What’s in the garage?
We’re rubbish at suspense so, yes, it’s a BMW M340i xDrive. The Wheels garage has moved, albeit temporarily. The roller door we’re sliding up today is located in Gauteng province, South Africa. Or, to be more exact, the Kyalami Grand Prix circuit. This is wholly apt. BMW won its last F1 world title at this very circuit in 1983, Nelson Piquet just pipping Alain Prost to the driver’s crown in his Brabham-BMW BT52, the very first time a turbo car propelled an F1 driver to a world championship.
The turbocharged BMW we have here doesn’t quite make the same 630kW of the M12 engine that powered Piquet’s rocketship, but 285kW isn’t anything to be sniffed at in this M340i xDrive. More importantly, it’s the first time we get to sample a six-cylinder engine in the latest G20 3 Series. Factor in the grip and assurance of all-wheel drive and the flagship 3 – at least until the M3 appears in 2021 – has our full attention.
Thankfully it’s also a good deal more affordable than an M3 at $99,900, but that’s pretty much lineball with the BMW M2 Competition Pure, a model that’s shaping up to be one of the all-time great M cars. So is it worth going for something a bit bigger and more refined than the tearaway M2?
Power and performance:
By most accepted measures 285kW is a decent slug of grunt. That’s 25kW more than the similarly priced Audi S4 and only 2kW shy of the Mercedes-AMG C43. These all-wheel drive, German, six-pot 3.0-litre sedans form a close triumvirate on paper, but the big-selling Mercedes is 10 grand more expensive, older and slower than the box-fresh Bimmer.
It’d take a fairly serious performance car to gap the M340i. It’ll demolish the sprint to 100km/h in just 4.4 seconds, BMW’s B58 engine and a ZF eight-speed torque-converter automatic gearbox teaming up with the xDrive all-wheel drive system and integrated launch control function to ensure almost perfect repeatability.
It’s helped by a hefty slug of torque. The full serving of 500Nm is available from between 1850 and 5000rpm thanks to the revised twin-scroll turbo, so you don’t get a torque curve so much as a mesa. And don’t think this is just an all-wheel drive carryover of the old 340i’s lump. This one packs 36kW more and feels far perkier.
The engine has a fairly purposeful growl towards the top end of the meter, and the exhaust has an addictively metallic zing as you wind the needle round the clock. The exhaust is a valve-controlled system, which duly amps up the pops and crackles when you switch into the sportier drive modes.
It’ll rev quite cleanly to 6800rpm, which is usually an exercise in futility in a turbocharged car, but the M340i will shift its 1670kg kerb weight with some elan, even in the upper registers.
Read next: Performance Car of the Year 2020 preview
Ride and handling:
Despite the fact it’s quicker in the real world than an E92 M3 V8, the M340i xDrive never feels like a ‘proper’ M car. It just doesn’t have that unerring flintiness and attitude that distinguishes Garching’s peak performers. Is that necessarily a bad thing? No. In fact, for most of us, for most of the time, it makes it a better road car. I’m speculating slightly here, I’ll freely admit, as my drive was conducted on track. I took to bouncing the thing over every kerb in sight to get a gauge of its bump suppression qualities and didn’t come away disappointed. On surface changes, there’s occasionally a sharp vertical jolt through the cabin, which sometimes jars with the car’s otherwise polished demeanour.
The M340i xDrive rides on custom M Sport suspension, sitting 10mm lower than cooking 3 Series models. Our test car was fitted with the adaptive damping control, with four levels of stiffness via the Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus modes.
The steering also feels a little more muted than you’d get in an M3, again no big demerit. It’s clean and accurate with no trace of kickback when the front tyres are asked to deploy torque mid corner. The variable sports steering features Servotronic assistance and can feel if not vague, then a little rounded in its responses on-centre. You’ll certainly value this quality on longer drives, and the long gearing in eighth gives this car genuine legs once you’ve broken clear of the city.
A fully variable electronic differential lock on the rear axle helps keep things neat when you’re trying to see exactly how much drive you can send to the rear boots. You can’t dial all the power to the rear via a menu, as you can in the latest M5, but in the Sport and Sport+ settings, the M340i becomes increasingly rear-biased.
Body control is excellent, particularly in dive and squat responses. The brakes (348mm/four-pot up front and 345mm/single-piston units at the rear) do a manful job until they don’t which, on a circuit like Kyalami, is understandable. This isn’t a trackday car and the stoppers are right-sized for fast road use.
