In 1995, Car and Driver said “those who genuinely enjoy the act of driving and still demand a practical compact sedan will have a tough time finding a better choice than one of these 3 Series Bimmers.” Two things have happened since then.
The first is that the 3 Series has, admittedly, lost some of its moxie due to size and weight gains; today it is supplanted on that same magazine’s own 10Best list by the BMW M235i coupe, which I find considerably more fun to drive.
The second is that everybody else has upped their game or put forth entirely new contenders. The venerable 3 Series, the car that defined this segment (and still does in terms of sales) faces competition not just from Mercedes and Audi, but Cadillac, Jaguar, Infiniti, Lexus and, soon enough, Alfa Romeo and even supposedly Tesla.
It’s hard out there for the 3 Series. Everyone wants to do what it does, but it’s not the unquestionable only choice it once was.
That doesn’t mean it’s bad! Far from it. I tested this 2016 340i for a week, gray with sweet red leather seats, and I found it to be pretty good at everything. It handles well. It goes well. It stops well. It’s nice inside. It’s got gadgets, and things, that all work pretty well. It looks nice enough. It is a good and nice car! You are smart to buy one, like nearly 100,000 other Americans did last year. It’s so close to flawless it’s almost boring.
The 340i is a new model designation for 2016, one that brings mid-cycle updates to the F30 3 Series that debuted in 2012. As its name suggests, it has a 4.0-liter V8 under its hood for the first time ever.
Jokes. German names don’t mean anything anymore, my darlings. No, the 340i instead has an all-new 3.0-liter inline six, called the B58, which smoothly delivers 320 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque to the soundtrack of a nice hum delivered through the car’s speakers.
It’s a great engine—powerful, linear, lacking in drama or turbo lag, great for cruising and highway pulls, and it returned an average gas mileage for me in the upper 20s.
The engine isn’t all that’s new here, either. The suspension geometry and electric steering have been revised to be more sporting, and to address previous media criticisms that the F30 was somehow not good. These things worked, as the car is now more good than it was. It has received universal praise from the people who dole out such things. You know how car reviews work: “We said the old car was great at first, but it was actually terrible, now it’s way improved.”
But the 340i, priced and marketed as the top 3 Series short of an M3, is worthy of that place in the BMW lineup. The back seat and trunk space make it quite livable too.
The 340i you see here came in at $58,420, because it included $13,000 in goodies like the Track Handling Package, heated seats front and rear, auto high beams, a HUD, a rearview camera, blindspot detection and more. Yikes! That is a lot for a 3 Series, and just a few thousand bucks away from an M3 (though those are hard to find at base price.)
Yet I think the Cadillac ATS is a more agile handler, and that its 3.6-liter naturally aspirated V6 has more character; though the 340i unquestionably has a better infotainment system, interior and back seat room. The Mercedes C-Class has a classier interior and nearly matches the 3's driving dynamics these days.
The upcoming Jaguar XE and Alfa Romeo Giulia are vastly more interesting choices, more likely to make you stand out in the crowd, even if they are unproven. And even with these mid-cycle improvements, the F30 just isn’t quite as spirited or as fun to drive as pretty much every 3 that’s come before it.
But there is one thing that, for now, the 3 Series still does best. It comes with a manual transmission. That’s true whether you opt for a rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive 340i, and it’s even true across most of the 3 Series range in the U.S. whether you want four cylinders or six.
On many of these so-called sport sedans, manual gearboxes are becoming an increasing rarity. The Cadillac ATS has a manual only in four-cylinder and V trim. The Jaguar XE also relegates its stick shift to four-banger duty only, when it goes on sale here. The C-Class doesn’t have one at all. Nor does the Infiniti Q50 or the the Lexus IS. The Tesla Model 3? Get real. We’re not even sure if the 2017 Audi A4 will have a stick or not in the U.S.
On the Bimmer, however, the six-speed manual is real and it’s fantastic. The shifter is crisp and perfect. Throws are short and light and stupidly easy. The clutch is faultless. It as about as good as modern manuals get; there is an automatic rev-matching function on all modes now, including Sport Plus, but I didn’t find it as annoyingly intrusive as I did on the M4 I drove from Seattle to LA last summer. The manual gearbox truly is the 3 Series’ killer app.
Yes, the other option is the 8-speed ZF automatic, and I love that transmission enough that I’d marry it if I could; it’s the best conventional torque converter-based auto around. But the manual is the gearbox you want here. And I’m so glad BMW offers it so widely across the 3 range. It does a lot to burnish the car’s sport sedan street cred.
I have no doubt the next 3 Series will be packed with trickled down 7 Series-style tech, with gesture control and autonomous parking and apps that help you cheat on your taxes. I’d rather see BMW focus more on driving to make the 3 Series unquestionably the best sport sedan around again, one that blows away its competition in every possible way.
But as long as they keep the manual, I’m happy. Drive the damn manuals before the robots take our keys away from us.
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