2019 BMW 3 Series First Drive: Bimmer's Iconic Sport Sedan Is No Longer Coasting on Its Reputation
BMW fights to revive its sport-sedan franchise. Spoiler alert: This 3 Series is actually fun to drive.
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Knives out, car fans: BMW has an all-new 3 Series. It’s the sedan that’s taken more brickbats from loyalists and automotive journalists than any enthusiast car you can name. The once-unchallenged king of sport sedans has seen its performance crown pilfered by hungrier competitors—the Alfa Romeo Giulia, the Cadillac ATS—and its sales plundered by crossover SUVs, including BMW’s own X models. Yes, the 3 Series remains the world’s best-selling luxury car by the company's own calculations, as BMW executives hastened to remind us at a media drive of this seventh-generation model in Portugal. But in America, 3 Series sales have fallen some 30 percent over five years. The SUV incursion aside, some fraction of that drop is surely caused by two simple facts: The current 3 Series no longer feels unique, and it just isn’t all that fun to drive. The steering is distant, the chassis compromised for mainstream luxury tastes. And the 3 Series is still expensive, leading many toward the path of, shall we say, lease resistance, and a BMW-subsidized monthly payment.
So with my expectations somewhat low, it came as a shock to drive the all-new version. BMW has finally listened to enthusiasts and journalists who begged them to inject some ultimate-driving spirit into its bread-and-butter sedan. (Can I get an “Amen?”) Even the standard 330i, now with 255 horsepower and 295 pound-feet from its 2.0-liter turbo four (up 7 horses and 37 pound-feet), is a sweetheart to drive: Alert, engaging and swifter than ever, including a 5.8-second dash to 60 mph. For many buyers, it’s all the sport sedan they’ll ever need.
Good news continues: BMW—surely noting those sales downturns on a PowerPoint in Munich—has resisted the usual price creep with the 2019 3 Series. The 330i’s base price of $41,245 is identical to last year’s. A caveat is that the old 320i, the starter model that could be had from $35,895, is eliminated.
Then there’s the M340i. This one’s a ringer, or maybe a ‘Ringer, considering racetrack chops that fairly blew us away on the devilish Portimao circuit in the lovely Algarve region. Like some other mid-range “M Performance” models, including the fine M235i coupe and the M550i sedan, the M340i drives a lot like a full-blown M Division car, minus some top-end horsepower and a kidney-bashing ride.
A largely new, 3.0-liter turbocharged inline six—which made its debut in the new Z4 sports car—makes an eye-opening 382 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. That compares to just 320 horses and 330 pound-feet in the current 340i. Fuel-injection pressure rises to 350 bar (up from 200 bar), the twin-scroll turbocharger is lighter and more efficient (it inhales exhaust gas at 1,850 degrees Fahrenheit), and separate circuits cool the cylinder head and crankcase. An all-new eight-speed Steptronic transmission brings shorter ratios in lower gears, improved shift times, and a wider ratio spread to trim fuel consumption and C02 emissions. No manual transmission is available, and no 3 Series wagon for the U.S. Take it up with BMW.
In BMW’s (typically conservative) estimation, the M340i will scamper to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds with optional xDrive AWD, or 4.4 seconds in rear-drive form. Consider the fabled, 333-horsepower E46 M3 of the early Aughts, or even the beastly V8-powered 414-hp M3 built from 2007-2013. This new M340i, on sale this summer as a 2020 model, is decisively quicker than either of them.
In fact, that 4.2-second 0-60 run is only 0.2 seconds behind a current-gen 425-hp M3—or the 405-hp M2 Competition that’s pacing my M340i at Portimao, driven by none other than Timo Glock, the BMW factory DTM pilot and former F1 driver. With Glock pushing the M2 Competition for all it’s worth on Portimao’s half-blind, roller-coaster circuit—as evidenced by him masterfully drifting the M2 as it broaches its tire limits—I manage to stay near his bumper in the M340i, its exterior still camouflaged in these pre-production models.
A host of chassis changes include a center of gravity lowered by 0.4 inches. A 25-percent stiffer body structure and firmer suspension mounting points allow more-precise tuning, including 20-percent stiffer spring rates when equipped with optional fixed M Sport Suspension or the M340i's optional Adaptive Suspension. The 3 Series premieres BMW’s new “lift-related” dampers, whose hydraulic elements in the damper sleeve work to limit body motions over bumpy surfaces or in dynamic cornering.
And while the M340i impresses with that ripping acceleration, agility and grip, there’s something more: Real, honest-to-Gott steering feel and sound, both dramatically improved over today’s milquetoast 3er. Like the M2 and M235i, there’s real weight in the helm, and enough feedback to keep any driver engaged and entertained. But in current BMW vogue, the steering-wheel rim is just too thick—acceptable for a burly X5 SUV, perhaps, but not for this relatively small, quicksilver sedan.
Worth mentioning while on the subject of size, the new sedan has grown 3 inches in length. The wheelbase is stretched by 1.6 inches and the tracks are wider, including a stability-enhancing 1.6-inch spread up front. Yet this 3 Series still manages to shed up to 120 pounds, largely via a high-strength steel and aluminum diet, including an aluminum hood and front fenders.
