Road test BMW 3.3Li automatic E3

2015 / 2016 Drive-My

Biggest BMW so far tends more to chauffer-driven comfort than to sporting tradition. Performance average for class, but remarkable economy. Over-light steering and under-damped ride are minor disadvantages. Very fully equipped.

For many years now, it has seemed that BMW are determined to match anything produced by their rivals at Daimler-Benz. This resulted in a succession of bigger and more powerful models from Munich, and when Mercedes introduced their S-class W116 in 1972 it was clear that there would sooner or later be a riposte from BMW.

The answer is the 3.3Li. Unlike the S-class, it is not are completely new car but rather a stretched version of an existing one. BMW took their E3 3.0S – a worthy enough starting point by any standard – and stretched both the chassis and the engine, the former by four inches and the latter by 300 c.c. (M30B33 engine), or 10 per cent of the original M30B30 engine volume.

The increase in wheelbase was simply enough achieved, but the greater engine capacity resulted from a longer stroke – there being too little scope for boring-out – and this could only be managed by using an entirely new cylinder block.

However, the engine still follows established BMW practice in all respects. Carburettors rather than fuel injection are used for the 3.3L E3 (one imagines there will be an injection version sooner or later) and in this form the engine gives 190 bhp (DIN) at the relatively modest power peak of 5,500 rpm. This is only 10 bhp more than is claimed for the BMW 3.0S E3 power unit, making it plain that the extra capacity has been devoted to finding more torque rather than extra power.

Because of the timing of the BMW 3.3L E3 announcement, customers may tend to compare it with the Mercedes-Benz 450SEL W116 which was recently the subject of an Autocar test. But while the BMW qualifies as a big car with its 110 ¼ in. wheelbase, it is still smaller than the S-class Mercedes, let alone the long wheelbase SEL versions. Compared with the 450SEL W116, it is also lighter (and cheaper).

In terms of equipment, however, the BMW gives nothing away. Automatic transmission is standard (though four-speed manual may be specified instead, at the same price). Full air-conditioning is also included in the price, as is a first-class stereo radio, alloy wheels and leather upholstery, and an electrically operated sunroof. Indeed. BMW say no extras at all are listed for the car in the UK market, though wider wheels and a limited-slip differential are offered in Germany.

Viewed from the front, the extra length is not apparent and the BMW E3 3.3Li looks much like the other six-cylinder models.

Performance and economy

One is so used to finding BMWs quicker than anything comparable that it comes as a mild shock to find that, against the stopwatch, the 3.3Li automatic E3 is no better than a good average.

This, however, is by the exalted standards of its price class, and it is worth noting that all four of the cars with which we com-pare it have substantially bigger engines – one of them over twice as big. Some of the blame for the less-than-spectacular times lies with the automatic transmission, which restricts one to a smart rather than blistering step-off from a standing start; and as we have said, the engine is not tuned for maximum power – certainly not as BMW know it.

All this having been said, the 3.3L E3 is still rapid in absolute terms. Though managing only 3.7sec to 30 mph, it still reaches 60 mph in under 10sec, and 100 mph in under the half minute. This, it might be added, is using the manual selector to delay upward changes. Unusually in this day and age, we found it was possible to make quite substantial gains by holding the lower ratios rather than leaving the transmission to its own devices. This was largely because the automatic upshifts, even at full throttle, came quite early, at 42 and 72 mph. Kickdown into intermediate was only possible below 62 mph, and into low at less than 21 mph.

In the 3.3L the transmission is the Borg-Warner 65 rather than the ZF unit of the smaller BMWs. It is clear that its change points have been set with a view to smoothness, and perhaps economy also, rather than sheer performance. As a transmission it performs well, except for some suggestion of jerkiness during full-throttle up-shifts, or when the driver eases off the throttle when close to an upshift point. Downward changes are always smooth and the response to the kickdown is very quick. There is a part- throttle kickdown facility which works well at moderate speeds, but causes “hunting” between top and intermediate in traffic queues travelling uphill. In these circumstances, it is better to hold intermediate (which has the further advantage of a higher kickdown speed of 28 mph into low).


