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First Drive: 2015 BMW 3 Series — 340i (2015-2018)

£42,360 when new

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A 3-Series facelift? Is BMW feeling the heat?

With the Jaguar XE out and the new Audi A4 pending, a skeptic might say an updated 3-series is a sign of panic in the Munich team. But then, every car gets mid-life updates, so the 3er would have been tinkered with come what may. This facelift coincides with the 40th anniversary of the 3-Series. Even as BMW makes zillions of other models, the 3 still accounts for a third of all BMWs made and sold every year.

What do we get?

The main thing is new engines. But then, this is the Bavarian Motor Works we’re talking about, so it’s what you might call a core competence.

One of them wears a new badge on the tail: 340i. Historians will note the significance of a new generation of BMW straight-six, as this turbo 3.0-litre is making its first appearance in any car. It produces 326bhp. It’s actually the last man standing in the great tradition of petrol straight-six 3-Series. The 330i is now a 2.0-litre four-cylinder, as is the 320i. And the 318i is a triple, rated at 136bhp. It’s effectively half the new 340i engine, and closely related to the one in the i8 and Mini Cooper. 

But doesn’t everyone buy the diesels?

The four-cylinder 2.0-litre diesel is brand-new to the 3-Series too – though again we’ve seen it before in, f’rinstance, the 2-series Active Tourer. I also just sampled it in the new X1. For the 3-series you can have it in no less than six outputs: 16d, 18d, 20d, 20d ED and 25d. It’s a stern rival to Jag’s new Ingenium engine.

The only carryover engine is the straight-six diesel, in 30d and 35d flavours. The 335d is XDrive only and costs little more than the 340i, and has nearly the same power, a whole lot more torque and better economy. I suspect the 340i will be a rare species in Britain.

And what about the facelift?

See the LED running lights and mildly massaged nose styling. Add some light freshening of the cabin – different decorative garnishes, a few more bits of soft trim, and some chrome detailing. The important new bit of standard kit is navigation for all. New optionals include adaptive anti-dazzle LED headlights and self-parking.

But presumably they left the excellent chassis alone? 

No they didn’t. BMW aimed for better dynamics without harming comfort. That meant re-tuning throughout the chassis, together with a new electric steering programming which is supposed to work with the other changes to give better feel.

So how’s the new straight-six petrol?

Very, very good. Its top-end is properly serious, with rangey power and a gently hair-raising growl. But of course it also oozes torque in the mid revs, so you can surf along with mild-mannered ease and still cover the ground at a pretty epic rate. A water-to-air charge cooler, instead of an air-to-air intercooler, is one of the measures to cut lag, but it hasn’t been entirely eliminated below about 3000. Still, from there to 7000rpm, it’s all fantastic news. The eight-speed autobox’s moves are perfectly in step, too.

And the chassis changes?

BMW says it wanted better dynamics with undamaged comfort. I drove a car with the optional adaptive dampers. The comfort and sport setting are further apart than before. But ‘sport’ doesn’t allow the chassis to relax in gentle driving, and ‘comfort’ isn’t well enough controlled when you’re pressing on. So I ended up switching between the settings on the entrance to and departure from each and every town and village. Duh. Isn’t the point of an adaptive system to, y’know, adapt? Still, you can never forget the fine agility, easy progression and superb balance of the 3-Series fundamentals.

What about the steering changes?

It raises more questions than it answers. Sure, there’s fantastic precision and feel at big efforts on smooth roads. But there’s also a lot of bump disturbance, camber sniffing and generally odd changes of weighting when the surface isn’t perfect. The 3-Series always suffered a bit in this regard, but the serene stability of a Jaguar XE on a typical bumpy road shows there’s another way.

So, back to the first question. Is the 3-Series feeling the heat?

It might very well be.

What do you think?

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