The outgoing ‘F30’ BMW 340i never really floated our collective boats. As a bridge between the top-selling 330i and hardcore M3, it didn’t hit the lofty heights you might've expected.
BMW itself seems to have acknowledged this, because it’s taken a different approach with its new ‘G20’ 3 Series (temporary) range-topper. It’s faster, angrier, grippier and more agile, making it a more obvious competitor to the Mercedes-AMG C43 and Audi S4.
Instead of ‘340i’, this iteration is called the 3 Series M340i xDrive. The key is the letter ‘M’, denoting greater engineering from the company’s performance division, M GmbH. I’s not the full-fat M3, but it has a range of go-fast tech pushing the envelope further than before.
We had a crack earlier this month in some camouflaged ‘prototype’ models, at BMW’s invitation. The location was the glorious Portimao circuit near Faro, Portugal. While the regular G20 320d and 330i hit Australia in March 2019, the M340i xDrive isn’t due until the "second half" of next year.
Six laps sitting behind BMW Works driver Augusto Farfus in his oft-sideways M2 Competition told this writer two things: I really should shelve my racing aspirations and accept my limits, and the M340i xDrive is a hugely competent everyday performance car that’ll make a much bigger impact on the performance scene than its (loose) predecessor.
The fundamentals are there to start with. The G20 3 Series sits on the company’s longitudinal CLAR platform sharing parts with the 5 Series and many others. It’s 50 per cent stiffer, 55kg lighter, has a markedly wider track (43mm front, 21mm rear), a 52:48 (ish) weight distribution, and a lower centre of gravity.
From this base M GmbH weaves its magic.
What’s the gist? Power comes from a reworked 3.0-litre inline-six with extensive aluminium construction, integrated twin-scroll sequential turbocharging, a wider-opening electronically-actuated waste gate, more precise injectors, fully-variable valve and camshaft control, and a 25 per cent reduction to inertia from the rotating assembly.
What all this stuff means are faster responses and output improvements of 35kW and 50Nm, to peaks of 275kW and 500Nm, the latter on tap between 1550 and 5000rpm. This puts it between the V6-powered, 260kW/500Nm Audi S4, and 287kW/520Nm Mercedes-AMG C43.
Taking a leaf from Affalterbach’s book, BMW has also fitted an M Sport valve-controlled exhaust unit, which makes the noise emanating from the twin pipes gruffer, louder and more inclined to pop and burble than before when you’re in Sport and Sport + driving modes.
The engine is matched to the familiar eight-speed automatic from ZF, now with a greater ratio spread. It has a new hydraulic control system and quicker shifts, launch control, wheel-mounted paddle shifters, and mapping that changes dependent on driving mode.
Perhaps the biggest news, though, is the configuration. That ‘xDrive’ badge denotes all-wheel drive (AWD), which this car has as standard, except in the US where there’s also a RWD option. That’s a major change for such a rear-wheel-drive-focused brand, at least on the face of things.
However, the system has fully variable power distribution between the front and rear axles, and BMW claims it rarely loses its real-wheel bias, especially in Sport and Sport+ modes. Yes, you can’t decouple the front axle a-la the new M5, but BMW assures us this sports sedan won’t be too neutral or understeer-prone. We hope…
Further enhancing this claim is the standard fitment of an M Sport rear differential with fully-variable rear wheel locking. It stops torque from taking the path of least resistance to the rear-corner where it’s not needed (the wheel with inferior road contact), and diverting it to where it's needed instead.
The big benefits of AWD are all-weather stability, but also straight-line acceleration. BMW claims the 0-100km/h sprint takes just 4.4 seconds, three-tenths ahead of the AWD C43 and S4’s claims and half-a-second faster than an E90 M3. It’s also just 0.1s ‘slower’ than the outgoing F80 Series M3, which is pretty damned impressive. Safe to say the next M3 will go sub-4.0s…
Interestingly, the standard 10mm lower suspension setup uses passive single-mode ‘lift-related’ dampers, smoothing the ride over sharp hits and improving body control.
A secondary inner damper cylinder tapers ever so slightly inwards, and as a secondary smaller plastic ring on the piston enters this section, the pressure of the oil pushing past it increases, giving you added damper forces. Like a coffee plunger. The priorities are flipped at the front axle compared to the rear, reflecting the need to better damp compression or rebound.
While engineers love a one-size fits all passive setup, you can also option adaptive M suspension with different levels of damping depending on drive mode, and variable ratio steering that changes response depending on how much lock is being applied.
So how does it all drive? Bloody well, on first impression. Portimao is a high speed track nearing five kilometres around, with some elevation changes, a long straight, plenty of long, fast corners and a few hairpins for good measure.
The most pleasing aspect was the AWD system's rear bias, meaning the tail will happily step out before the ESC nudges you back in line. You can also get on the throttle a smidgen early while turning and you won't just plow straight on. It's refreshingly un-neutral.
At the same time, the body control against cornering loads on the passive dampers was great, and dive under heavy braking well controlled. The variable ratio steering proved very direct and responsive, though like most EPAS systems lacked feel and feedback, a bit.
While marble-smooth tarmac isn't best place to test primary and secondary ride comfort, time with a 330i on passive dampers over some very jumbled, pockmarked and cobbled surfaces convinced us. The ride comfort even on 19-inch wheels (on Michelin Pilot Sports) seemed less busy and brittle than the C43 AMG, which is one of our few areas of complaint with that car.
The 348mm/345mm brake discs (four pistons and fixed calipers at the front, and single piston and floating caliper rear setup) also had ample stopping power and after six laps no noticeable fade, even after a few rounds of journos from other countries giving the test cars hell.
The engine is typical of a forced-induction six, with a monolithic torque graph giving you tractability and instant response, though aural aficionados may resent the lack of ostentatious sound coming from the twin pipes. We didn't notice the gearbox, which says a lot.
One of the highlights of the G20 3 Series is its cabin. The pictures here are of the 330i, but they give you a fair idea. The new 10.25-inch centre screen has curved glass and meets the new 3D fully digital instruments, above which sits a head-up display pilfered from the 7 Series.
Running along the transmission tunnel is the iDrive controller, in a single unit with the gear stick, driving mode buttons and electric park brake (RIP hydraulic parking brake). There's also now a decent-sized centre console. The Sensatec/Alcantara seats had good bolstering, the aluminium paddles are tactile, though the M Sport steering wheel has a rather fat rim.
Cool tech includes an MBUX/Alexa style personal voice-assistant with about 1000 functions (activated by 'Hey BMW' as default, but changeable to anything, even expletives), the smartest hands-off automatic reverse parking system we've encountered, gesture control, Level 2 steering assist that keeps you in the centre of the lane, and an app-based system that lets you use a smartphone (with NFC and security chip) as a digital key, using the same tech as you find on smartphone tap payment systems.
The bigger wheelbase and wider body mean the rear legroom and headroom is better than before, though the boot remains 480L. I'm 194cm and had decent legroom down back, and could sit without stooping.
Price-wise, the M340i xDrive is clearly going to cost more than the outgoing 340i's sticker of $91,200. BMW says it's targeting a price of about $100k, on par with the S4 and $8000 cheaper than the C43. We shall see.
Whatever the case, this car is more clearly delineated from the 'regular' 3 Series range, and offers a more aggressive and dynamically engaging sub-M3 option, with what just might be benchmark cabin tech and comfort thrown in.
We cannot wait to throw this up against the best-in-class come launch time during the second half of 2019.