A part of me didn’t want to like the new BMW 3-series. Even after I’d heard many good things. It felt like the car let me down before even getting close to slipping behind the wheel.
I ‘ve owned a few examples of the 3-Series and still have one today. It was once Munich’s bread and butter car and I’ve always had a soft spot for them. There was and still is a lot to like: powerful and efficient inline-6 engines, rear-wheel drive, perfect steering, a balanced chassis, and space for up to five. They’ve always been versatile, and most of all fun.
But my favourite thing about the 3-Series? It’s always been available with a manual transmission, which isn’t exactly common in a near-luxury sedan today.
BMW was one of a diminishing number of automakers that held on to their 3-pedal transmissions, offering it on many of their models big and small. But over time they were dropped, one by one, as consumer preferences evolved. The 3-series, however, stubbornly held on to its third pedal, spitting in convention’s face.
That is until now, at least. With the arrival of the seventh-generation 3 series on North American soil the manual is gone, which made me sad.
Getting over that fact, it’s hard to blame the company. No one buys stick shifts anymore. Once-upon-a-time it was the cool thing to do and learning how to drive stick was like a rite of passage. But that was then and the world has changed. Now, even those that proudly brandish #savethemanuals all over social media are probably driving home in their automatic crossover. “Traffic,” you’ll hear them say.
Ok, so there’s no more manual. Lots of great cars don’t have them anymore. And being an auto scribe, it’s my job to drive as many new cars as I possibly can.
So I borrowed this M340i xDrive from BMW and spent a week driving it all over the place. These are my thoughts:
No manual on a BMW 3-series is a big change, but what hasn’t changed is its familiar silhouette. The 3-series has always had a body that at once appears muscular and lean, its skin stretched tight as a drum over the greasy bits underneath. The overhangs are tiny and the proportions reflect its sporty rear-wheel drive underpinnings. This is a car that looks like it’s moving when standing still. There are no frills, no wings, or boy-racer fins and splitters. There’s just a quiet confidence that could be interpreted as boring by some, but for the 3-series faithful this is exactly in line with generations past.
Elements like integrated exhaust tips, cerium grey trim and badging, 19-inch wheels, and a different, if slightly odd, kidney grille treatment give the car a more upscale feel. Thankfully those grilles aren’t as exaggerated as what we’ve been shown on the upcoming 4-Series which will basically be the same car underneath its coupé bodywork.
Interior is a tech hotbed
The cabin is all-new, growing slightly in most areas. It gets the latest in BMW corporate interior design and technology.
It starts with two large digital displays: a 12.3-inch screen for the instruments and a 10-inch touchscreen in the middle. Rather than combine them into one seamless panel à la Mercedes
, the centre display sort of waterfalls into the other but remains separate. The effort looks much better integrated into the dashboard than the previous generation where it seemed like an afterthought.
Dark open-pore wood trim doesn’t show fingerprints and an optional leather-covered dash is more 5-series than 3. The overall quality is a big step up from the last generation which drew its fair share of quality complaints from the brand faithful. The controls and switchgear and even the Cognac leather upholstery all feel better than ever.
iDrive 7 is the latest and greatest iteration of BMW’s infotainment software. The touchscreen is easy to use and very responsive with everything loading at the speed you’d expect from the latest smartphones. A redundant rotary controller and even the gimmicky gesture controls combine to make interacting with the system less distracting when on the move. Customizable widgets allow you to organize what you want to see on one screen and user-creatable profiles make it a more personal experience, especially if there are multiple drivers in the household.
New for BMW and the 3-series is the Intelligent Personal Assistant, that can recognize natural language commands activated with the passphrase “Hey BMW”. Similar in operation to the new MBUX system found on the latest Mercedes products, it offers voice access to functions like changing the cabin temperature or the radio station but not at the same level as Mercedes’ system.
There’s an updated BMW Driving Assistant that will take driving duties away from you and will now even allow limited hands-free autonomous driving at speeds up to 60 km/h but only as long as your eyes are affixed on the road ahead. It uses a camera focused on your head to make sure you are indeed paying attention.
You also get a bigger head-up display, a laser headlight system is optional, it can reverse itself out of narrow areas, and you can use your smartphone as the key.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. The B58 turbocharged inline-6 used in many BMWs and also the new Toyota Supra
should be in the running for the best 6-cylinder powerplant on the market.
The torque surge is turbine-like and always available the instant you want it. Floor it at any time and you get rapid downshifts and lots of thrust with no perceptible turbo lag. In M340i trim this engine makes some big numbers: 382 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque. 0-100 km/h arrives in a scant 4.4 seconds. Those are M3 level numbers.
The ZF 8-speed automatic is back but it’s been updated and delivers lightning-quick shifts when you put the car into Sport or Sport Plus. Pull a paddle and the gears arrive immediately. No waiting. It’s faster and more responsive than the M3’s dual-clutch without any of its clumsiness at low speeds.
It’s no manual when it comes to driving engagement but it’s better than the best driver in the world at shifting gears. It’s smart too; able to use data from the active cruise control’s radar and the navigation system to avoid unnecessary shifts making sure that you’re always in the right gear at the right time.
