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BMW 335d SE: The subtlest ‘sleeper’ of all time?

Chris Haining February 15, 2018 All Things Hoon 12 Comments

The turbocharged, go-faster Volvo 850T-5 caused something of a stir on its release in the early nineties. For a start, it was a Volvo, and Volvo were more associated with ever-so-sensible brick shaped cars best suited for carrying elderly people and antiques. Then there was the power, the front-wheel-drive layout, the modernity of those foot-tall taillamps, something of a break for the staid old firm. Then, in ’94, Volvo took the 850 racing in the British Touring Car Championship. And, as if taking the piss out of everybody, the combatant they fielded was an estate car – and it did rather well.

Nowadays, fast estate cars are nothing new. Everybody latched onto the idea during the nineties and, er, zeroties. Today the Germans have fast estate cars coming out of their ears, BMW with the M5, Mercedes with the E63 and Audi with the RS6, but most of them wear their hearts on their sleeve. They are all festooned with extra grilles, shouty badges, look-at-me wheels and they all emit thunderous exhaust notes when provoked.

Altogether more delicious were the factory sleepers out there, and this was one of the best.

EditSince writing this I remembered that North America is a land of 300hp Camrys and atomic minivans, but the same isn’t yet the case in Britain. As you were.

What you see before you is a BMW 3-Series Touring. It’s an SE model, the “ordinary” one. Stylistically it makes no allusion towards dynamism, it forgoes all the deep chin spoilers and side-skirts of its M-Sport badged brethren. These “I drive a right sporty car, me” models are the scourge of the outside lane of British motorways. In Le Mans Blue they’re a constant, threatening presence in our rear view mirrors, their gormless, middle-management pilots desperate to reach their next sales conference early enough to get a seat near the water cooler. M-Sports are almost always 320d’s too, displaying the look of performance while still meeting fleet-managers approval for low CO2 output and the attendant tax advantages that brings.

The SE is above all that nonsense. The look is of bland, unpretentious quality. It makes no particular statement other than whatever you read into the blue and white propeller badge. The fact that it’s a Touring, the station wagon variant, adds to the sense of maturity that it exudes. This particular example, in Sparkling Graphite metallic makes no more rear-view announcements than a cooking 318i, except for the chrome grille that signifies six engine cylinders. Even the wheels are nothing special, they were only a few hundred quid upgrade for the basic 3-Series SE, and were standard equipment with this particular engine.

Only when you suddenly get overtaken, blisteringly quickly, will you spot the twin chrome exhaust outlets and realise what you’ve been passed by.

When I first lived with a 335d a few years back, I ran one for a week or so as a company vehicle. That particular machine, a saloon in Titanium Silver, had been an ordering error. It had gone into build without any optional upgrades whatsoever and looked to all intents and purposes like a 318i but with different exhausts. This made it an absolutely spectacular q-ship, an unnervingly stealthy overtaking weapon, and one that deliciously melted into the background when it needed to.

The car you see before you has a similar appeal. Being an estate car, and in a restrained colour nobody quite expects the twin-turbocharged diesel thrust it can deliver. Two hundred and eighty six easy horsepower, five hundred and sixty Newton metres of torque, with none of the histrionics of the highly strung petrol fueled machinery you usually expect this sort of performance from.

Nought to sixty takes 6.1 seconds. That’s pretty impressive for any car, let alone a sober looking diesel fueled estate car. But that’s only part of the story, the real magic of this car is what happens when you put your foot down at motorway outside lane cruising speeds. It takes a very special car indeed to keep up with the 335d as slingshots towards the horizon. Over any measurable increment, whether in gear or in kickdown, if you’re willing to take a flexible approach to compliance with speed legislation this car can make journeys very short indeed.

It’s a fabulously stress-free experience. Overtaking is incredibly safe – passing maneouvres are dispatched in a heartbeat thanks to the obligatory steptronic gearbox which responds obediently and without hesitation. You just point and squirt. The ride quality, too, is excellent. While the E90 3-series still receives short shrift for its run-flat tyres, with mere 17-inch wheels the SE ride is firm rather than bone-splintering, and far more yielding than the M-Sport models with their take-no-prisoners rubber ‘n damping combo.

The great irony, though, is that the 335d is actually more fun without the M-Sport package. Sure, the ‘sportier’ trim level has wider tyres for more grip and a sharper turn-in, as well as stiffer springs for less body roll, both of which comply with general sporting car rules. But the SE provides more entertainment because you more readily sense that you’re reaching the limits. In fact, with torrents of torque available directly to the rear tyres, the limits are breached as and when you want.

It makes having fun incredibly easy. This car is a mobile drift academy, roundabouts become your playground; but you better get friendly with your local tyre-fitter.