Interior and Comfort:
The M340i xDrive is offered in the Australian market solely as a four-door sedan, although we’d love to see the Touring wagon make its way down under. Nevertheless, the three-box shape is practical and well finished.
The boot’s a decent size at 480 litres (partly thanks to run-flat tyres) and the longer wheelbase of this G20 generation remedies a perennial 3 Series Achilles heel; rear legroom. It’s actually fairly spacious in the back and the roof doesn’t impinge sharply on the coifs of taller passengers.
The 3 Series has often been somewhat de-contented in terms of tech compared to its bigger siblings, but the G20 car again addresses this. That’s why it has performed so well in previous Wheels group tests: it’s as easy to live with as it is to drive.
Having to pay a subscription to access Apple CarPlay is a black mark, but otherwise the infotainment setup is very smart. The iDrive 7.0 control system has evolved into something with genuinely thoughtful functionality and if you don’t fancy twirling and nudging the rotary controller, you can instead say ‘Hey BMW’ and access around a thousand voice activated functions. Unfortunately ‘Show me the fastest line around Kyalami’ wasn’t one of them.
There’s an automatic reverse parking system, a gesture control system that’s as overthought and underutilised as any other gesture control system, lane-keep assist and an app that allows you to use your smartphone as a car key. Given the number of times I let my phone’s battery go flat, I’d probably only ever use that as a backup in case I physically lost the key.
The dash features a curved 10.25-inch centre screen and a fully digital dial pack as well as one of the best head-up displays we’ve seen. Fit and finish is generally excellent, with cool aluminium shift paddles, supportive Alcantara/Sensatec seats and decent oddments stowage. Some of the interior trims can be a little questionable, so choose wisely when specifying the car. The chubby steering wheel has become almost a BMW trademark, but we’d prefer a more delicate, thinner rim.
Read next: BMW's future M model plans
The BMW M340i xDrive is definitely a grower. Its charms are subtle, muted by a certain polished discretion, but it’s hard to argue with this car’s sheer versatility. It basically does the lot. It’s quick, slick, handles crisply and is even respectably practical. Those who value a more overt aesthetic might find it a little underdone, but the M340i targets those who might well have grown out of an M car and require something that’s not perpetually enraged. In the past, BMW might have lost those sales to Mercedes-Benz or Audi. Alpina, even. The M340i xDrive teases the 3 Series into a new, and potentially lucrative, niche. It’s a gem. Now sell us a wagon.
BMW M340i xDRIVE SEDAN
Model: BMW M340i XDrive sedan
Engine: 2998cc inline six, dohc, 24v, turbo
Max power: 285kW @ 5500-6500rpm
Max torque: 500Nm @ 1850-5000rpm
Transmission: 8-speed auto
0-100km/h: 4.4sec (claimed)
On sale: Now
Second Opinion: MOTOR feature review
Motor focuses exclusively on high-performance cars, offering a heart-stopping, hair-raising blast into the world of prestige and performance culture.
The stealthy exterior hides a thumping 285kW turbo straight-six, but has all-wheel drive neutralised the appeal of BMW’s baby M3?
By: Louis Cordony | Photos: Ellen Dewar
Our Driftbox timing equipment is broken. Or at least I think it must be. If it’s right, this BMW M340i xDrive has just ripped down the quarter mile and obliterated its claimed 0-100km/h acceleration time. Four. Point. One? That’s three-tenths quicker than what BMW says it will do. That’s even quicker than a current BMW M3.
And it’s not even an M car. Well, not a real one anyway. It’s the latest job from BMW’s M Performance arm that aims to inject some hot-blooded engineering from the M division into regular cars. This gives us a stepping stone between each range on price and performance. And we’re discovering that you’re getting a lot of the latter.
So we line up again on Heathcote Raceway’s drag strip to try and repeat the magic. I run my left finger up the drive-mode pad, pressing Sport along the way to turning DSC off. I yank the fancy crystal gear lever sideways to engage its Sport shift program and pin the brake pedal hard.
Revs build and hold between 2500 and 3000rpm. I clear the brake and the M340i bursts forward like a cornered cheetah that’s spotted its escape. The first couple of upshifts come and go before that number appears again. Four point one. I keep my eyes locked on the horizon. The quarter-mile time repeats the previous run. It has clocked 12.3sec at 183.1km/h.
