Formidable. Outstanding in lots of ways. But still the class’s benchmark on performance and handling? It’s too early to say, but the early signs aren’t universally promising.
Munich could only provide examples of the new range-topping petrol 340i for us to test drive. 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 340i’s is one of a pair of turbo petrol engines that make their world debut in the facelifted 3 Series. In replacement of the four-cylinder turbo 328i comes a new 330i four-pot with 249bhp and 258lb ft, while succeeding the 335i is the 340i, which gets a new twin-scroll turbocharged 3.0-litre straight-six producing 20bhp and 37lb ft more than the last one. Elsewhere in the engine range, the all-important 320d gets a bit more power, the EfficientDynamics versions becomes a bit more efficient and there’s 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 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.