By Shari Prymak
2016 BMW 340i xDrive - It's no secret that the BMW 3-Series has earned a reputation as the overarching champion of the car segment it created some 40 years ago: the sport sedan. Generation after generation, BMW has mastered the formula for building cars that feel just as happy running the race circuit as they do the grocery circuit. It's a formula that every major competitor has tried to outdo, yet none have quite managed to match. The 3-Series has a certain unique magic of being all things to all people, particularly for the keen driving enthusiast.
Really, BMW's only real threat to the 3-Series seems to be itself. It seems that with each successive generation, enthusiasts hold their breath in hopes that BMW doesn't muck up the formula that they've got so right. A concern which, more than ever, is noteworthy, given BMW's recent trend of building softer, less driver focused cars in other segments.
For 2016, the 3-Series sedan is available as the 320i, 328i, and 340i, all with BMW's xDrive all-wheel drive system. The classic rear-wheel drive layout continues as standard only on the range-topping 340i, which should please driving enthusiasts as it's the inherently sporty chassis configuration.
Power comes from one of BMW's iconic straight-6 engines, which, in this application, produces 320 horsepower and 332lb-ft of torque. Thanks to its savagely powerful engine, the 340i offers near GT car levels of performance, and just reeks of that classic BMW character. Part of that thrust can also be credited to my test car's all-wheel drive system and smooth 8-speed automatic.
As great as that 8-speed is, I'd still opt for the available 6-speed manual gearbox for the added level of engagement and purity it provides. As a bonus, the manual gearbox, if selected, will serve better from a long-term cost of ownership standpoint, thanks to its superior durability and ease of maintenance when compared to an automatic.
The 340i comes as standard with a wonderfully tuned chassis that befits BMW's sporty reputation. Chuck it into a corner, and it rewards its driver with the kind of nimbleness and fine balance often reserved for true sports cars. The key to maintaining a high level of driving pleasure, however, lies in keeping the Driving Experience Control set in Sport+ mode. In the past, BMW engineered its chassis' one way to do everything well. Nowadays, with the appropriate options selected, you can alter the car's throttle response, suspension settings, steering feel, and automatic gearbox shift points by pressing a set of buttons. In the soft, efficient-minded, eco pro mode, the 3-Series becomes too laidback and numb feeling for serious driving, but in full Sport+ mode, the inner sports car awakens to give you a lesson in driving pleasure.
Like most BMW's, the 3-Series comes as standard with runflat tires; tires which can operate for short distances when punctured, thus, eliminating the need for a spare tire and jack. Though extremely costly to replace when worn out, and often harder and louder feeling than normal tires, BMW has managed to tune the new 3-Series' suspension to work marvellously with the runflats nonetheless. The ride quality is so good in fact that it makes me wonder how compliant the 3-Series could be if it were fitted with normal, cheaper tires come replacement time. It's worth noting that the xDrive 340i does not come with M Sport suspension with passive dampers like the rear-wheel drive version. M Sport suspension brings the 340i that much closer to race car levels of handling, and has a firmness close to that of the M Adaptive suspension in Sport mode.
One area that BMW absolutely nailed with the 3-Series is the interior execution. It has a driver-focused instrument layout which blends the best of both new and old-school technology. You get appreciated conveniences like easy to read gauges, instruments, and simple to use controls for commonly used features like climate control, radio presets, and headlights. Yet the simplicity is well integrated into new technology like the standard iDrive controls and its high-graphic display. The only weak point for me was the automatic transmission's electronic gear change, which I felt was pointlessly complicated to use. Fortunately, the solution to that is very simple: order the manual gearbox!
The overall ambiance has now stretched the 3-Series from near luxury to full-on luxury, should you so choose with the options list. The 340i offers a fine selection of leather colours, trim finishes, and standard features, some of which include power adjustable, heated leather seats, heated steering wheel, LED headlights, navigation, and sunroof. Also standard is the wonderful M-Sport package, which includes fantastically supportive sport seats, an M Sport steering wheel, M aerodynamics package, and various other nice M trimmings.
The 340i has a starting MSRP of $51,900 in rear-wheel drive form, with all-wheel drive commanding a $3,600 premium. Although most Canadians will no doubt be drawn to the allure of all-wheel drive and its unquestionable traction advantage in poor weather conditions, my choice would undoubtedly be a rear-wheel drive model with a manual gearbox, and no other options. Such a configuration would not only provide the purest, most entertaining BMW driving experience (Again, with Sport+ mode selected) in the 3-Series range, but would also be a little more manageable in terms of repair costs down the road. Moreover, such a configuration, when paired to a proper set of winter tires, would serve winter duty just fine as well.
That type of enthusiast configuration, however, is not likely going to be norm of most buyers, which is a bit of a shame. BMW is supposed to be the builder of Ultimate Driving Machines, a title which should apply to every model, regardless of its options and build configuration. That is the practice that made BMW into the household name it is today. There is no doubt that the latest 3-Series family represents a shift in BMW's focus, one that seems to ponder to the masses of consumers who care more about comfort and tech gimmickry than performance and driving pleasure. Each of the 3-Series models are still very capable sport sedans, and possibly the most well-rounded cars in their competing class, but if we want driver enjoyment to continuing being a top priority for generations to come, we'll need to show more support for those sportier options that help make a BMW what it should always be: an Ultimate Driving Machine.