Inside it’s the usual 3-Series story. The E90’s was never the most loved of BMW dashboards, it can all seem a little stark and plain looking, but I reckon it’s time for a little re-evaluation. Yes, it’s plain in execution, but the ergonomics are first rate and the materials first class. This particular example boasts BMW’s not universally loved iDrive controller, something many still fail to get along with, but which I infinitely prefer to fingerprint spattered touch-screen interfaces, it’s far more tactile than those can ever be. Things would be far better if iDrive wasn’t optimised for left-hand-drive markets, I’m right-handed, and wouldn’t dream of trying to work my computer mouse with my left hand, but iDrive offers no choice.

There are some genuine master-strokes, though. As if an acknowledgement to the shortcomings of any long-winded menu system, the Infotainment system has eight programmable direct-access keys, which can be assigned to a favourite radio station, satnav address or frequently used phone number. Brilliantly, a capacitive sensor recognizes your finger as you touch the button and displays the command you’re about to call upon before you press it in the conventional manner. You get the impression that BMW have put a lot of thought into things, and also have access to some very clever technology indeed. Good cupholders in the front, too.

It’s an intoxicating package all round, this one. Subtlety to the point of near-invisibility on the outside, quiet efficiency inside yet with apocalyptic firepower on tap from the engineroom. Being an estate car, it’s even practical to boot.

(All images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2011)

  • crank_case

    Mobile drift academy? With BMWs usual open diff?

  • Sjalabais

    Fantastically written, as always, but doesn’t BMW suffer the “dick brand fallacy”? Sorry, no better way to say it. Imho, a BMW can never be a “sleeper”, by default, due to the brand being situated as the enthusiast’s default choice. It’s a bit like there not being a sleeper Porsche.

    • Yeah, I guess you’re right. No matter what engine, any BMW is quite likely to blast past you at the hands of a determined cretin.

    • Smaglik

      I own 3 BMWs, the most recent one 2 years shy of being a teeenager. I hope that makes me dick^3. It’s be nice to finally win a measuring contest! 🙂

      • Sjalabais

        Haha, I knew this would get awkward, but it needed to be said. In the real world, there is nothing like a 100% valid prejudice, but since the whole concept of a “sleeper” is about prejudice and perception, I figured this one was a bit off.

        • Smaglik

          The thing is, i don’t disagree with you one bit. Years ago, when I owned an e24, I took it to a bmwcca drive with the Phoenix chapter. They were all nice people, but there was one guy who owned an e32, and we commiserated over shared engine issues, as we both had m30s with six figure mileage on them. The rest of the folk could be heard discussing their payments. Not really the type I’d pal around with. In fact, many look horrified when I shook off the fact that my vehicle was leaking gas out of the filler neck cause I’d actually filled it all the way, not knowing how far the drive would be…

          • JayP

            In the day (early 2000s) I was on an email list with track people – primarily BMW owners. The conversation was about track cars mostly but had some OT subjects like cigars and whisky. When they turned the conversation to strip clubs, I was out.

            I’m no prude by any stretch, but we -were- talking about track days.

            • Smaglik

              Haha. I didn’t hang around for the evening. Maybe they went there…

  • Smaglik

    Good article. You don’t see many of these around my neck of the woods, even when I’m in the phx area. I will say that I am not sure I agree on the quality of materials. Some are good; some not so good. My e83 is an 07, and the finish on many of the touch surfaces (window switches, steering wheel) was starting to peel when I got the car in ’13, with 75k on the clock. Other things have held up exceptionally well on it though. I’ve seen that same peeling in the E92 M3, so I think it was rather pervasive.

  • Rover 1

    “560 Newton metres of torque”
    To put this into perspective the torque monster Mercedes Benz 450SEL 6.9. with it.s 6.9 litre ohc injected V8 and familiar to us from it’s appearance in ‘Ronin’ has 549 N·m of torque in a bigger car, the later 600SEL with it’s 48 V 6.0 l V12 has 570 N⋅m (420 lb⋅ft)

    And this is in a 3 series!

    Holy wheelspin Batman!

    Yes.”but you better get friendly with your local tyre-fitter.”

    Meh. It’s a common size. Leave the ASR turned off.


  • Zentropy

    Very good article, if nothing else but for the statement “the SE provides more entertainment because you more readily sense that you’re reaching the limits.” SO MANY car reviewers address the absolute objective limits of a car, but fail to focus on the subjective qualities that make a car great to drive. Zero-to-sixty times, skidpad numbers, etc., are all fine metrics, but what makes a car fun to drive is the feel. That, and torque is totally underrated (again, subjectively) compared to HP.