When we last tested a BMW 340i it accelerated to 100km/h from rest in 5.51sec and crossed the quarter mile in 13.57sec. That’s over a second slower than the xDrive on both counts. And that was after a morning spent trying to extract its best times.
So, what’s changed? A whole generation for a start. The 3 Series recently started its seventh innings and looks all the better for it. It’s bigger in every way and wears its broader dimensions well. The tracks have been pumped out at both ends and the wheelbase is 41mm longer. At its core is a stiffer structure with more aluminium. And this time it has four-wheel drive, a first for Australia.
This is also the first M Performance 3 Series. BMW’s modular B58-series engine debuted late last generation, but now has a new twin-scroll turbo with lighter impellers to quicken response. The compression ratio has dropped from 11:1 to 10.2:1, presumably to welcome more boost. Its fuel system can now also pressurise contents to 350 bar, a density equal to water on the ocean floor.
Power consequently jumps from 240kW to 285kW. That’s V8-rivalling stonk. And you know the engineers put in some late nights to perfect the engine tune because it spreads this power peak over the same 5500-6500rpm as before. It’s only the torque band that slightly shrinks, with its 500Nm arriving at 1850rpm instead of 1380rpm and lasting until 5000rpm.
BMW also put its eight-speed transmission on the operating table, redesigning its hydraulics while compressing the ratio spread. And it’s the combination of shorter gears, four-wheel drive grip and the stronger mid-range, where there’s seemingly no break in jet-like thrust, that give the M340i serious acceleration.
It punches just as hard on a roll as it does off the line too. The 80-120km/h time reveals you’d blow past a dawdling Camry on L-plates in 2.55sec. The thing is, though, it doesn’t feel that much faster than the old 340i while moving. Just a whole lot more efficient. For one thing, the noise isn’t anything special except for a muted blurt filling the cabin. And you no longer paw at the wheel to stay straight, since it grips like a Russian gymnast.
The lack of extra urge you’d expect from a 35kW/50Nm hike might have something to do with a serious blow-out on the scales. BMW prescribed the new 3 Series an aluminium-heavy spec, but new front driveshafts, transfer case and differential are just the beginning of a 130kg weight increase over the old car. For instance, the new electronically controlled locking differential is bolted to the end of the main propeller shaft.
And there’s still all the stuff the M340i needs just to manage the energy unlocked by these new go-fast bits. An optional M Technic package on our car adds two extra drivetrain radiators. It also replaces the standard 348mm front brake discs with new 372mm items. Solid four-piston calipers now do the gnawing, since the car’s now fast enough to vaporise inferior sliding units.
These parts all add weight, so the M340i xDrive’s power-to-weight ratio grows by only 10kW, from 155kW to 165kW per tonne. But those improved acceleration times show it’s less about how much you weigh and more about how you use it.
That philosophy continues right down to the contact patches, where Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S tyres feature on 19-inch wheels. Those tyres are put to good use too. In an emergency stop the M340i hauls down from 100km/h in 35.22 metres. Sure, that’s only average among the metal we regularly flog here, but it’s about five metres better than the old non-M 340i. And it’s rolling on the same staggered tyre widths.
So the new M340i xDrive goes, and it stops all right too. All that’s left to find out is whether it can handle. Phrases like ‘rigid bearings and stabilisers’ in the press release promise that much. It also bodes well that it shares its suspension and chassis with the heavily revised 3 Series.
The new 330i M Sport we sampled earlier last year was an excellent handler. It steered with precision, felt agile and relished throttle steer. And if you peeled back its sheetmetal it would be easy to see why. BMW stiffened the 3 Series chassis by almost half, concentrating on mounting points while also redesigning the steering system and debuting fancy new passive dampers.
But the M340i misses out on two of those things. Firstly, the 3 Series’ new dual-pinion steering rack doesn’t fit in around the six-cylinder engine, so the M340i instead carries over the previous F30 gen’s horrible belt-driven system, equalling a doughy steering feel while refusing to reveal much about road surface.
Secondly, Australian M340i models score as standard adaptive dampers that lower the ride height 10mm and now offer two modes instead of three. However, BMW’s suspension engineers prefer the regular M Sport ‘lift related’ dampers, saying they increase stiffness without sacrificing high-speed body control. We agree.
