You don’t typically expect to see a BMW splashed on the pages of Modified. In the scheme of things here in our tuner corner of the world, does the marque of the Roundel really belong in the same book that covers Subies, EVOs and blown Hondas? If you look at it from the perspective of racing, well, then Bimmer definitely belongs here. Take a gander at the race action in the SPEED World Challenge Touring Car series or Grand-Am KONI Challenge competition, and you’ll see 3-series BMWs competing right alongside Honda TSXs, RSXs and Civics, as well as Dodge SRT-4s, Chevy Cobalt SSs and even a Hyundai Tiburon or two. Of course, the sanctioning bodies try to ensure parity among the cars so there’s an actual race going on between the machines of a like class, and truth be known, a legal and well-prepped entry of any of these machines in the hands of a capable driver will all turn similar lap times. The point of placing these cars together is to attract a wider demographic, as such, the Bavarian make is a very welcome addition to such racing competition and to our group of drive evaluation vehicles in Modified.
The particular BMW in question for this month’s installment is an E46 chassis BMW 330i model owned by local Phoenix autocrosser and track day aficionado Doug Rowse. I will always hold a soft spot for the four-door 330, as I raced a street stock version of one in the KONI Challenge at Daytona in 2007, and it really was an easy car to drive quickly. I was hoping that when I heard about Doug’s car that it would bring back some of the feeling of that V-Pak prepared hot rod that I had raced.
Doug’s semi-street-driven 330 came rolling down the Bondurant track driveway on a cool January day that was threatening rain, so we got to work straight away, wanting to be sure to get a good flavor for what the car could do before the desert heavens opened up. Rowse’s silver Bimmer looked low and wide and bore some subtle damage on the rolled fenders either from contact on track or from big rub from the absolutely gargantuan 305/30R18 Kumho V710 meats wrapped around 18x10 D-Force LTW5 wheels. The intense Phoenix summer sun clearly had taken a bit of a toll on the silver roof of Doug’s 330 and with help from Cortez Visual Communications, he covered the back quarter of the car in the familiar BMW “M” Sport red and blue checkered flag scheme. Perhaps a bit too in-your-face for a street-driven vehicle, but right on the money for a track car, and a fitting homage to the original M1 as well as to the all-conquering PTG and Schnitzer racing team BMWs of the more recent past.
Doug’s 330, although a wonderful track car, was not a purpose-built race car and the interior was left almost completely stock, save for the practical form-fitting Sparco Pro2000 seats. The Sparcos also allowed for a much lower seating position and gave the 330 that unmistakable feel of a lower center of gravity. Although vision is certainly reduced and judging the external dimensions of the car becomes more difficult, I’ve always liked to sit as low as possible in the car. Climbing behind the wheel of the this four-door sedan felt right at home to me.
Doug bought his ’03 330i in September of 2004 under a salvage title. Clearly, he purchased the car as a track machine, and in fact, it saw its first competitive events almost immediately with HPDE and autocross becoming its regular weekend workload. After getting time in the car to help make some educated decisions on what would be best for increasing performance in the Bimmer, Doug began slowly making changes and enhancements to the car that would still keep it legal in the classes he wanted to continue to compete in. Following strong showings in SCCA Solo autocross competition and several events in NASA time trials and track days, Doug had developed a car that became increasingly competitive.
Doug’s 330i now has a TC Kline double adjustable coilover spring and damper suspension assembly to go along with a TC Kline front sway bar. The car also now has camber plates. All of the suspension mods allow for a massive amount of tunability, and Doug has worked hard to make the car driveable and quick, going to the limits of rebound in the rear, as well as camber and castor at the front.
Doug’s suspension tuning and driving abilities are obviously quite strong, as he won the ’08 California Divisional and National Solo championships, and has set track records at many of the local Phoenix circuits. However, while the car was definitely fun for me to drive, I personally was not a big fan of the increased castor in the car. The steering feel was ultra-light and almost overboosted, reducing the tactile feel of steering effort as load on the tires increased. It did, however, allow for wonderful economy of motion and efficiency, as I barely had to move the wheel to get the car to change direction. Again, though, I would’ve preferred a little more steering effort.
Grip from the massive Kumhos was almost comical, and in fact seemed to overwhelm the structural rigidity of the chassis at times. Despite some chassis-stiffening help from the immensely capable guys at Bimmerworld, the car seemed to literally twist with hard inputs on the throttle leaving slower corners, and the inside front tire was lifted a good foot to foot and half in the air! The feel inside the car was as though a giant rubber band were being stretched tight and then released, with all that energy causing the one-wheel wheelie! The resultant weight transfer to the rear helped put the power to the ground effectively, however, and it seemed to me that Guy Ankeny at ProParts USA, who did much of the shock valving, did his job well.
Doug didn’t mention too much about motor mods, although a custom lightweight header back exhaust and reflash resulted in 235 whp and 225 ft-lbs of torque. Those are some pretty decent numbers for what essentially is a stock motor, and Doug told me that he can routinely get wheelspin during autocross competition. While power was typical BMW in its delivery, which is to say almost perfectly linear, it wasn’t particularly strong, and with the grip this car developed, more power would have been welcome. Ultimately, this car is all about handling, and it performed that task with aplomb.
As is mandated by the all-encompassing rule book, Doug left the stock braking system on the car, which is exactly what we did with our KONI Challenge machine. Few braking systems out there, either stock or modified, provide the total feel of confidence in their ability to slow a car that BMW’s systems give. Even slowing from 150 mph repeatedly throughout a three-hour enduro in KONI competition was all in a day’s work for the stock binders on our 330, and I’m not sure that we ever truly reached their capacity to effectively slow the car or shed heat from the rotors. There has always been a sense of engineering integration in BMW braking systems that make them feel like a complete part of the vehicle. Sure enough, Doug’s car was able to shed energy predictably and capably, with my body being thrown against the stock three-point belt almost painfully. No sign of fade was felt throughout the driving sessions and overall braking was an impressive part of the machine, no doubt made even more so with the traction from the V710s.
Would putting a big brake on the car help it to slow better? As I sit here watching the Rolex 24 at Daytona, this time from my living room couch typing away on my Dell, I have no doubt that one of the exceptional systems from StopTech, Brembo, Baer or the like would certainly make some difference. The key is that while they would most likely produce additional braking force that would work well with a sticky tire, they would also likely increase longevity. Certainly in a twice-around-the-clock enduro, where the fewest visits to the pits for brake changes are part of the answer to success, a big brake kit would certainly help. For now, though, Doug’s 330 does more than just fine using just the stock binders.
After spending a good hour in Doug’s car, I have no doubt that he is likely to see more championships and track records set with his modified BMW 330i. Doug has plans to move into some higher and faster classes and will need to increase the power of the 3.0-liter inline-six. With another 100 hp to the wheels, a chassis-stiffening cage and some lightening of the 2,940-lb driver-free race weight, Doug’s car would be a true wolf in sheep’s clothing. I hope after he makes the jump to some stiffer competition, he decides to bring it by again and let Modified do another write up. Until then, I’ll be waiting and trying to prove that it really doesn’t matter what brand of car you own; mods that make the driving experience better are what this mag is all about, and guys like Doug have that figured out pretty well.