Holding the lower ratios to the rev limit gives maxima of 54 and 88 mph respectively, at which point the ignition governor is invoked. This happened with the rev counter showing exactly 6.300 rpm – the start of the red sector-which means that allowing for some slight torque converter slip, the instrument is as near accurate as makes no difference.

Throughout the rev range, the engine feels superb. There is just the slightest suggestion of roughness from 6,000 rpm, but this will of course never trouble those who are content to leave the transmission in A (which takes the place of the more conventional D). There is plenty of punch in the all-important overtaking speed ranges our figures show how much less than usual the acceleration in each gear falls off as speed increases. This is evidence of a very flat torque curve, the most important factor when one is looking for good performance from an automatic.

Since the 3.3L E3 is slightly smaller and lighter than some of its rivals, one tends to look for benefits in fuel economy. There is no disappointment here. Our steady-speed consumption figures show the car to be doing better than 20 mpg even at 70 mph, and our overall 17.7 mpg confirms this. To gain a better picture, we left our flowmeter in position while the car was driven fairly gently (averaging 40 mph across country) from the MIRA track to the south coast, and then for the commuter trip to London. The best figure for a 20-mile stretch was 25.5 mpg; on the commuter run, the first 40 miles gave 19.1 mpg, but the last 20 miles to the city centre returned only 12.1 mpg. It is obvious, therefore, that the consumption suffers heavily when the car is used in crowded, stop-start traffic.

Although our test mileage was higher than usual, the oil consumption was too small to give a definite figure. It is worth noting that BMW still call for the use of monograde rather than multigrade oil.

Handling and brakes

It is in the area of handling that the driver becomes truly aware of the 3.3L E3 being a big car weighing over a ton and a half at the kerb. Again, one must keep a sense of proportion; it handles well in absolute terms and by the standards of its class. But it will rather disappoint those who are used to the nimbleness of its smaller stablemates. In those terms, both the steering and the damping feel slightly lacking.

The steering – power-assisted as standard, naturally – lacks sufficient feel and has a suggestion of slop about the straightahead. This matters little on a motorway since the car’s natural stability is excellent and even strong gusts of sidewind do little more than rock it on its springs. When entering a corner, however, the driver must concentrate and avoid abrupt movements of the wheel if the change of course is to be smooth and the chosen line held. It is too easy to find the car lurch over to its roll angle and discover the line is too tight

Once established in the corner, the 3.3L E3 behaves well and predictably, with excellent balance for so large a car. Most of the time it clings at both ends until the limit is reached, after which it slides bodily sideways and can be held by easing the steering slightly. Only when the roads are very slippery, or the entry to the corner has been too abrupt, do the back wheels slide first. Normally the roll angle reached at the cornering limit should be enough to inhibit any chauffeur (and most owner-drivers) from trying so hard.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the car is underdamped. Both the cornering roll, and the ride on anything but perfect surfaces, suggest this. There is, of course, a tradition that cars in this class should be softly sprung, but there is an essential difference between springing and damping. On near-smooth roads there is enough of a heaving motion to upset passengers when the car is driven hard; and when entering a dip, the initial downwards “squash” ends with a sudden tightening of the suspension which can at worst be felt as a jar at the base of the spine. Whatever somebody felt the market needed – and there is no doubt that the ride is very comfortable when the 3.3L E3 is driven with circumspection – we would have preferred stronger damping even about the mean position, and certainly a more progressive build-up towards full bump and rebound.

The brakes can hardly be faulted. They give good retardation for light (but not over-light) pedal pressures, but at the same time it is very difficult, at least when the brakes are cold, to lock the wheels. While 100lb pedal pressure gave us 0.98g, an in-crease to 140lb failed to lock the wheels, but increased the deceleration to 1.05g. It was not until 160lb was tried that one front wheel finally locked. In the same way, the hand-brake gave an impressive 0.37g when used on the level, without locking the back wheels, li also held the car very firmly facing either way on a 1 in 3 slope, on which gradient a restart was no problem at all.

