The BMW 3 Series - arguably the most important and enduringly popular executive car the world has ever known - has received a mid-life facelift for the 2015 model year.
Now a remarkable four decades old, the car was a symbol of Britain in boom throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s – and its success story continues.
The current ‘F30’ generation was introduced in 2012 and continued Munich’s best traditions of outstanding performance and rear-drive handling. It also went straight to the top of our road test class rankings – where it stayed until very recently. But with an increasingly popular Mercedes-Benz C-Class to fight off, an all-new Audi A4 arriving later this year and a fresh and desirable newcomer on the scene in the shape of the Jaguar XE, the 3 Series needs to move forward just to stand still at the moment.
In fact, standing still may not even be a guarantee of success. Thanks to the introduction of the 4 Series line and the demise of the 3 Series Coupé and Convertible, BMW’s wider 3 Series brand has undoubtedly lost a bit of its old lustre and quietly dropped out of the UK’s top 10 biggest-selling cars.
Which may partly explain the lengths to which BMW has gone with this unusually far-reaching mid-cycle update - there’s clearly a consolidation job to be done. And this is not just the usual headlights-and-bumpers revision – although new optional LED headlights and reshaped bumpers front and rear are included in it.
New turbocharged petrol and diesel engines come in under the bonnet, coupled to an updated optional eight-speed automatic gearbox, while extensive changes have been made to the 3 Series’ suspension, cabin and equipment.
The range starts with the £24,975 entry-level 318i SE, powered by a 134bhp 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbocharged motor. Next up is the four-cylinder 2.0-litre turbocharged engine that comes in two forms. In the 320i it develops 181bhp and 199lb ft of torque, while in the 328i-replacing 330i it pumps out 248bhp and 258lb ft of torque.
All of the four cylinder diesel engines are new and based around BMW's B47 motor in different states of tune. The entry point into an oil-burning 3 Series is the 114bhp 316d, followed by the 148bhp 318d. However, the biggest sellers will almost certainly be the 188bhp 320d (up from 181bhp) and the 161bhp 320d Efficient Dynamics; the former now cracking 0-62mph in 7.2sec when paried with the eight-speed auto 'box.
There’s also a plug-in hybrid version in the pipeline for 2016 – the 330e – combining 249bhp of total output with combined CO2 emissions of just 47g/km.
The automatic-only 330d churns out 255bhp and a hefty 413lb ft of torque, while the flagship 308bhp 335d sprints from 0-62mph in 4.8sec and claimed combined fuel economy of 51.4mpg. A 3.0-litre six-cylinder 3 Series will continue to be offered in the form of the 340i, which we're testing here. This 340i gets a new twin-scroll turbocharged unit producing 20bhp and 37lb ft more than the outgoing 335i, at 322bhp and 332lb ft, respectively.
Four trim levels will continue to be offered: SE, Sport, Luxury and M Sport. As standard, SE trim gets 17in alloy wheels, dual-zone air-con, DAB radio, Bluetooth, multi-function steerng wheel, cruise control, rain-sensing wipers and sat-nav. Sport grade adds leather upholstery, heated front seats and chrome interior finishing.
Luxury spec gets 18in alloy wheels, anthracite wood trim, switchable ambient lighting and front and rear parking sensors. Flagship M Sport trim is shod with unique 18in alloys, M Sport suspension, a more aggressive bodykit and M Sport seats and a steering wheel.
We've only driven the six-cylinder 340i variant and in this guise it's formidable, outstanding in lots of ways. Is it still the class’s benchmark on performance and handling? It’s too early to say, but the early signs aren’t universally promising.
It's a model with a quite brilliant engine, but it's a bit-part player in a sales mix that will be utterly dominated by the more affordable and fleet-friendly four-cylinder diesels.
BMW could also only manage one vehicle specification, including an optional eight-speed automatic transmission, optional adaptive dampers, optional Variable Sport Steering, and wheels and tyres that won’t be a part of the UK sales offering. So the verdict on a 3 Series anything like the one most UK owners may eventually take delivery of will have to come later.
The overhaul to the 3 Series’ suspension has been made possible by a change to the way the car’s various combination of struts and links mount to the body. Anchored at three points previously, the car’s suspension is now secured at five separate points per corner, allowing for better rigidity and robustness from the suspension assemblies themselves and more effective support of the car’s weight.
