I wanted see/touch/hear/feel/drive them for myself. I also told myself, that even as a 330i owner, I would do my best to be subjective and fair in all regards. Please note that these observations and judgements are my own and do not much to anyone. Read on, but drive these vehicles yourself and decide on your own.

I started with all the cars as similiarly equipped as possible. Requested equipment included only that they were 2002 models and had manual transmissions. I also used a brand new stock BMW 330i for this review as including vehicle wouldn't be fair to the other vehicles. All specifications here are manufacturer supplied ratings I got from the respective brochures.
Let's begin...

The BMW 330i is propelled by a new inline 6-cylinder. It is equipped with the Double-VANOS system, which is basically continuously variable valvetrain timing. This offers the 330i a very flat torque curve throughout the powerband. It is this system that allows the 330i to kick you in the ass no matter what gear you are in at almost any speed. It is, however, a bit slow to spool up through the RPMs. The powerplant is rated at 225hp @ 5, just feels like more. The redline is about 6,200 and the speedometer reads to 155mph. The suspension is comfortable and responsive, but the upgraded M-sport package is like required reading. You will regret not getting it. And trust me, you will want to drive this car to the edge, it begs for it. The brakes are enormous and respond like big brakes should: firm pedal and linear results with little fade after numerous hard stops. The superb braking system is just one feature on the long list of safety mechanism that make BMWs one of the safest cars in the world.

A large portion of price tag of a BMW is the result in it's interior refinements. The leather is soft, yet the seats are large and supportive. The manual seats have 8-way adjustments, plus a nice adjustable extension to rest your legs on during extended driving. I drove the 330i with the driver's seat almost all the way back and only small adults or a contortionist is going to sit behind me in any comfort. Up front, it is just heaven. Controls are simple and large with typical orange backlighting. One big thing I noticed is how quiet the BMW is inside. Heavily insulated acoustically, you could have a conversation with passengers by whispering. The gauges are easy to read with white on black lettering during the day and orange on black at night. There is an onboard computer readout which display such information as outside temperature, clock, average miles per gallon, average speed, and range. The climate control is set by selecting a temperature and letting it do the rest when in automatic mode. A nice feature is the ability to override the set temperature on the two center front vents. You can use a small thumbwheel to have colder/warmer air sent through them than the other vents in the car. The Harmon/Kardon audio system is beautiful and surrounds you like a concert hall, but the subwoofers just are not up to the task of playing music with serious beats. A glace in the trunk reveals a useful, but not cavernous space to store your goodies. Optional fold-down rear seats would help there.

BMWs have always displayed certain characteristics embedded in their styling. The famous kidney grilles up front, distinct side browlines, long hoods with stubby noses, and double-headlamps on each side to name a few. The 330i enjoys all of these touches while being elegant and unobnoxious. There are no drastic body scoops or sharp edges. It appears to cater to a buyer who enjoys a simple, clean, efficient vehicle design. There are standard foglamps, available Bi-Xenon headlamps, and typical European side marker lamps. These side marker lamps are higher up on the fender for 2002 along with redesigned headlamps, taillamps, bumpers, and a more aggressive hood with larger grille openings. The BMW 330i uses this body design to cut through the air with a drag coefficient of better than 0.32Cd.

This has to be the hardest summary to write since I own one. BMWs always seemed to be the car of the "prestigious" and I never even dreamed of owning one, especially after the many jokes even I used to tell about their drivers. The balance of power, control, and luxury come together in such a refined manner that the car sells to a much wider market. The young, old, male, female, middle-class, rich folks, gift givers, graduates, and yes, even the prestigious are comfortable to own and drive one. The power is there, the handling is there, the attention to production detail is there. There is a reason that, everyday, worldwide, people pay the extra cash to buy BMWs.

Price as tested: $40,410
M-Sport Package
18" M Wheels
Bi-Xenon Headlamps

Lift the hood of this Audi and you will be presented with the cleanest engine bay I have ever seen. Not a fitting, clamp, hose, belt, nut, or wire loom can be seen. A glimpse of the intake manifold is peeking out of a multitude of covers and trim. It is just wonderful to gaze at, but more-than-an-oil-change maintenance has got to be a chore. Underneath all that engine skin is a silky smooth 220 horsepower V6. Unfortunately, this was the only car in our group that had an automatic transmission. The 6-speed manual transmission version was not available to review. Once time came to drive the Quattro, it performed without trying. The ride is just breathtakingly elegant. A high-end Cadillac doesn't ride this well. When asked to navigate corners at speed, it grabs you and does what it's told. There is quite a bit of body roll as expected with such a smooth ride, but the optional Sport Package is 30% stiffer and surely would make a remarkable difference. I was not too impressed with the Tiptronic 5-speed automatic. I would have liked to have the manual gearbox to make a real comparison. Otherwise, the Audi translated the road nicely and offered plenty of go-juice and handling. Braking performance was OK, but nothing exciting (the car weighs over 3600 pounds, by far the heaviest of the group).

