We test out the new BMW 3 Series in M340i guise ahead of its Australian arrival.
The days when the BMW 3 Series was a piece of automotive currency, like the Volkswagen Golf, have probably gone now, thanks to the inexorable transition towards SUVs. But sales of the Munich manufacturer’s iconic three-box premium sedan have actually remained steady, plus continued big sales numbers from China have been good enough to earn fresh investment in a facelift from BMW. And now it’s time to see if the money has been well spent.
From the outside, not a great deal has changed compared with the G20 3 Series that’s been on sale since 2019; there’s yet another take on the BMW kidney grille – thankfully kept in check by the car’s modest vertical dimensions – plus slimmer headlights. As is usually the case with a mid-life update, there are no sheet-metal changes, but the refreshed front bumpers do give the car a more aggressive stance.
It’s inside where BMW has really splashed the cash – perhaps in a bid to match the strongest point of its traditional rival, the Mercedes C-Class – by fitting some of the tech from the latest i4 and iX. There’s a huge curved display (actually a pair of screens – a 12.3-inch instrument panel and a 14.9-inch infotainment set-up), and it all runs the latest version (8, if you’re counting) of BMW’s in-house operating system. The firm is promising that over-the-air updates will deliver bug fixes and new features over time.
Under the skin, the 3 Series is still offered with a choice of four petrol engines, including a plug-in hybrid, and a pair of diesels featuring mild-hybrid technology that won’t be offered in Australia. An eight-speed automatic transmission is standard across the range and while the traditional rear-drive configuration remains on most models, range-topping editions get xDrive all-wheel drive as standard.
The trim line-up has been rationalised a little, and BMW’s bundled options packs should keep configuration relatively simple for most buyers. There are two basic editions; Sport brings 17-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, heated front seats, parking sensors, a rear-view camera, cruise control and air-conditioning. Stepping up to M Sport means 18-inch alloys, flashes of aluminium interior trim, an M Sport steering wheel, sports suspension and variable sports steering.
The aforementioned packs include Comfort (heated steering wheel, powered bootlid and comfort access), Visibility (adaptive LED headlights with high-beam assist), Technology (Harman Kardon surround-sound system, a wireless smartphone charging pad and a head-up display), and M Sport Pro, which is available only on M Sport editions and offers upgraded brakes, adaptive suspension, 19-inch alloys, sun-protection glass and M Sport styling add-ons, including a rear spoiler.
The engine range starts with the humble 135kW 320i, but here we’re driving the range-topping M340i xDrive, whose six-cylinder turbocharged motor delivers a whopping 275kW and 500Nm for a 0-100km/h time of 4.4 seconds. It comes at a hefty price, mind – $104,900 – and emits anywhere between 177g/km and 193g/km of CO2. If any of the 3 Series models risks feeling a bit like a ‘farewell tour’ for petrol-powered sedans, it could be this one.
It makes sense to reflect the fact that BMW’s engineers haven’t really played with the dynamic make-up, and start instead with the new cabin. It’s not flawless – witness the cheap-feeling, non-lined door pockets, for example – but on the whole the transformation is enough to really narrow the gap to the C-Class in this area. Almost all of the bits you’re likely to touch feel high in quality, the fit and finish are excellent, and the technology is neatly integrated into the top of the dashboard – although the huge displays dominate the vista.
That infotainment system is one of our favourites, and while there’s a lot going on (even learning to appreciate everything that it can do will require an afternoon’s commitment from a new owner), the interface is slick and the processor behind the whole thing is powerful enough to deliver quick responses to any inputs.
The cabin itself has no more space than before, of course – beyond a little more fresh air in the front, thanks to the switch from a gearlever to a toggle selector – but this is still a car capable of carrying four adults in comfort. The boot capacity is unchanged too, at 480 litres – a decent amount for the class, while obviously not quite as roomy as some hatchbacks.
The M340i may be slightly out of kilter with market trends, on powertrain and green credentials as much as bodystyle, but once you get moving, you realise that it is by no means a bad car. Quite the opposite, in fact. With the basics left untouched, you still get that exceptional 3 Series mix of excellent body control, direct and meatily weighted steering, agility and comfort. It’s a little firmer than a C-Class but it never feels crashy – although it’s worth pointing out that BMW’s Bavarian test route was smooth, and the M340i gets the adaptive suspension as standard, for maximum sophistication.
The engine, meanwhile, is a gem; it has a characterful growl from low revs and while there is a noticeable turbocharged whoosh at around 2500rpm, you’d never call it laggy. Given a little space to stretch its legs, this car has explosive performance that wouldn’t shame a full-blown M model.
Indeed, there’s the sort of duality here that is so, so much harder for engineers to achieve with four-cylinder power. Push the M340i hard and it has more than enough performance for rapid cross-country progress; in Sport mode it’ll even give you little whoofles on gearchanges.
Keep it in Normal and allow the smooth auto gearbox to slush its way into a higher ratio, and you’ll keep pace with freeway traffic at barely 1500rpm, with little to disturb you beyond a slight rustle of wind noise from the door mirror. B-road weapon or long-distance cruiser? This is a car that can accomplish both roles in style.
The core BMW 3 Series recipe hasn’t changed here; this is still the best-driving executive saloon on the market, with a communicative chassis and well judged suspension that keeps body roll in check while still being comfortable. It’s shockingly quick in M340i guise, too, for those who can afford it. But across all versions, it’s the cabin and tech upgrades that make the biggest difference, fixing the one area where BMW’s star player was short of talent. It is a much better car to drive and sit in than countless SUVs that outsell it – and that’s more of a travesty than ever.