Versus the competiton:
The verdict: Despite being billed as an Ultimate Driving Machine, the latest BMW 340i feels dumbed down to widen its appeal to buyers of rival machines.
Versus the competition: The BMW 340i is certainly powerful and offers lots of customization abilities, but it no longer has a lock on being the sportiest luxury sports sedan in the class. Several other brands offer sharper-performing cars with similar price tags.
For years now, BMW has billed its products as Ultimate Driving Machines, using that phase as an advertising tagline and claiming a sportier orientation than what’s found in rivals like Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Lexus. The backbone of that claim has always been the BMW 3 Series sedan; it’s the company’s best-selling model globally and heavily influences the rest of BMW’s lineup. For 2016, the company updated the 3 Series, giving it a barely perceptible face-lift and dropping a new engine into the six-cylinder 340i. (Compare the 2015 335i with the 2016 340i here). The new motor is more powerful (on paper) and joins some suspension refinements to create, says BMW, a new driving experience. I spent a week with a new 340i to see if the once-king of sports sedans still has its mojo.
The 3 Series looks as it has for the past 20 years: Certain elements have been kept through successive generations even as the car has grown longer and wider. The same familiar twin-kidney grille is up front, flanked by sleek headlights. BMW’s traditional character line runs up the body sides, and the 340i ends in a high tail. The style is immediately identifiable as a 3 Series, and it’s very attractive.
You can specify if you’d rather have a sportier or more luxurious look for your 340i with either chrome or blacked-out trim. My test car didn’t have much in the way of optional Sport Package bling, but its bright Melbourne Red metallic paint and dark wheels definitely set it apart from more traditional silver or beige pigments.
Powering the new 340i is a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six-cylinder engine making a stout 320 horsepower. Those horses are sent to the rear wheels via either a standard eight-speed automatic transmission or a no-cost six-speed manual — one of the few left on the market. BMW’s xDrive all-wheel drive is optional for an extra cost, but I didn’t drive it; my test car was a rear-driver with the six-speed manual transmission.
While they may not be hugely popular options anymore, manual transmissions are still prized by enthusiasts as one of the last true connections between man and machine — though whether or not that’s really true anymore, given how good automatics have gotten, is up for debate.
The six fires to life with a low burble, and it’s clear from the get-go that the sound the engine is making is being piped into the cabin — you can hear the noise when you’re inside the cabin, but not if a 340i drives past you on the street. That’s becoming more common as automakers improve noise isolation in cars and employ turbochargers that muffle exhaust sounds. As long as the electronic augmentation is representative of the engine’s actual sounds, I don’t mind it.
Acceleration from the powerful engine is surprisingly tepid unless you switch the adjustable mode selector into Sport mode (your other options are Sport+, Eco and Normal). Blame lazy electronic throttle tuning for the car’s quick but uninspiring acceleration in Normal, because in Sport mode, the 340i’s reflexes and responses get much more entertaining. This is what the normal 340i would have felt like a couple of generations ago; this new one has been tuned to be much softer and more mainstream than previous BMW sports sedans. As such, it feels less different from the Mercedes-Benz C-Class than it used to — and considerably less taut and sporty than a Cadillac ATS 3.6. I drove the 340i to a launch drive of the new 2017 Ford Fusion Sport and came away more impressed by the sportiness of the Ford when driven back-to-back with the Bimmer.
Steering response is heavy and somewhat numb on-center, and Sport mode doesn’t seem to do much to change that. The brakes are strong but require more travel than one might expect, with an initial softness that saps confidence during spirited driving. Both these attributes were surprising to me given my test car was equipped with a $1,700 Track Handling Package that introduces variable sport steering and upgraded M Sport package brakes. The shifter isn’t anything special, either, operating no more precisely or requiring any greater effort than the one in the latest Honda Civic, nor offering any better feedback.
Ride quality has been made a noticeable priority in the 340i. When it’s left in Normal mode, the shock absorbers do an admirable job of keeping things smooth and comfortable. Sport mode merely makes the ride choppier, not any sportier. For a supposed sports sedan, the 340i doesn’t deliver any more sporting an experience than a Mercedes-Benz C-Class or Audi A4, and it feels less engaging than a Cadillac ATS. It feels as if it’s been dumbed down from its formerly sharp performance in an effort to give it greater appeal to compact-luxury-sedan buyers, and that’s a shame.
Fuel economy is average for the category, rated by the EPA at 20/29/23 mpg city/highway/combined equipped with rear-wheel drive and the six-speed manual. Thanks in part to two extra gears, the 340i with the eight-speed auto box is rated 22/32/25 mpg. My week of testing netted about 21 mpg overall in mostly suburban driving — and with an admittedly heavy foot. Competitors aren’t any better: The Audi S4 is rated a miserable 17/26/20 mpg with its manual but features AWD standard, the automatic-only Mercedes-Benz C450 AMG comes in at 21/28/24 mpg, and the automatic Cadillac ATS 3.6 manages to rate 20/29/24 mpg on regular gas instead of premium like the others.