The more solid mountings have in turn allowed BMW to increase the car’s suspension spring and damper rates without adversely affecting its refinement levels. So stiffer springs and new twin-tube dampers appear on the car as standard, with adaptive dampers continuing as an option that come in tandem with a 10mm drop in ride height.
Inside you can immediately see where BMW has attempted to counter the advances made by the likes of the Mercedes C-Class and current Lexus IS on material quality. It’s hardly had a transformative effect, but the fascia and fittings have nonetheless been massaged to create an overall impression that’s now very smart, from what was formerly only broadly smart enough.
The car’s primary mouldings are nicely textured, if a bit dull and hard in places, but the decoration laid on top of them is now notably classier and more expensive-looking. Chrome accents extend across the width of the dashboard and into each door console, while oyster-coloured leathers and mouldings are available for the lower part of the fascia for the first time.
The annoying removable front cupholder cover tray is gone, replaced by a much neater sliding lid. Elsewhere, the already excellent Professional Media infotainment system has been made faster and better.
It’s now 4G-compatible, configured to work with smartphone apps such as Audible, Deezer, GoPro and Spotify, and has a navigation system clever enough to learn your preferred route home and automatically guide you that way after only a handful of repeated deviations.
Which is all very well – but few who drive a BMW do so because of the excellent sat-nav. This 3 Series needs outstanding performance and handling to take its place among the all-time greats of the dynasty. And here's the sticky part: it’s not yet clear if this version has both.
The excellence of the car’s engine and transmission is beyond question. The new straight six surprises you on several fronts: with its muffled suaveness at normal operating speeds, its remarkable swell of torque from very low revs, its flexibility and freedom to rev and its outright power.
It makes the 340i a seriously fast car in full cry - as quick from standstill to 62mph as an E46 M3, in fact, and probably quite a lot quicker pulling from low revs. It’s also very frugal given its performance level.
Better than 40mpg is claimed for the eight-speed auto version, and on the basis of our test route, that wouldn’t be hard to reproduce. The one shortcoming is a lack of endearing charisma or theatricality to the engine’s voice. Some owners won’t miss it – but those hoping for a proper sports saloon just might.
And, whisper this, they may very well also miss the engaging cornering balance, deft body control and uncorrupted steering of the better versions of the outgoing F30. It’s much too early to start the obituary on this car’s peerless dynamic qualifications, but they’d certainly gone missing in the case of our 340i.
The car rode quietly and comfortably, but it lacked the good initial damping and lateral grip levels to take to testing roads with any distinguishing alacrity. The car still handles relatively well – but it’s far from outstanding.
BMW’s Variable Sport Steering remains the 3 Series’ biggest dynamic bugbear - it’s to be avoided on the order form at any cost. It works adequately well at high motorway speeds, and always makes the 340i feel directionally stable. The latter may well be exactly what it’s for, given Germany's liking for destricted autobahns and tightening slip roads.
But its prices for doing that are the sacrifice of any natural contact patch feedback, a clumsy return to the dead-ahead as you wind off lock and the never-ending guessing game you’re obliged to play when turning into any given corne, without really knowing how much steering angle you’ll need or how much effort it’ll take to apply it. At times, the steering becomes so heavy off-centre that you'd swear the power steering had given up altogether.
At this stage, we wouldn’t warn you off the 3 Series. It’s early days. Bigger-engined Threes have for a long time had a problem replicating the handling vivacity of their smaller, lighter-engined peers, and the 3 Series is no more specification-sensitive now than it has been for at least a model generation.
Probably longer, if you take BMW's regrettable early runflat-shod cars into account. One badly dressed 340i - albeit with a stonking engine and an improved cabin – is no reason to conclude that Munich’s compact executive institution has somehow lost its way.
But on this evidence, it’s certainly worth taking several lengthy test drives, and even greater care with your order form, to ensure your new 3 Series represents the very best of what BMW has brought to the sports saloon market for the past four decades. Because on handling at least, there is now the very real chance that you’ll be sold on greatness, but end up with something a long way wide of that mark.
BMW 340i auto
Price £39,505; Engine 6 cyls in line, 2998cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 322bhp at 5500-6500rpm; Torque 332lb ft at 1380-5000rpm; Gearbox 8-spd auto; Kerb weight 1615kg; 0-62mph 5.1sec; Top speed 155mph (limited); Economy 41.5mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 159g/km, 26%