If this seems like too much power for you, and it is a lot, the 330i's 2L 4-cylinder is still plenty powerful with 255 hp and more importantly it's $12,000 less. However, for the purpose of this review, we will focus on the M340i
New Modular CLAR chassis
CLAR or Cluster Architecture is the new modular platform from BMW for either rear or all-wheel drive vehicles. It’s adaptable, EV-ready, and underneath most of the new BMWs that you’ve seen rolling out, including the X5
, Z4, and, yes, the new Toyota Supra
The new 3-Series benefits from this structure that’s now 25 per cent stiffer and up to 50 kg lighter than its predecessor although the overall weight of the M340i has gone up.
You’ll find double-joint struts in front and a 5-link suspension arrangement buttoning down the rear with new lift-related damper technology that is said to reduce body movement when driving over rough roads or under heavy cornering. For an even better experience the Adaptive M suspension for just an extra $600 is a no-brainer.
It’s unfortunate that we’re not getting a rear-wheel drive version of the 3 here because that model has always had better steering feel and just feels more lively. It’s also not saddled down with the extra weight and complexity of the AWD hardware required to send twist to the front wheels.
For the first time, however, xDrive models get the firmer suspension setup along with the lower ride height exclusive to those rear-wheel drive models in the past.
Also standard for the first time is an electronic limited-slip differential that will enhance traction and stability through a corner and also allow you to rocket out of them. No more one-tire-fire here.
My personal car is a 2008 3-series. It also has a turbo inline-6 and similar proportions but feels like it’s from another world. The steering is hydraulic, the power only goes to the rear wheels, its gears have to be shifted manually, and it has no screens. At least anything that could be considered a screen today.
I bought it many years ago to replace my 2001 3-series. That car known to enthusiasts as the E46 was probably one of the best 3s to come from Munich. It debuted in the pre-Y2K era right around the time Seinfeld finished airing its final season. It was a sublime driver with a near-perfect ride and handling balance. In contrast my current E90 3-Series rides like the dampers have been filled with concrete and it will send shockwaves straight into your soul if you hit a bad pothole.
If I close my eyes this new 2020 M340i reminds me bit of my old E46. That balance between cornering grip and comfort has been nailed here. A balance I’ve felt has been missing in the 3-Series since the E46 went out of production.
The steering is sharp and very quick allowing you to place the car with the precision of a micrometer. But it lacks feedback and is better when kept in its default Comfort mode. Dial it into Sport or Sport Plus and the effort needed to turn it gets much heavier. But not in a good way.
Sport and Sport Plus speed up gearshifts and stiffen the dampers if equipped with the adaptive suspension. A custom sport mode allows you to keep the steering in comfort while all other settings remain in sport. This was my preferred setup.
Find the nearest twisty road and you’ll wonder why anyone would bother to buy a sports car when they could have this. There’s so much power and grip I had to double-check the trunk lid to make sure it wasn’t an M3. There is an “M” on the back, though, but it’s a little one. And that makes me wonder how bonkers the next M3 will be.
The M340i isn’t a light car, but it feels light on its feet. And it has enough power and a traction control system that will loosen the reins and allow the tail to wiggle around a bit if you plant the throttle in a corner too early. Large brakes are up to the task when called upon and can quickly rein in all those horses. The AWD system sends more power to the rear wheels in sport and sport plus so this still feels like a rear driver at the best of times.
It’s a do-it-all car but the 3-Series has always been that. It’s the one many choose when working with a single-car garage. And this new one is nearly faultless, even without that manual gearbox. Yeah, I said it.
If I have any criticism, the seats aren’t as good as they were before and there’s no button to turn off the A/C. Which was super annoying when you don’t want the A/C on. Having to go through multiple menus to turn it off isn’t the best way of doing things, and is a big ergonomic faux pas.
Yeah, it’s really, really good. But the 3-Series airs on a channel no one’s watching
This new 3-Series, good as it is, has a bigger problem. One it has in common with all sedans—no one wants them anymore. The crossover has swooped in, won over the public and seems to be the default choice for almost everyone I talk to. And the 3-Series’ biggest enemy might just be one from within its own ranks—the X3
The once quirky, slightly weird-looking X3 has grown into a capable, sporty crossover that comes wrapped in that desirable tall body that everyone wants. To make matters worse, it’s also slightly cheaper than the 3-Series and now outsells it. In the US nearly 2 X3s are bought for every 1 3-Series sold. And the 3's numbers just seems to keep falling while the X3s go up. In fact, since 2012 sales of the 3 in Canada are down nearly 45 per cent—60 in the US. BMW’s famed sports sedan is better than it ever was but there’s no one there to notice.
There is some good news here, though. The company still knows that the essence of the brand today owes much of its character and image to the 3-Series and its forebears. Ever since famous Euro car importer Max Hoffman convinced BMW to sell their new 1600-2 stateside with the bigger 2-L engine, effectively creating the brilliant 2002 in the process, BMW has been regarded as the creator of the sports sedan. It has always been the benchmark sporty saloon, the one by which all others have been judged. But time has a way of clouding things and people tend to forget. And BMW is still a business designed to sell as many vehicles as they possibly can. Vehicles like the X3 and its army of X-badged
Thankfully, we still get the 3 and there are no plans to stop selling them anytime soon. Even if no one seems to care, BMW still does. And as long as they do we’ll continue to get one of the best sedans money can buy.