Inside, the BMW 340i is the typical mix of materials the BMW 3 Series is known for. As is common in the class, leather is not standard, but my test car included it as an option.
It’s narrow inside the 340, with a wide center console and lower door trim that intrudes into the driver’s legroom in order to feature a bottleholder. Materials quality is mostly good, a mix of nice soft-touch materials with some cheap-feeling hard plastic. The dark ash wood trim almost disappeared into my car’s black interior. Overall, the look is less luxurious than the Benz or Audi but decidedly higher quality than the Cadillac.
Finding a comfortable seating position is also something of a challenge. Despite the front seats’ multi-adjustability, the pedals are a long way from the driver’s seat and the steering wheel doesn’t telescope in far enough for shorter drivers to fully engage the clutch pedal without being uncomfortably close to the steering wheel. This isn’t an issue with the automatic car, but it’s the situation in which I found myself in the 340i. Playing around with the seat cushion angle helped.
The backseat is a little tight in the legroom department, but that’s not uncommon in this vehicle class, and the BMW doesn’t seem any worse than its competitors here.
If you keep checking option boxes, you can load your BMW 3 Series 340i up with all sorts of fun electronic goodies, as my test car was. From a rather complete head-up information display to the latest remote concierge services and BMW’s iDrive infotainment system, the 340i can be very well-equipped with all the latest gadgetry. Interestingly, it’s display is not a touchscreen; it operates from a rotary controller in the center console that takes a little getting used to before you can successfully navigate the menu-based system. The upside is that you’re never trying to reach for the display while driving and there are no smudgy fingerprints on it.
For a compact sedan, the 340i has a surprisingly spacious trunk, with 13.0 cubic feet overall. That’s more than its rivals possess, with the Mercedes-Benz C430 AMG coming in at 12.6 cubic feet and the Audi S4 not far behind at 12.4. The Cadillac ATS is closer in size to previous-generation 3 Series models at just 10.4 cubic feet. All these cars feature a split, folding rear seatback to allow for expansion of the trunk for larger items.
The BMW 340i earned five stars across the board in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash tests, but it didn’t fare quite as well with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It’s rated good (out of possible ratings of good, acceptable, fair and poor) in most tests, but is ranked marginal in the small overlap front test and headlight illumination rating. See how its competitors rate in the institute’s Midsize luxury cars class.
As with most German luxury cars, plenty of high-tech safety equipment is available for an extra cost, driving the price of a 340i even higher. The only systems of note that come standard on the 340i are adaptive brake lights and front side-impact airbags. Everything else, from a backup camera and parking sensors to autonomous braking and blind spot detection, costs extra.
A model equipped with forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking earned a rating of advanced from IIHS — ranking between the scores of basic and superior — for its emergency stopping performance. See all the BMW 340i’s standard and optional equipment here.
You can get a less-expensive 3 Series — the 328i with a 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine — or you can get a much more expensive performance model in the M3. The 340i splits the difference between those two, starting at $46,795 including destination for a six-cylinder model. All-wheel drive is an extra $2,000.
The car I drove was loaded with options, including BMW’s Driver Assistance and Driver Assistance Plus packages, plus the Cold Weather Package, Lighting Package, Technology Package and Track Handling Package. Manual rear side window shades and enhanced Bluetooth were also included, as was a $550 metallic paint and $1,450 leather interior, to bring the grand total to an uncomfortable $58,420. If you keep going and add an M Sport appearance package and automatic parking, you’ll end up spending more than $60,000 for a compact luxury sedan.
Competitors at this level tend to be the mid-range performance models of other German luxury automakers. The Mercedes-Benz C450 AMG is a little more expensive to start, at $51,725, but comes with standard AWD. Like the BMW, leather is not standard, and opting for it requires adding packages that boost the price just as quickly as the 340i’s sticker can inflate.
The Audi S4 is a little different. It also comes with standard AWD but on front-drive architecture. It starts a little higher than the BMW, at $50,125. But just like the C450 AMG, its specs are well-matched against the BMW and it comes with more standard sport equipment (real leather is still optional, however).
The Cadillac ATS has a powerful V-6 and an available Sport Package model, and while its interior isn’t quite up to snuff versus its German rivals, its chassis dynamics and performance are easily competitive with, if not superior to, this entry-level BMW. It’s something of a bargain, too, starting at $42,335 for a rear-wheel-drive 3.6 Luxury model that features leather seats, front and rear parking sensors, a sport suspension and Brembo brakes standard. Compare all four here.