Our fade test showed only minor variations in the pedal pressure needed to achieve 0.5g, and no other sign of misbehaviour; but at the conclusion of the test, we found the effort needed to lock the wheels had halved. This temperature-sensitivity is no bad thing in itself, but drivers would do well to be aware of it when driving hard.

Comfort and equipment

The big doors, opening wide, make entry and exit very easy, and the car stands high enough to spare its passengers the need to stoop. Once inside, all occupants are aware of the high and commanding sitting position. Scat height adjustment is provided for the driver, but our tallest staff members felt that even with the scat lowered as much as possible, they were still too close to the roof. The front scats are massive, indeed so wide that although their shape is good, even well-built drivers find themselves lacking sideways support.

The propeller shaft tunnel is built-up for the whole length of the passenger compartment, with a sliding-armrest arrangement apparently intended to allow the installation (in Germany only) of a radio-telephone unit which could be used by occupants of cither front or back seats. In Britain it serves no useful purpose, other than to make it impossible for more than two people to sit in the back, despite the size of the car.

There is sufficient room in the back, but no air of real spaciousness. It seems almost as though much of the extra room created by the stretch in the wheelbase has been swallowed up by the massive and imposing-looking scats, leaving little more space for the occupants than is to be found in the BMW 3.0S E3. This is felt not only lengthwise, but in the lack of headroom experienced by very-tall back seat passengers.

For the driver, things are very well arranged. There is ample scat adjustment even for very tall men, and the controls are if anything laid out with a bulky driver in mind: a very small or short-legged driver might find himself too close to the wheel for comfort. The brake pedal is not large, but is well placed to allow cither left- or right-foot braking. The transmission selector is the now – conventional console- mounted tee-handle; it allows free movement between drive and neutral but not, annoyingly, between drive, 2 and 1. Two column-mounted stalks cover most of the controls needed on the move, leaving only the heater controls and the lighting master switch on the facia itself. The heater controls would be much better if they were illuminated.

The instruments are to BMW’s usual high standard, large and easily-read dials immediately in front of the driver. The speedometer over-read progressed as speed increased – witness the 131 mph indicated on our maximum speed runs, for a true 124 mph. The clock, much smaller and out of keeping with the rest of the instruments, is mounted on the passenger side where it is difficult for the driver to see it.

Where noise is concerned, the BMW is good but by no means perfect. Perhaps the most surprising thing is the amount of noise it makes when being manoeuvred very slowly a combination of fan and induction noise. Once it is on the move, everything becomes much quieter unless it is accelerating hard, when the induction noise is again heard. As speed builds up, some wind noise becomes evident in the front scats, though not in the back. At very-high speeds, it tends to be the most prominent noise for the driver. Road noise is very well suppressed except for a typical radial-ply tyre bump-bump over cats-eyes and similar projections.

Living with the BMW 3.3LiA

One slightly worrying thing about our test car was the number of minor defects it developed. One dipped-beam headlamp failed, three of the electric window lifts ceased to work (though one later recovered of its own volition), and cold starting became difficult apparently because of a defect in the automatic choke.

On the credit side, the headlamps were splendid on main beam, the four tungsten-halogen units giving an impressive spread and depth of light. They were helped by the headlamp-wiping system which is fitted as standard: the lenses are given a copious wash and a somewhat noisy wipe every time the engine is started. The contrast between main and dipped beam seemed rather great, though in fact the dipped beam pattern is very well controlled.

The main windscreen wipers work well, but are annoying in that the pattern is still set up for left hand drive, leaving a British driver with a large unwiped triangle at the top right of the screen.

When they were working, the electric window lifts impressed with their speed and silence. A cut-out button is provided with the driver’s set of four switches so that he can render the rear window switches inoperative – much to the annoyance of child passengers! Some drivers at first thought this button to control a central locking system: in-fact the 3.3Li automatic E3 is not so equipped, another surprising omission in its otherwise very complete specification.

