It’s one of the most unfortunate side-effects of getting old: realizing that you’re no longer the young upstart you used to be, and are now firmly part of The Establishment. Sooner or later, no matter how cool you are, people will look at you as The Man, the authority figure, the old guy in the room. And despite the old saying, aging and respect are rarely related; pitchers are still trying to blank David Ortiz during his final season. Linebackers didn’t go any easier on Peyton Manning last year, and you bet that the Utah Jazz locker room wasn’t a fun place to be after Kobe Bryant scored 60 on them in April, even if it was his last game. In an age when Bob Dylan is doing Frank Sinatra covers and Robert DeNiro is starring in movies with Zac Efron, our capital L-Legends are beginning to seem as vulnerable as the rest of us.
In the automotive world, nowhere is this more apparent than in the compact luxury segment, where for over 40 years, the BMW 3 Series has been The Man. For all intents and purposes, it single-handedly ushered in the modern sport sedan, and formed the basis for one of the most beloved performance cars the world has ever known. Without it, Mercedes wouldn’t have built the 190E (which became the C-Class), and Audi likely wouldn’t have reinvented itself on the strength of the A4 back in the ’90s. The tension has only risen from there. It’s safe to say that BMW’s bread-and-butter car wears a target on its back bigger than any other model on the planet. In fact, you could rename the segment “3 Series-Fighters,” and we doubt few, if anyone, would protest — competitors included.
But one thing it’s never done is rest on its laurels. Like most legends, the 3 Series isn’t just competing with its rivals, it’s also competing with its own history. Worse, with each refresh and restyling it also has to reckon with what every current and former owner, journalist, BMW fan, and car guy thinks it used to be, regardless of whether or not it ever actually was. That’s a lot to be up against, and yet year after year, the 3 Series has never stopped behaving like the legend it is. There hasn’t been a “last good one” yet. Or “the one that nobody wants.” It’s never gone through an awkward phase as badly as the bigger 5 and 7 Series have. Since 1975, against all odds, the 3 Series has consistently been the 3 Series, and everyone else has just been trying to catch up. But a rising tide lifts all boats, and the competition is as fierce as ever, especially with a new crop of “Official 3 Series-Fighters” like the Cadillac ATS and Jaguar XE joining the fray. Still, after spending a week in a 340i, we came away more convinced than ever that the 3 Series is still the legend — and benchmark — it’s always been.
Launched in 2011, we didn’t always love the look of the current F30 3 Series. It was a step up from the conservative-looking E90, but at 15.2 feet long and 3,800 pounds, it also was nearly the size of a 5 Series from 15 years ago, and its long, low, wide bodywork didn’t do much to hide that fact. But BMW has subtly freshened up the 3 for 2016, and a near-imperceptible nip and tuck in the right places has done wonders for it. It isn’t any smaller or lighter, but it looks cleaner, and that’s almost as good.
The sedan now looks more like the sportier 4 Series (once the 3 Series coupe), returning that to outwardly sporty pretense that’s historically given the model such presence. Our test car came in a gorgeous Melbourne Red Metallic that was deep and rich, but thankfully not too metallic. Accented with the matte chrome trim that’s included in the Track Handling Package (more on that later), it was a stunner, even if it was a little loud. The 3 Series was masterful at coming out of nowhere and dusting bigger, glitzier cars like an assassin in a Saville Row suit. Maybe our 340i was subtle compared to an M3, but against virtually everything else on the street, it was like bringing a lit roman candle to an ambush. Still, it seemed to dismantle the “cold, clinical German sedan” stereotype, and replace it with a look that says “Let’s get into some trouble.” It’s hard not to love a car that does that.
Exterior pros and cons
+ New-for-2016 revisions are subtle, but much needed.
+ Matte chrome trim deserves to be a much bigger trend. It’s far more interesting than black-plated hardware, and looks just as sporty.
+ Matte 18″ Orbit Grey wheels are just subtle enough to offset all that bright red.
– We love sport sedans in loud colors like Dakota Red, but it could read “boy racer” to some.
– Still big for a compact.
The 3 Series may benefit from its facelift, but the real story is what’s underhood. Gone is the 335i model, with its N55 straight-six, replaced with the all-new 3.0-liter turbocharged B58. It’s still a smooth, powerful straight-six (a BMW hallmark), but the new mill is related to the company’s new modular design, which covers everything from compact three-cylinders up to sixes, and carries over to both gasoline and diesel-powered engines. The B58 is good for 320 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque — a 20 horse and 30 pound-foot boost over the old engine. Our test car had the no-cost option six-speed manual, which was direct, responsive, and allowed us to wring every drop of power out of the new engine. Through the standard 340i dual-exhausts, it all sounded so good that we even went without air conditioning on some very hot July days just to hear its rasp. We don’t regret a minute of it.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ The new straight-six with the manual transmission is better on power and torque, and identical on fuel economy (20 city/30 highway). It’s the best of both worlds!
+ You’ll want to hear that engine, it doesn’t get old.
+ You’ll want the manual too.
– Our left leg is bigger than our right thanks to the heavy clutch, but that’s the fault of Fourth of July weekend New York City traffic too.
– Fuel economy is good, but it’s better in the Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4.
One of our big strikes against BMW has been the unimaginative interior design language that extends across its entire lineup. But after a few days with our 340i, we softened considerably. Is the 3 Series going to inspire anyone to wax poetic about its dashboard? Probably not. But who cares? The iconic 2002’s dash wasn’t sculpture either. BMW has long made sport sedans that expertly blend luxury, modern tech, and comfort, but are meant to be driven. Hard. Our 340i fit that description to a T.
