Story by Joel Levin
New Jersey Newspaper Group
Photos courtesy BMW
A touch of luxury, but purpose-built
for automotive athleticism
Attention, luxury-car buyers: Make no mistake, BMW’s M340i is a car built around an engine. Since there’s no need for the type of furious acceleration and its accompanying soundtrack if all one is looking for is a snazzy carpliance, it’s obvious that what we have is a land-based rocket purpose-built for athleticism but also appropriate for supermarket runs.
When pushed, it has the capability to astound the driver and scare the passenger, with both screaming “Yee-ha!” through thrilled laughter. That first drive will be one that the passenger will never forget. The car can do this for almost any driver due to the unobtrusive integration of electronic controls working where and when you can’t see them as they correct minor and major errors. In other words, it makes every driver a hero and every drive a safe one.
Other four-door sedan rides to consider in the size and price range come from Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and Infiniti, each having earned luxury credentials, but car-buying is as personal as finding a mate. In a few words, Audi’s comparable vehicle has less performance, superior interior, and a more boring exterior; Mercedes shouts quality and expensive, and Infiniti, a newcomer that’s been around for only about 30 years, has a neat high-tech look and feel about it.
All of these autos and a few others will feel polished and smooth, but will differ in the way they coddle drivers and passengers, the way they deliver power, the volume and character of sound levels, the electronic interfaces, comfort adjustments, and just the way they look. But then, you might eliminate one because you simply can’t get comfortable even with tens of thousands of permutations of seat adjustment, you can’t stand the sound of the exhaust, you can’t see the instruments well, or the video screen is too large or too small for your taste.
Although it's slower than a Tesla, the T-car being faster than anything on the road except the most expensive hypercars, a BMW owner can be proud of the marque’s traditions. And compared with the simpler drive trains of E-vehicles, your M340i has thousands more moving parts, all of them singing in synchrony. Teslas are more genteel, perhaps because of their eerie silence, but BMWs warm your soul with their soul.
The "compact" 3-Series has been growing larger and wider and dearer through the years; the m340i scales close to two tons and will lighten your wallet by about $57K to the low $70Ks, depending on equipment specified. With that heft comes a sense of brutishness rather than litheness, with the x-Drive (all-wheel-drive for a supplement of $2K) adding an extra measure of sure-footedness. This is a car that begs to be exercised. Enthusiasts will immediately see the difference in, for example, taking your favorite highway ramp 10 mph faster than you thought was possible. The personal bests will fall as your confidence and belief in computer chips build.
Performance metrics are impressive. With 382 horsepower, zero-to-60 was reached effortlessly in under four seconds. We never employed the tire-smoking Launch Control feature, but sub-four-second times are Corvette territory. Still, the impression the M340i made on this driver is that I was riding the world's fastest lineman rather than a more-slender rushing back. Strange thing for the company that builds “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” but it is notorious for underquoting power and performance specs. I’d lay odds that the quoted 382 horses are closer to 410. What is even easier to measure is acceleration times, with 0-60 sprints coming .3 or .4 seconds sooner than advertised. Enjoy!
The brakes are great in delivering eye-popping G-forces accurately, but the feel under one's foot is that of a much larger and softer car. The steering, especially in a SPORT setting, is quick and accurate, but somewhat numb. Unfortunately, insensitive steering is to be expected these days, but BMW took the easy way, abandoning its founding principles to facilitate piloting over two tons of car and passengers. Of course, you also get tons more modernism and safety than was standard in an early-90s Bimmer, but you pay for that with a loss of soul and a less direct connection between human and machine.
The ride around town in COMFORT mode is relaxing but firm, but this auto can be instantly transformed from total pussycat to snarling beast by engaging the SPORT setting which the driver has previously calibrated for throttle response, steering, and exhaust volume. One setting allows the exhaust to produce endearing crackles and pops on every automatic upshift.
The transmission upshifts in milliseconds, and usually does likewise on downshifts, but occasionally when shifting by mashing the gas pedal (known as kickdown), it takes what feels like a full second to gather itself up and deliver its ponderous torque. When it works (almost all of the time), the kickdown is faster and easier than using either the paddles or the stick.
Annoying little things:
The animated speedo and tach are not circular, but instead are racetrack-shaped. The cursor on the mph meter runs clockwise, while the tachometer's pointer moves counterclockwise, a bad and unwanted reinvention. Worse, it's very difficult to understand the tach at a glance. This is not progress.
The unique grille could not look crappier. Yes, plastic saves weight compared with aluminum or steel, but in this usage, it looks cheap, artificial, and out-of-place.
There's no excuse for not having full fold-down rear seats instead of a ski-bag passthrough. Here, a little low-tech engineering would have gone a long way. C'mon, guys.
There's no visual indication of what gear you're in unless in the manual gate of the shifter.
Good little things: The radio can be tuned five different ways...and one of them is via rotary knob. And if I were ordering one, I wouldn’t be insulted by checking the box and paying a $550 upcharge for super blue metallic paint. The trunk is surprisingly large.
Despite my quibbling, I remain a stalwart fan of Bavaria's finest -- and this model represents an engineering pinnacle. I'd love to get my hands on the manual version of the 2021 M3 (not to be confused with M340i) for a return to what the BMW badge originally stood for. Likeminded enthusiasts had better hurry; the M3 is now the only way to get a stick shift from the manufacturer, and I foresee the eventual death of manual transmissions, especially since they don't integrate well with autonomous driving technology. But being limited to an automatic in the M340i is not a compromise: there’s luxury in owning a car that knows what gear you would select if you were doing the shifting -- and shifts faster than any human can.
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