The electrically operated sunroof worked smoothly and created no sign of a draught or leak when it was shut, but when it was open, at almost any speed, it created a furious low-frequency buffeting inside the car and is obviously badly in need of a flow-straightener. For the most part, though, owners are likely to leave everything shut and rely on the air conditioning, which worked well and unobtrusively.

The boot has no interior release, relying on a normal exterior lock. Because the extra length has all been gained within the wheelbase, the boot is the same size as in the other six-cylinder BMWs, but this is amply large enough to cope with normal luggage loads, which have to be lifted over a high sill. The spare wheel is stowed beneath the floor, so that much of the luggage would have to be lifted out to get at it. The massive (for 1977 – Drive-My remark) 6J-14 rim with its 195/70 tyre is something of a handful, of course. Jacking is by a conventional screw-pillar, slotting into two points under either sill.

The fuel filler cap lives behind the back number plate, and takes full flow from a modern petrol pump. The tank capacity of over 16 gallons gives a safe range of nearly 300 miles; a warning light starts to flash when 1 ½ gallons or so remain.

The bonnet release is inside the passenger glove compartment, and on the test car was excessively stiff to operate. The under-bonnet area, once revealed, is very orderly and easy to work on – much more so than in the fuel-injected versions. BMW now call for servicing only at 5,000 mile intervals instead of 3,750, which should case cost and in-convenience for the conscientious owner.

Our test car’s interior was finished in white leather, which gave an air of space and light but was hardly practical. However one tries to keep it clean, marks and smudges soon appear. Velour cloth is offered as an alternative, and might prove more practical in circumstances where there was no chauffeur to clean the car each evening.


With the 3.3Li automatic E3, BMW have made a determined attempt to join the truly prestige class – the diplomat/captain of industry, chauffeur-driven brigade. They have succeeded in almost every respect. To judge the car perhaps a trifle harshly, its specification is still lacking such things as a central locking system, and it did not feel quite as unquestionably reliable as such a car should. More important perhaps, and a hard thing to say in present circumstances, it is still not altogether big enough to join the real top- class there is not enough room in the back for that. But it should find its place half a class lower, so to speak, and may indeed sell many more in consequence.

