It isn't easy being BMW. The brand's heart and soul, the 3 Series, remains the target for every other auto maker's sport-sedan wannabe, even while BMW itself is shifting emphasis from Ultimate Driving Machine to Efficient Dynamics.
We've seen the Cadillac ATS dethrone the 3 Series as the benchmark for steering and handling, while Mercedes is getting in BMW's face with a 2016 C450 AMG 4Matic claiming 62 horsepower more than the rival 300-hp BMW 335i xDrive.
The F30 3 Series is still too new for a full redo (it launched in 2012) but this mid-cycle refresh had to have been a high priority.
Keen-eyed BMW buffs will observe the 2016's new detailing inside (more shiny bits in chrome or gloss) and outside (LEDs feature prominently). A streamlined lineup in Canada makes xDrive (all-wheel drive) and an eight-speed automatic transmission mandatory on all four-cylinder models, which otherwise continue with the same turbocharged 2.0-litre engines: 184- or 241-hp gasoline units in the 320i and 328i, and 184-hp diesel in the 328d.
The former 335i range-topper gets a new name, 340i, to go with a new engine. Although still a 3.0-litre inline six, the new "B58" TwinPower Turbo is the first six-cylinder application of BMW Group's new modular engine family. It claims 320 horsepower from 5,500 to 6,500 rpm (previously 300 at 5,800) and 332 lb-ft of torque from 1,380 to 5,000 rpm (previously 300 from 1,300 to 5,000).
In a tacit admission that the F30 took its eye off the ball in chassis dynamics, the 2016 also features revised steering, new dampers and reinforced suspension attachment points.
More than ever, the six-cylinder Dreier is the choice for engaged drivers. It's the only model still available in Canada with a choice of rear- or all-wheel drive and automatic or manual transmission. Also exclusive to the 340i is an M Performance option featuring 19-inch wheels, brawnier suspension and variable-ratio steering.
Most auto writers are engaged drivers, hence no doubt BMW's ploy to provide only the 340i for the preview romp along hugely engaging roads through Mexico's Sierra Madre mountains.
I snagged a manual for the outbound leg and an automatic for the return, and found each in its own way equally slick and responsive to "expressive" driving. Not that being in the right gear ever mattered much, given the astonishing depth and breadth of the B58's power delivery – all achieved with sublime smoothness and a sonorous under-hood sound-track.
Both 340s were rear-drivers, though you wouldn't know it on the route's clean, dry pavement: even willful right-foot provocation failed to break the rear wheels loose. Combine that predictability with disciplined body motion and superglue grip, and the 340i is a back-road hero – or, at least, makes its driver feel like one.
Both cars had the ultimate 19-inch wheel/tire package – a stand-alone option on the automatic and included in the M Performance Package on the manual – which left the steering as the key differentiator. Both cars relayed reassuring levels of feel, but the M Performance variable-ratio setup comes closest to replicating the pure, frictionless clarity that I so like in the Cadillac ATS.
So, the 340i steers as well as the Cadillac and accelerates like the Mercedes C450. And it promises better fuel economy than either. Even without having driven the rest of the range, it looks like the 3 Series is once again comfortable in its own skin.
You'll like this car if ... You value the finer points of performance, handling, refinement and comfort, and you're prepared to pay a premium for them.
- Base price: $39,990 (320i)
- Engine: 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder
- Drive: RWD or AWD, six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic
- Fuel economy (litres/100 km): TBD
- Alternatives: Acura TLX, Audi A4, Buick Regal, Cadillac ATS, Infiniti Q50, Lexus IS, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Volvo S60
- Looks: Minor cosmetic tweaks for 2016 don’t alter the basic rightness of the BMW shape, at once elegant and aggressive (though that bulbous hood does nag at the eye from some angles).
- Interior: Chrome accents and gloss finishes enhance perceived quality and strengthen the clean functionality that was already a 3 Series hallmark. Seating adjustment caters to a wide range of driver anatomies, and unlike most previous generations of 3 Series, the F30 is one of the segment’s roomier sedans.
- Performance: It’s widely believed that BMW understated the outputs of the 335i engine, and that’s likely true, too, of the 340i. The fleetest version is actually the xDrive automatic, thanks to superior launch traction, more ratios and quicker shifts than the manual. Its claimed 0-100 km/h time of 4.9 seconds beats its predecessor by 0.2 seconds.
- Technology: It’s a BMW, which means that just about every IT or electronic co-pilot device ever imagined is available.
- Cargo: Official trunk volume is competitive among its peers and about what you’d expect in a compact sedan.
The 3 Series sustains or even advances its new efficient-dynamics commitment while restoring some of the old ultimate driving-machine attitude.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.
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