It would have been in late ’76 or early ’77 that I first spotted a 3-Series BMW on the street. I was driving a ’74 Alfa Romeo Berlina, purchased new in 1976. At that time – and in that moment – Alfa’s Berlina epitomized the Italian sport sedan. While Italian coupes and sports cars were beautifully seductive, the sedans were merely useful; their beauty – if you could call it that – was in their functionality. With BMW’s all-new 3-Series, its functionality was in obvious harmony with an almost-seductive shape. It wasn’t, perhaps, the girl you simply wanted to bed; the 3-Series, both then and now, was/is the girl you want to bed and, afterward, take home to meet the folks. After – of course – a cigarette and breakfast…
My ownership history of BMWs has been both extended (in the number of vehicles) and brief, given the cumulative length of ownership. My first, a new 320i in ’80 and ’81, was replaced by a new VW Scirocco when I saw the Scirocco as more recreational. And that was replaced by a gray market 323i, which I knew was more recreational – until I put it on its top following the blowout of a front tire. Later, a 528e was owned until I started feeling the pull of an Alfa Spider. Since then, as BMWs grew in both size and price our family has collectively moved on to Hondas, Jeeps and, most recently, Subarus. But the introduction of a refreshed 3-Series, with its TwinPower Turbo inline six, has significantly altered that perspective, as it looks both more practical and still recreational.
In size, this is a very mature take on the original 3-Series footprint. But then, forty years later I’m up three inches in waist size (could be worse, could be better…) while ‘lower’ by a ½ inch. This 2016 3-Series, when compared to the Euro-spec 5-Series of forty years ago, is almost identical in length, fully five inches wider and sits on a wheelbase seven inches longer. And because of safety-oriented crash protection and the very real need for a stiffer platform, along with enough onboard electronics to support a sub-orbital mission, the new 340i outweighs the 1st-gen 5-Series by some 700 pounds. And that – if you do the math – is a full load of small Europeans. But then, the 528i back in the day came with 174 horsepower, while the 340i TwinPower Turbo (a descriptive which – I think – evokes Motown more than Munich) produces 320! Here, then, are the highlights…
EXTERIOR: With its rear-wheel drive proportions obviously set back on its chassis and topped by a still-generous greenhouse, the refreshed 3-Series remains unmistakably a BMW. With that, know many of its stylistic details have been adapted by Honda (Accord) and others. For 2016, a mild stylistic refresh includes what BMW describes as precisely designed headlamps (full LED lighting is standard on the 340i) moved further apart, while daytime running lights are ‘even more striking’, given their modified upper and lower edges. Also up front, broader side air intakes in the apron suggest an even stronger presence, while in back the rear bumpers and rear lights – again, LED – are also new.
To be identified easily, you either take a cheat sheet or park a ’16 next to a ’15. This is a mid-cycle refresh, not an all-new revamp. In profile, the optional 19-inch alloys comfortably fill the wheelwells, while making the ride firmer and urban potholes more noticeable.
INTERIOR: Inside, know that someone spending $40K on the entry-level 320i will enjoy the amenities more than someone spending almost $60K on the upmarket 340i; an A6 or up-spec A4 this is not. However, the functionality is certainly there, as is a driver-oriented focus. Plastics on the dash don’t scream ‘cheap’, but neither will you confuse them with a material other than plastic. And while the buckets are appropriately comfortable and supportive, the Oyster Dakota leather looked to resemble a high quality vinyl more than someone’s high quality cow. That’s a perception much better for durability, less so for desirability.
As noted, the footprint of today’s ‘3’ is much closer to the size of an old ‘5’ in overall length, while exceeding the ‘5’ substantially in width. Today’s 340i is essentially a midsize car in its functionality, seating four midsize adults comfortably – both front and rear – while capably accommodating five for a lunch hour or dinner date. And if traveling, know the 17 cubic feet of trunk volume should easily accommodate the wardrobe, while folding rear seats will swallow a road bike. Payload – over and above the curb weight of 3700 pounds – is 900 pounds, which translates to four average adult Americans or six(!) small Europeans.
UNDER THE HOOD: So, I’m at a Dallas intersection when a guy in what I assume is an identical 3-Series (and there’s the rub when buying or leasing a 3-Series…) pulls up beside me and honks in acknowledgement. We start talking, I admit the ‘3’ isn’t mine, and mention how much I love (LOVE) BMW’s six cylinder. Of course, as the guy pulls away from the stop I belatedly note he’s in the 328i, equipped with BMW’s 4-cylinder turbo. It’s amazing how easily a foot can be inserted into a mouth, even while sitting in a car at a stoplight! Regardless, for all of the appropriate praise directed at BMW’s turbocharged fours, know that nothing can or will compare to BMW’s family of inline sixes; there’s a reason ‘Motor’ sits between ‘Bavarian’ and ‘Works’.
The 3.0 liter TwinPower Turbo is built upon BMW’s modular engine concept, where both 4 and 6-cylinder powertrains will share a common design blueprint, a per-cylinder displacement of 500cc and what BMW’s press material describes as ‘very lightweight, thermally optimized all-aluminum construction’. And even with that all-aluminum construction, significant emphasis was put on a high strength block, all the better to resist the stresses imposed by turbo-enhanced combustion.
Peak horsepower is 320 from between 5,500 rpm and 6,500 rpm, which is a 20 horsepower bump from the previous turbo’d six. And the powerplant’s peak torque tops out at 330 from a low 1,380 rpm. Equipped with an 8-speed Steptronic automatic, the 340i will achieve 60 in just under five seconds, while reaching a top speed of 155 – or ‘just’ 130 if equipped with all-season rubber. Also worth a mention: the 340i achieves an estimated 22 City/33 Highway/26 Combined in EPA testing, an absolutely crazy figure when considering the 340i’s performance and accommodation.
ON THE ROAD: Initial impressions while just trolling around town suggested a slight deadness in both throttle and steering. Get into the rhythm of both the chassis and powerband, however, and you won’t be disappointed. The key is the rocker switch on the central console, allowing a driver to switch from the default ‘COMFORT’ setting to ‘SPORT’, ECO PRO (a total waste of time) or SPORT +, which reduces the nanny effect of traction control. I’ll give you the COMFORT setting, but I don’t understand why it’s the default. The BMW’s handling remains good and throttle tip-in reasonably crisp, but it isn’t why you buy a BMW; it’s why you buy an Accord. The SPORT mode is exactly why you buy a BMW, with a significant improvement to throttle tip-in, perceived improvement in steering feel and crisper transmission shifts.
And it is in ‘SPORT’ when you get the full benefit of TwinPower Turbo combustion. This is an extraordinary powerplant in a chassis fully capable of using it. At almost 4,000 pounds I don’t see the 340i as a track day weapon (although a Track Pack suspension upgrade is available – for $1700), but I do see it as a fully credible conveyance where ‘sport’ and ‘sedan’ are served in equal measure. It isn’t designed for 20-somethings, nor should it be bought by 20-somethings. But for those contemplating their second, third or fourth car purchase, the updated 340i will hit all of the right automotive notes.
At BMW’s U.S. website (www.bmwusa.com) we built ours – in platinum silver with saddle leather – for $50K. You should see what you can do – and then buy it. Trump that…