Everything inside feels solid and purposeful, soft-touch materials are top-notch, and the seats were comfortable enough to tackle both bumper-to-bumper city traffic and highway driving without leaving us fatigued, while being well-bolstered and firm enough to keep us from sliding around on tight mountain roads. The same goes for the back seats, though there was just barely enough legroom for this writer’s 6-foot-2 frame.
Ergonomically, the 340i is the continuation of a theme BMW has stuck with since for over half a century. Big, easy-to-read white-on-black gauges tell you everything you need to know when you’re driving in anger, and the MID bleeds from the bottom of the instrument panel into the bottom of them — a stylistic touch that we liked a lot.
Interior pros and cons
+ Every surface feels nice and substantial; seats are supportive in all driving conditions.
+ It isn’t the sexiest interior, but it is one of the most comfortable and ergonomically friendly money can buy.
+ All that black leather and plastic is broken up beautifully by the red contrast stitching on the steering wheel, seats, and door panels.
– … But then again, it isn’t the sexiest interior. Not even in its segment.
– Brushed aluminum, piano black, and dark wood trims are all well and good, but we would love it if BMW offered some bolder wood trim to break up the big, black dashboard — think the light walnut dash of the classic 3.0 CSL.
– BMW (and Mercedes) could learn something from Audi and introduce a retractable infotainment screen. As it is now, it looks placed on top of the dash as an afterthought.
Tech and safety
BMW may build “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” but it’s also concerned with keeping its drivers safe. The 3 Series comes standard with front and side airbags, dynamic stability control, and a brake fade compensation system. And while our near-loaded 340i’s Track Handling Package was mostly concerned with performance, its big M Sport brakes gave us confidence, even in emergency stopping situations during congested holiday travel.
Our car also had a heads-up display that kept our eyes on the road, active blind spot monitoring, and top, side, and reverse cameras. Seats and steering column are powered, with the former being heated, cooled, and having a memory function. For times when we couldn’t open up that sweet-sounding six, the optional Harmon Kardon surround sound stereo sounded big and clear, providing the perfect soundtrack for times when the engine couldn’t.
Tech and safety pros and cons
+ All the modern tech you’d want in an unobtrusive package.
+ GPS system was quick and impossible to stump, even after a few wrong turns.
+ We didn’t get a chance to really use the brake fade compensation, but the brakes were so responsive and grippy, we wish we could’ve driven it in anger long enough to make it work.
– We’ve spent a lot of time with the iDrive infotainment system, and still aren’t fans of the cumbersome control wheel.
– The HVAC system’s climate controls sometimes seemed to have a mind of their own.
Confession: We expected to like the 340i, but we didn’t expect to be so taken by it. The Germans have long been accused of building thoroughly impressive, occasionally beautiful luxury and performance cars, but very few people would describe any of them as having a warm personality. Our 340i did. It begged to be driven, and to be driven with some emotion. It was responsive, surprisingly forgiving, and impossible not to look back at and smile every time we parked it for the night.
Surprisingly, it doesn’t quite put the “machine” in “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” which was something that made us like it even more. It’s too inviting for that; at first we thought it was the loud paint job, go-fast wheels, and track pack, but the more time we spent with it, the more we realized it wasn’t the case. For a car designed to hit the track (should the occasion call for it), it was surprisingly comfortable and civilized in one of the worst places to drive on earth: Manhattan on a holiday weekend. But once we hit left city limits, it ran like a thoroughbred in open country.
All 3 Series have the Driving Dynamics Control with Eco, Pro, Comfort, Sport, and Sport + settings, but with the Track Package’s adaptive M suspension, revised steering, and those big brakes, the 340i blurs that line between world-class sport sedan and legitimate sports car. Dialing in Sport + for the first time, the car noticeably hunkered down, and it took to the mountain roads above the Hudson River with a purpose not usually seen in a sedan, regardless of who makes it.
We came away from our time with the 340i more than pleasantly surprised. On the one hand, it delivered everything we’d expect from BMW: top-notch build quality, a comfortable, tech-laden interior, fantastic handling, and plenty of power. But the 340i had more than that, namely that it was really, honest-to-God a lot of fun. Not only did it feel like a perfect driver’s car, it felt like our driver’s car, and that feeling grew stronger every day we had with it. You can employ the best engineers in the world and still never figure out how to make a car feel like that, so when you find something that does, it’s really special.
If there’s any downside to our 340i, it’s the price. Its $45,800 base isn’t anything to sneeze at, but it’s also on par with the segment. But add our car’s $1,700 track package (a must for us, even if you aren’t going to track it), tech package ($2,700), Driver Assistance Plus ($1,700), Cold Weather pack ($800), and automatic high beams (another $800), our car rang up at a whopping $58,420 — well into bigger, plusher 5 Series territory. That’s a ton of money for a midsize luxury car no matter how good it is.
But here’s another way to look at it: The M3 is one of the best driver’s cars in the world, and for $63K and up, you pay a premium for it. But the M3 is also an exclusive and temperamental beast, and one tall order as a daily driver. Every parking lot could become a potential site for disaster, let alone potholes and speed bumps. What’s more, you’d rarely if ever be able to use the car’s full potential on public roads. The 340i with the Track Handling Package delivers many of the M3’s thrills in a package that you can live with every day. It may come at a price, but to some people, it’s well worth it. After spending a week with one, we’re starting to think that we’d be one of them, if our bank accounts could handle it. Legends may fade over time, but 41 years hasn’t slowed the 3 Series down one bit. The rest of us should be so lucky.