A new aluminum electronic limited-slip sport differential trims 15 pounds, and can divert torque away from a slipping rear wheel in as little as 150 milliseconds. And where one might see the optional xDrive AWD as a performance compromise, this latest iteration proves anything but: There’s only a trace of understeer on Portimao’s slowest second-gear curves, and the system’s positive effects on stability and corner exit are palpable. The rear-biased, multiplate-clutch xDrive can deliver 100 percent of torque to the rear wheels, and the system is lighter and faster-acting than earlier ones.
Inspired by Glock’s hijinks ahead of me, I find it child’s play to adjust the M340i’s cornering attitude with my right foot; pressing the traction button once dials up a Dynamic program that allows ample wheelspin and body yaw before stability control intervenes. Credit the new dual-pipe, valve-controlled exhaust system for the M340i’s deep-lunged bellow, which only gets better in selectable Sport and Sport Plus modes. Yes, some digitized engine sound is still pumped through the audio system, but it takes sharp ears to pick it up.
Sharp eyes will note that the 3 Series still isn’t as full-blown-luxurious as a Mercedes C-Class. Yet the sleek cabin makeover puts the 3 Series back in the luxury game. The new car is quieter, including a standard acoustic windshield, optional acoustic front side glass, and a class-leading drag coefficient (Cd) of just 0.23.
And there’s enough new technology to back a start-up in Silicon Valley. Standard on the M340i, and optional on the 330i, is a dual-screen affair that does recall Mercedes’ latest. Throw in BMW’s industry-benchmark head-up display, and you’ve got a real digital three-way: A 12.3-inch digital driver’s display includes a right-hand tachometer that runs counter-clockwise; 10.3-inch center touchscreen is integrated more discreetly into a dashboard crevice, rather than perched high atop it; and that’s all controlled by BMW’s excellent iDrive 7.0 operating system, with its configurable pages and tiles and remote software upgrades. A quick rundown of the show-offy stuff:
- The BMW’s vast array of semi-autonomous functions (many optional) include smartly executed lane keeping and self-steering by means of a trifocal MobilEye camera and radar. “Narrow Passage” detection can keep the car centered in white-knuckle situations, such as construction zones or driving between semi trucks. BMW is touting nearly unlimited stretches of hands-off driving on highways, though we’ll have to perform a real-world test of that on roads here.
- With BMW Digital Key, your smart phone can replace a traditional key fob. Simply hold your phone near the door handle to lock or unlock, then start the car via pushbutton.
- BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant is an onboard, voice-controlled Siri that’s modestly helpful—it quickly called up an onscreen list of nearby restaurants—but occasionally clunky in terms of conversational skills and functionality. You can give the assistant any name you choose, to which she will respond. (I went with "Anastasia.")
- Optional Laserlight high beams, BMW says, can illuminate the road ahead for a remarkable 580 yards, though American regulations will forbid the clever feature that masks oncoming cars to avoid dazzling other drivers.
- Calendar-year 2020 brings a 330e plug-in hybrid with a claimed 37 miles of electric range, an all-electric top speed of 87 mph, and an overboost function that can supply 30-kilowatt squirts (a.k.a. 40 hp) of added electric sauce.
- The Reversing Assistant, the latest wrinkle in BMW’s automated Parking Assistant, ranks among the year’s coolest tech developments. Drive below 22 mph, and the system constantly stores your steering inputs in 55-yard (50 meter) increments. Now, imagine you’ve driven forward into a tricky garage spot, a blind alley, a forest two-track or narrow courtyard—anywhere where it’s a literal pain in the neck to twist in your seat and cautiously back your way out. Now, even if you’ve shut the 3 Series off and returned in the morning, the onboard assistant can automatically reverse and mimic your inbound path at up to 5.5 mph, with the driver required only to operate the brake and throttle. I take pride in my back-up skills, but the older I get, the more I dislike having to do it. I suspect that if every new car had this feature, insurance claims due to reverse maneuvers gone wrong—those shorn-off side mirrors, or an embarrassing smash into an unseen obstacle—might drop like crazy.
But BMW fans will prefer driving this 3 Series forward. The 2019 330i becomes a much stronger value, holding the line on 2018 pricing, while bringing real gains in fun-to-drive performance, features and tech. And the M340i seems a real sleeper—a masterstroke in the mid-range, $50,000-to-$60,000 sport-sedan class, because there’s nothing quite like it. The Mercedes-AMG C43 and Audi S4 are fine automobiles, but neither one is a legitimate track car; they’re more like first-class berths on the autobahn express. Road or track, the BMW M340i feels nearly as quick and capable as an M3, and the base price—$54,995, or $2,000 extra with AWD—undercuts the M3 by $12,500. It's actually good enough to make enthusiasts question the need to upgrade to an M3, whose hyperactive nature can become wearying in everyday driving. But whether the 330i or M340i, it's great to drive a 3 Series that's no longer coasting on its reputation.
Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence.firstname.lastname@example.org