Talk about big. The A4 is the largest car of the review and shows it. Get in, and you are offered plenty of room to relax in. Headroom is abundant, even with the sunroof. Seating is comfortable and leaves you with space to spare (back seat included). Five people can ride in this car without having to ask the passenger next to you to get better deodorant. The driver's seat includes 4 memory presets. The gauge panel is easy to read with white lettering (ice blue at night), red backlighting, and large displays. Set between the tachometer and speedometer is a driver information display with all sorts of information such as outside temperature, radio information, adjustable speed warning, trip computer, and more. There are buttons everywhere in this car. Above, below, in the door, center console, next to you, everywhere are buttons. The door alone has 15 switches between the controls for the seats, mirrors, windows, locks, trunk release, and security system overrides. Walk back to the trunk and bring lots of luggage. The cargo area is huge due to the car's sheer dimensions.

The Audi is the most subtle member when it comes to styling. Everything outside the car is subdued and fluidic. The wheels were of the Volkswagen variety, but the fender flares suggest a bit of perceptible aggressiveness. Dual exhausts slip out from under the rear bumper, the doors provide easy access to the interior, and there are no obtrusive body moldings. Finding a sharp edge on this car is like hunting for virgins at the Mustang Ranch. Audi successfully slips this vehicle through the air and does it in style.

Audi is just not big in the USA. They outsell BMW in Europe, but their lack of presence in the States gives them a slightly mystical presence here. When you see one on the street, it demands a second glance. They are simply immaculate cars. The interior is busy, but loaded to the hilt with extras. The exterior offers that European styling with a vast range of options and models to choose from. I noticed plenty of similarities between the Audi and the BMW: side markers, clean styling, easy to utilize interior controls, even down to the little lever that pops out of the front of the car to open the hood. It really must be a German thing... and something it is.

Price as tested: $36,285
Premium Package
Xenon Headlights

On their first significant departure from the luxury market, Lexus created the IS300, and took careful aim at the performance sedan genre that BMW has cornered for so many years. From the inline 6-cylinder and rear wheel drive, to a very tight yet smooth 5-speed transmission and exterior proportions, this car is not a Lexus from years previous. When it was introduced last year, the IS300 was only available with an automatic transmission. The system was nice, but it still lacked the ability to completely connect the car to the driver. Lexus quickly remedied this problem by introducing a remarkably smooth shifting 5-speed manual and limited slip differential for 2002. The 215 horsepower engine builds very tangible power right from the get go and the power rating feels like an understatement. The car just begs to be launched at every green light. No matter what gear the car is in, stepping on the accelerator will produce a big smile. Steering is comfortable and thoughtless while still returning enough feedback to notice any road imperfections. The brakes Lexus chose for the car feel great at the pedal and produce immediate Ferrari-like results (if munching on steering wheel is your goal, just punch the brakes to the floor from speed). This car was definitely built with driver happiness as a priority.

Getting into the car can prove to be a challenge. This proved difficult and almost painful on my first try. The B-pillar seems to be a few inches too far forward. Anyone above the height of about 5'9" will undoubtedly smack themselves when they first get in. To make room for an easy entry, I sent the seat all the way back, but then had to bring it forward for a comfortable driving position. The next thing you'll notice is the gauge cluster we've all seen in the commercials. Yes, it looks like an expensive watch. While it is unique, it can be overwhelming. The interior materials are somewhat flashy, but not to the point of being cheap. Extensive use of black and silver plastics fills the dashboard area. A center-mounted navigation system is optional, but our IS300 had a rather useless coin tray large enough to hold about $40 in quarters instead. Once you start the car, you feel almost like you are inside a video game. The sport seats are supportive, comfortable, and were covered in leather and a perforated suede which Lexus dubbed "Escaine". The shift knob is slightly tilted towards the driver so shifting into 5th gear won't press your knuckles into the passenger's knee. In all, the interior seems very appropriate for a luxury Japanese import style.

The IS300 moved into uncharted territory in the visuals department. The styling of this car mixes gracious curves with well-defined edges. The large multi-component HID headlights are attractive and effective. The fog lamps buck the trend of bluish xenon lights, but emit a strong yellow that seems more appropriate on an RV (even if it *is* the most effective color in fog). The taillamps are clear with red inserts a la the import tuner scene. Standard wheels are 17" alloys including a 5th for the spare. The profile of the car is streamlined, muscular, and aggressive, though slightly unfinished (think of a concept car). The whole distinct package gives the IS300 its own personality on a road filled with clones.

