Can the 2016 3 Series successfully challenge the dominance of the C-Class?
The 2016 BMW 3 Series is the culmination of 40 years of 3 Series heritage, now with all-new engines, more dynamic capability and revised looks.
The mid-life update for the 3 Series comes at a time when its direct competitor, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, has been consistently leading the local sales race. So, has the Bavarian brand done enough to outshine its German nemesis? We travelled to Munich to find out.
From the outside it’s hard to differentiate the facelifted BMW 3 Series from the car that it replaces. BMW says they have held back on making significant design changes due to the success of the current look and positive feedback from customers.
BMW has the right to be nervous in taking design risks, considering the 3 Series is the best-selling luxury car on earth (as is BMW as a brand). Nonetheless, it could be argued that a more refreshing visual overhaul would’ve done the 3 Series no harm.
In saying that, there’s indeed a revised front and rear bumper as well as a change to the headlights, with a more sophisticated daytime running light design and the option for full LED lighting for the first time. The taillights also gain full LEDs as standard.
There’s minor but consistent improvements to the interior as well, with use of new materials, better lighting and other ergonomic changes, though it does remain nearly identical to the untrained eye.
That leaves the chassis and drivetrain, which have seen the most notable alterations with a new engine lineup, improved suspension and body control.
The biggest change, perhaps, is the new BMW 340i - which replaces the 335i - sporting an all-new 3.0-litre twin-scroll turbocharged engine with 240kW of power (at 5500rpm) and 450Nm of torque (1380-5000rpm). The 340i becomes the first BMW to utilise the new six-cylinder power unit, which will find its way to other models in due time.
For a car that weighs 1530kg, the zero to 100km/h time of 5.1 seconds is pretty darn good for what is essentially a family sedan or wagon.
It’s important to remember the previous-generation M3, with its naturally aspirated 4.0-litre V8, could do that dash in no better than 4.8 seconds. In fact, if you were to get the new 340i with all-wheel drive - which is unfortunately not offered in Australia due to our lack of snow driving requirements - the 340i xDrive would cut that acceleration figure down to a staggering 4.9 seconds.
As such, the 340i is undoubtedly the highlight of the 2016 3 Series range, which is perhaps why BMW brought only that variant along for testing.
Nonetheless, the 3 Series range does also include the 318i (replacing 316i) - which utilises a three-cylinder 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine (first time for a three-cylinder in a 3 Series) with 100kW of power and 220Nm of torque – the 320i, with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo (135kW, 290Nm) and the 330i (replacing the 328i) with the same 2.0-litre engine but in a different state of tune (185kW, 350Nm).
On the diesel side, the 320d (140kW, 400Nm from 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo) takes the oil-burner mantle, while there’s talk of the 330e plug-in hybrid for our market as well.
From a ‘driver’s car’ perspective, the 3 Series has always been the pick of the bunch in the medium-sized luxury car segment, although there’s some debate in the CarAdvice office about that title being challenged by the new Jaguar XE (arriving in September, a month before the BMW 3 Series update is set to hit local showrooms).
The current car is (in this writer’s opinion) already more dynamically capable than the C-Class and Audi A4, which is a credit to BMW’s emphasis on maintaining its sporty credentials. Nonetheless, this update takes it even further.
BMW has applied a stiffer suspension setup (reduced ride height by 10mm) thanks to new damper settings while more rigid bodyshell mountings and a revised steering system have improved the car’s body control.
The changes apply to the standard suspension as well as the M Sport and adaptive suspension options. The BMW 340i we tested was optioned with adaptive suspension and, although it’s hard to tell, thanks to Europe’s extremely well surfaced roads, it felt more capable around the twisty stuff without compromising on ride comfort.
We will have to wait and see how its three different suspension options deal with Australia’s atrocious roads.
BMW engineers tell us the changes to the suspension affect the transverse and longitudinal dynamics of the 3 Series under all payload conditions. Essentially, it’s meant to reduce body roll and provide more direct response from the steering.
Speaking of which, the response and feel from the revised steering system is noticeably improved from its predecessor with more weight, better response and a feeling of directness that was somewhat lacking before.
Around the twisty mountainous terrain of the Austrian countryside, the 340i performed faultlessly. Pushed to its limits the BMW felt flat, with no tendency to over or understeer while the car’s numerous traction and electronic driver aides allowed reasonable slippage before interrupting the party. It’s hard to ask for much more from a car that wears no legitimate M badging.
The eight-speed ZF automatic transmission remains relatively unchanged (some additional soundproofing), mainly because it feels almost impossible to improve on. Gearshifts are unnoticeably smooth around town and in traffic (it can even decouple itself from the engine when the car is coasting to save fuel) while the paddle shifters on the 340i respond with instant down and up shifts in Sport mode.
Move to Sport+ and things get even sharper with the 3 Series happy to hit the rev limiter without a forced change, but that comes with the risk of limited traction control also engaged in that mode.
It would be useful if the car could utilise the benefits of Sport+ in terms of the transmission mode without compromising on traction management; in essence, a custom driver mode.
Dynamic ability and powertrains aside, the 3 Series is a rather comfortable place to be. The front and rear seats provide a great deal of support and, although you’d have to do a bit of squeezing to fit three adults (comfortably) in the back, it’s perfectly fine in terms of leg and head room for four occupants in total. Cargo capacity is also a reasonable 480L in the sedan or a rather useful 495-1500L in the wagon (the latter with the rear seats folded flat).
The interior, to be frank, is not up to C-Class standards. It’s not any one thing in particular that the C-Class does significantly better than its BMW rival, it’s just that the overall feel and design of one feels more upmarket than the other. It would’ve been to BMW’s benefit had it revised the interior more than it has for this update.
Thankfully then, there’s one very noticeable thing in particular that BMW does indeed do better inside than Mercedes and that’s the iDrive infotainment system which, as always, is noticeably easier to use and understand than the rather convoluted and over-complicated Mercedes-Benz COMAND system you’ll find harassing the C-Class.
It’s even better now than before, with the Germans having upped the processing power of the iDrive unit and including the ability to utilize the 4G (LTE) network for its BMW ConnectedDrive systems.
That means the satellite navigation and audio systems work faster, and you can even call someone (an actual living and breathing person) at BMW while driving to help you find a location and program your sat-nav remotely.
BMW Australia is yet to confirm both pricing and specifications for our market, however we suspect variant pricing will remain largely unchanged, but gain numerous additional improvements. We suspect the new three-cylinder 318i has potential to start in the mid 50s.
On its own, the 2016 BMW 3 Series – which arrives from South African plants (same as the C-Class sedan) in October - is a tremendously well-engineered and designed sedan and wagon. It remains the most dynamically capable choice in the segment while offering a range of new and improved engines and other minor revisions.
It’s the ideal option for those that may put more weight behind sporty driving characteristics than interior refinement.