The 3-series, beginning with the e21, has been around for 40 straight years. It was the definitive, small sports sedan for decades going almost unchallenged in what was a niche market until the early 2000s. It defined the segment and itself on its own terms. You always knew what you were getting with a 3, and you knew it would be great.
Maybe a victim of its own success, the 3-series is now in a luxury small car market that is blowing up in popularity. At one point, a 3-series was a status symbol, owned by the upper middle class and most notably, the young, upwardly mobile set. In most states, thanks to incredibly competitive lease deals and changing tastes, they're now as common as Camrys in garages and carports. In this market, BMW is going head to head with Audi, Mercedes, and even Cadillac. If that weren't enough, it won't be too long until Jaguar and Alfa Romeo make the consumer's choice even tougher.
The job of automotive journalist requires travel, a lot of it. I have done the Los-Angeles-to-somewhere-in-Europe flight far more times than I can count. To me, Europe especially Germany, is familiar and comfortable, and while every time I'm there I see something new an exciting, it doesn't feel foreign. Sometimes, I do go to new places, places that feel different, places that make me see things in a new way. BMW flew me to Barrancas del Cobre or Copper Canyon in Northwestern Mexico to experience the '16 340i, a car that will seem familiar but with an exciting new twist.
This is the beautiful and exotic Mexico you hear about, not the dirty, American-drunk-tourist-overrun Tijuana or any number of young-drunk-American-tourist-overrun spring break locations. This isn't a cruise ship stop, and at least for now, it's off the radar for anyone but the most adventurous. This week, however, it was overrun with journalists flown in to drive cars and disrupt the otherwise peaceful country lives of the locals.
The '16 3-series is a refresh of the f30 that debuted in 2012 and not an all-new car. BMW has made a few defining choices when it comes to equipment for 2016. The standard seats, steering wheel, and instrument cluster are now sourced from what was the optional Sport Package along with the black exterior trim. These aren't huge upgrades, but with a key competitor—the Mercedes C-Class—leaning decidedly toward luxury, this helps BMW set itself on the performance side of the dividing line. For the 340i specifically, the B58 engine is "all new," sharing the same 3.0L displacement as the outgoing N55. The closed deck, alloy block is now blanketed in insulation to conserve heat and not expend as much energy on the warm-up cycle. BMW believes the traditional liquid-cooling system is the ideal method for controlling heat in the engine, and throwing away energy to open air is just a waste. Intercooling duties are now handled by an air-to-water heat exchanger in the intake manifold. Big, front-mount, air-to-air intercoolers look sexy, but all the extra piping and the larger volume of the cooler itself add up to more lag and slower throttle response. BMW representatives tell us the upgraded engine will be immediately obvious on the roads in the remote location.
Copper Canyon is ancient, beautiful, and apparently wider and deeper than the Grand Canyon. The hotel sits on the top of a cliff face. There's almost no electronic connectivity. Luckily, my room is co-occupied by spiders the size of house cats. We come to an agreement; I bring them breakfast from the buffet every morning, and they eat it in the other room while I shower.
As most of the locals travel on foot, the roads are open, with the exception of giant gravel trucks and buses. The roadside is marked every few miles by statues, monuments, religious shrines, and men with machine guns making sure we have a good stay. I start my 340i drive in the enthusiast's choice, manual transmission and optional track handling package. The Track Pack gets you variable ratio steering, M adaptive suspension, upgraded brakes with shiny blue M calipers, and Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires. The car is in a word, great.
The suspension tuning is exactly what you would expect in a world-class sports sedan. Tight in Sport Mode, keeping body movements to a minimum, yet with a ride quality that would still make this comfortable for the daily commute. BMW has strengthened the strut towers and front-suspension mounting points as well as increasing rear damping rates, which goes a long way at improving both ride and handling. The variable ratio steering, coupled with the stiffer chassis means turn-in is precise and predictable. The steering feel itself is rather good by modern standards, although as is typical with BMW, there is a decent amount of road and powertrain vibration fed into the column. Some enthusiasts enjoy the extra sensation, but I have always found it to be more like background noise at a party while you're trying to have a conversation with your contact patches.
Those contact patches are as good as ever. The Michelin Pilot Super Sport is one of, if not the best tire on the market right now. It grips, it communicates, it rides well, and it deserves some amount of credit for making the Track Pack car as good as it is; even the BMW personnel on site remark that the change from the standard run-flats to a true performance tire is the biggest improvement to the car in years.
The new engine is strong and makes great noises. Is it any better than the outgoing N55, well without driving them back to back, it is tough to say—they are so similar. What is certain on paper is the power and torque bump. The 340i is rated at 320 hp, 20 more than the 335i, and 330 lb-ft of torque, which is 30 more than the 335i. The twin-scroll turbo spins up quick and makes full torque by 1,380 rpm. Although we can imagine you will be that far down on the tach that often. In Normal Mode, the engine feels a bit lethargic, especially with the new eight-speed automatic. In Sport Mode, however, it comes alive. It still takes some prodding, but keep it on boost, especially with the mechanically blissful six-speed manual, and it is always willing to go. It would be interesting to get the N55 and the B58 on a dyno back to back, as we know the outgoing powertrain was severely underrated, and I wonder if the numbers have finally caught up to reality.
On the mountain roads, the 340i manual Track Pack car reminded me of where the 3-series came from. It is a proper sports sedan that can carry your family when needed but also carry your "driving through the Austrian Alps fantasy" when you have the chance to revisit it. It flows from corner to corner. It's heavy, but it shrinks around you when driven hard. It rotates around the driver and gives you all the sensations you would expect from a sports car. This is a return to form for a car that became boring and—can I say this without fear of a fanboy uprising—a little bit mediocre during the e90 and first phase of the f30.
Now, take everything I said and forget it if you are unfortunate enough to get the car without the $1,700 Track Pack. Long story short, I wouldn't buy this car without the Track Pack. The surprising thing is, the BMW reps on hand weren't the least bit surprised when I mentioned that. BMWs now have to appeal to a mass market, and that means volume cars with run-flat tires, automatic transmissions, and lower base prices have to move off lots like the aforementioned Toyotas. The volume-selling car is as boring as any other high-volume car, just with a much nicer interior and tons of torque coming through the rear wheels.
I've been a little bit down on BMW for the last several years, and the last 340i I drove at the event reminded me why. There is nothing special about the car, nothing exciting, it's an economy-plus seat in a 737, and it's simply to get you where you're going. Sure you're Facebook friends are impressed that you checked in from an airplane, but you aren't going to enjoy the journey; you may as well read a book and just look forward to wherever it is your going.
Over the years, I've had the privilege of having access to BMWs whenever I wanted to drive one. I've noticed that the trick to enjoying a BMW is to order something special. The cheat code that only insiders know and the average schlub who walks onto the lot and just buys "a car" will never know or appreciate it. In the e30, it was buying a 318is. In the e46, it was the ZHP. In the e90, well honestly, I never really found it in the e90. In 2016, it will be the Track Handling Package.