The adaptive dampers as fitted to Australian models fail to convincingly control the M340i’s new front-end mass. That is more due to its extra flab rather than the fault of the adaptive system but, either way, the front-end defaults to understeer. Comfort and Sport damping modes simply offer a choice of how early you’ll find it.
Luckily the drivetrain is not just designed for fearsome acceleration. The all-wheel drive system is based around an electronically controlled multi-plate centre differential that, when open, lets torque flow through to the rear wheels unhindered.
Like a Nissan R35 GT-R, it’s rear-biased and sends torque forwards when it detects slip. This means the rear locking diff calls the shots on the throttle, so the car feels inherently rear-driven if you drive slow-in, fast-out.
Sometimes it will charge out of tight corners with fierce traction, other times it’ll give you a good dab of opposite lock. As you charge through winding roads, confidence growing, oversteer becomes a useful way to rotate the car mid-corner.
And yet the M340i xDrive never threatens to buck you off its saddle. The rear Michelins relinquish their hold progressively. The rear suspension is communicative. And since the differentials work in harmony, the car will shuffle torque forward to turn knuckle-whitening tank-slappers into fun dabs of oversteer. It’s so confidence-inspiring that switching off DSC feels as normal as switching off the air-conditioning.
Any other driving approach only reinforces the drivetrain’s brilliance. Try to get the M340i xDrive on its toes with the brakes and it will push early, washing off mid-corner speed and refusing to rotate. Wider front tyres and a softer compound would help, along with a finer brake feel. But the root of its problems go much deeper than that.
It’s obvious the carried-over steering rack from the F30 partners terribly with the all-wheel drive set-up’s heavier front-end. Then, short of installing a four-cylinder engine, it’s as if BMW knew it would not achieve the 330i’s sweet handling balance or steering here.
Instead, we’re imagining it bought a third-gen Ford Focus RS and tore it down back in the lab, then hung the all-wheel drive system’s guts on a wall hoping its secrets would leap out at them. Because there’s a hooligan hidden in the M340i xDrive that’s incredibly rewarding to find.
On first meeting, we like what BMW’s M Performance division has done with the 3 Series. At $99,900 before on roads and options, the M340i xDrive is priced line ball with its all-wheel drive rivals like Audi’s S4 and Mercedes-AMG’s C43. Yet it will bury them on the drag strip, and behaves more rear-driven on the limit while being very forgiving. In short, there’s a lot to like. It’s a solid luxury performance car.
But in trying to beat these rivals at their own game, BMW missed the chance to highlight its own strengths. Opting for a rear-drive M340i in Australia would have equalled a purer-handling, arguably more entertaining and even cheaper car. Even with that dud steering rack.
We’re not fantasising either. America scores a rear-drive M340i while the rest of the world gets all-wheel drive. Why? We’re not sure. But while you’ll still be your local tyre shop’s favourite customer in an xDrive-equipped M car, BMW’s choice to build one without it perhaps reveals that we’re not all ready to abandon rear-drive yet. Even if this xDrive weapon is quick enough to fool us into thinking our timing equipment is broken.
Tested and rated on MOTOR reviews
2020 BMW M340i xDRIVE
BODY: 4-door, 5-seat sedan
ENGINE: 2998cc inline-6, DOHC, 24v, turbocharger
BORE/STROKE: 82.0 x 94.6mm
POWER: 285kW @ 6500rpm
TORQUE: 500Nm @ 1850-5000rpm
POWER-TO- WEIGHT: 165kW/tonne
TRANSMISSION: 8-speed automatic
SUSPENSION: struts, adaptive dampers, coil springs (f); multi-link, adaptive dampers, coil springs (r)
TRACKS: 1583/1567mm (f/r)
STEERING: electrically assisted rack-and-pinion
BRAKES: 372mm ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers (f); 345mm ventilated discs, single-piston calipers (r)
WHEELS: 19.0 x 8.0-inch (f); 19.0 x 8.5-inch (r)
TYRES: 225/40 R19 93Y XL (f), 255/35 R19 XL (r); Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S
PRICE: $100,200 (as tested)
PROS: Silken turbo punch; genius drivetrain; looks
CONS: Dull and heavy front-end; no rear-drive for Oz
RATING: 4 out of 5 stars
|BMW M340i xDrive|
Heathcote Dragway, 24˚C, dry. No rollout applied.
Driver: Louis Cordony
Official timing supplier: www.vboxaustralia.com.au