By creating the IS300, the Lexus name spreads to a new world. This car is a wonderful combination of Japanese technology, European style, and American demand. With styling aggressive enough to catch the car enthusiast's eye, yet enough class so that clients are impressed. Comfortable enough to take long road trips, yet responsive enough to make daily driving on the freeways much more exciting. The IS300 hits the mark quite well in a contest full of tough competition.

Price as tested: $33,182
Power & Escaine Package
Graphite Polished Wheels

After driving and playing with these 4 (yes, FOUR, read on...) cars all day, I have come to realize that I made a smart decision. The BMW 330i still wins in my book. It is built well, powerful, and safe. Close second (and I mean close) goes to the Lexus IS300. Had the IS300 been available in a manual when I purchased my330i, the decision would have been a very difficult one. They are both beautiful machines designed for the driver, but you can tell the Lexus was designed to take the 330i head-on. The Audi A4 comes next with a lower, yet very respectable level of overall appreciation. It would have had a better chance had the dealership been able to provide a manual shifter.

All in all, all of these cars are great in their own way. Some will choose the BMW for it's history of performance, others will choose the Lexus for it's Toyota reliability bloodlines, and others will choose the Audi for it's uniqueness in design and form. I firmly believe you get what you pay for. Everyone is different; there is no real winner here. Statistics, specifications, and 0-60s don't mean squat if you don't enjoy driving the car everyday. Drive what you love to drive!

An important note on the inclusion of this section: The Subaru WRX is not a 3.0 liter and after driving it, it doesn't really belong in the review. I chose to add it here since I have heard so many people comment on the WRX and it's ability to compare with these vehicles. This is to straighten things out...

The crowned king in Subaru's land of the Impreza, the WRX is a quick and nimble player on the streets. Powered by a turbocharged 2.0 liter opposed 4-cylinder engine producing 227hp @ 6,000rpm, the WRX is fast, but is affected by it's rather trivial engine displacement. The engine is just too small to provide any torque at less than about 3,500 rpms. I drove the WRX on a nearby curvy, hilly road and also on the freeway. It was major disappointment to floor the accelerator pedal at freeway speed, the car just didn't go. However, a downshift later, and once the turbo kicks in, it gobbles up the tachometer all the way to it's 7k redline. The Subaru's standard all-wheel drive system with central and rear limited-slip differntials creates a very stable platform in turns and during hard acceleration maneuvers, but with an overabundance of body roll. The AWD system is the largest contributing factor to the WRX's reported 0-60mph in 5.4 seconds. The problem is that unless you are a skilled driver, can work through the long-shifted sloppy gearbox easily, and can keep the RPMs in the turbo's powerband, you will never touch that time. Our WRX was equipped with the Subaru Short Shifter. It still stood about 6.5 inches above the console and felt like it. Shortening the shifter lever would only make shifting uncomfortable as the center armrest is too high. Under the hood, Subaru used every inch of space for engine, hoses, cables, and the top-mounted intercooler. I noticed that the area around the turbo allows for upgrading to a larger blower, but don't try changing your own spark plugs (I couldn't even see the cylinder heads through the maze of parts).

The interior of the WRX is clean and well-designed, but is remarkably uninteresting. The first thing I noticed was the smell. You can smell the large amount of plastic used on the interior. The vehicle controls and gauges are backlit in green and are typical of any inexpensive japanese import. The stereo is quite impressive sounding and includes an in-dash 6-disc CD changer. There is *plenty* of room for 4 adults (and I am 6'8") plus cargo. The seats are smaller, yet comfortable and hold you in place very nicely. Leather surfaces are not an option.

The WRX exterior design is full of curves, bubbles, round edges, and soft lines. I don't find it particularly aggressive, but it works well overall and helps the WRX acheive a drag coeffecient of 0.33Cd. When I first saw the Impreza family, I just wasn't impressed, but it grows on you and it isn't so bad anymore. It is just a bit much for me.

Considering the factory turbocharger and prowess of all-wheel drive, the WRX is a steadfast competitor when it comes to performance. It still suffers from the lack of fit-and-finish, quality, and perks. It is radically styled and is obviously geared to the younger male market. The big thing that sells this Subaru is the fact that it costs up to $15,000 less than any other vehicle in this review. That alone is what makes the WRX a great player and will continue to put them on the road everyday. However, they just don't compare to the BMW, Lexus, and Audi merchandise.

Price as tested: $25,167
Carbon Fiber Interior Trim
Short Throw Shifter
Premium Sound Package I

Special Thanks to the following dealerships:
Camelback BMW
Scottsdale Audi
Bell Lexus
21 Bell Subaru

  © MarvelPhx