Type BMW M30B33 big block
Cylinders 6, in line
Main bearings 7
Cooling system Water; pump, viscous fan and thermostat
Bore 89.0mm (3.50 ¼ in.)
Stroke 88.4mm (3.48 ½ in.)
Displacement 3.295 c.c. (201 cu. in.)
Valve gear Single overhead camshaft, chain-driven
Compression ratio 9-to-1. Min. octane rating: 97RM
Injections / Carburettors Bosch-mechanical D-Jetronic fuel injection / 2 Solex INAT 35/40
Fuel pump Pierburg mechanical
Oil filter Full-flow, replaceable cartridge
Max. power 190 bhp – 200 bhp (DIN) at 5.500-5.700 rpm
Max. torque 213 lb. ft. – 230 lb. ft. (DIN) at 2.800-3.500 rpm
Gearbox Borg-Warner 65 three-speed automatic with torque converter
Gear ratios Top (Auto) 1.0
Inter 1.45
Low 2.39
Reverse 2.09
Final drive Hypoid level 3.45-to-1
Mph at 1,000 rpm in top gear 20.8
Front track 4 ft 9 in
Rear track 4 ft 9 ½ in
Clearence 5 ½ in
Construction Integral, with steel body
Front Independent; MacPherson struts, lower wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear Independent; semi-trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers
Typo ZF worm-and-roller, power-assisted
Wheel diameter 16.0 ¼ in
Make and type Ventilated discs front and rear, split-circuit with duplicated front-wheel systems
Servo Vacuum, duplicated
Dimensions F, 10.7 in. dia. R, 10.7 in. dia.
Swept area F, 213 sq. in.; R, 213 sq. in.
Total 420 (242 laden)
Typo Light alloy, 5-stud fixing, 6.0in. wide rim
Tyres – make Various (Michelin XWX on test car)
-type radial ply tubed
-size 195 HR 14in.
Battery 12 volt 55 Ah.
Alternator 84 amp a.c.
Headlamps 110/230 watt (total) tungsten halogen
Reversing lamp Standard
Electric fuses 12
Screen wipers Two-speed with intermittent-wipe
Screen washer Standard, electric
Interior heater Standard
Heated backlight Standard
Safety belts Standard
Interior trim Leather seats, pvc headlining
Floor covering Carpet overall
Jack Screw pillar typo
Jacking points 2 each side under sills
Windscreen Laminated TRIPLEX
Underbody protection Rubber compound overall
Fuel tank 16.5 lmp gallons (75 litres EU)
Cooling system 21 pints (including heater)
Engine sump 10 pints (5.7 litres). SAE 30. Change oil every 5.000 miles. Change filter every 5,000 miles
Transmission 3.2 pints. SAE ATF. Check every 10,000 miles
Final drive 2.6 pints. SAE 90EP. Check every 10.000 miles
Grease No points
Valve clearance Inlet: 0.012/0.014 in. (hot/cold) Exhaust: 0.012/0.014in. (hot/cold)
Contact breaker 0.016in. gap; 35-41 deg dwell
Ignition timing 22 deg. BTDC (stroboscopic at 1,700 rpm)
Spark plug Typo: Bosch W175 T30. Gap: 0.28in.
Compression pressure 156 psi.
Tyre pressures F, 27; R, 26 psi (normal driving) F, 29; R. 20 psi (high speed) F. 30: R, 31 psi (full load)
Max. payload 992 lb. (450kg)



ACCELERATION – BMW 3.3Li automatic E3 1977
ACCELERATION FROM REST 0-30 mph 0-40 mph 0-50 mph 0-60 mph 0-70 mph 0-80 mph 0-90 mph 0-100 mph 0-110 mph
3.7 sec 6.4 sec 7.3 sec 9.9 sec 13.1 sec 17.2 sec 22.4 sec 28.6 sec 42.1 sec
0-40 kph 0-60 kph 0-80 kph 0-100 kph 0-120 kph
Stand 1/4 miles 17.3 sec – terminal speed 80 mph
Stand 1km 31.7 sec – terminal speed 102 mph
0-51 0-84 22-124
ACCELERATION IN KICKDOWN 10-30 mph 20-40 mph 30-50 mph 40-60 mph 50-70 mph 60-80 mph 70-90 mph
2.1 sec 2.5 sec 3.1 sec 5.0 sec 9.1 sec 9.9 12.4
40-60 kph 60-80 kph 80-100 kph 100-120 kph
4.0 4.3
Banked Circuit (best) 124 100
Best 1/4 mile 110 170
Terminal Speeds: at 1/4 mile 178
Terminal Speeds: at kilometre 187
Terminal Speeds: at 1/4 mile 179
Touring (est.) 17.9 mpg / 15.9 litres/100 km – Consumption midway between 30 mph and maximum less 5 per cent for acceleration.
Overall 18.1 mpg / 13.7 litres/100 km
Fuel grade petrol 98
Tank capacity 16.5 galls / 75.5 litres
Max range 550 miles
Test distance 1713 miles
NOISE dbA Motor rating (A rating where 1 = 30 dbA and 100 = 96 dbA, and where double the number — means double the loudness.)
30 mph 58 10
50 mph 61 11
70 mph 64 11
Max revs in 2nd 69 12
Speedo mph True mph
30 29
40 38
50 48
60 58
70 68
80 78
90 88

Figures taken at 3,300 miles by our own staff at the Motor Industry Research Association proving ground at Nuneaton. All Drive-my test results are subject to world copyright and may not be reproduced in whole or part without the Editor’s written permission.

Special thanks to Drive-My BMW E3 Club


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