40 years on, BMW’s M340i remains a sport saloon giant

Dunlop Sort Maxx

Sedans are a dying breed, they say. Sad as that may seem. Especially considering all the South African history behind this car. BMW SA seems to have forgotten that it’s the 40th anniversary year of the three in this country.

We never got the first E21 here, but we had one of the first, a metallic champagne green E30 320is with light tan hide trim back in ‘83. What a car. A little straight six screamer in ultimate luxury for the time, we really dug it, having had its spiritual predecessor 2002ti a decade before. Which is why the old man went for the 320i, rather than the range-topping 323i.

The BMW 3 Series would go on to be huge in South Africa. It soon became the staple of the Rosslyn plant until six or seven years ago when it switched to X3. And in that time those cars all became legends, both on track and in street lore. The original Dolphin, as they call it these days, soon morphed to the 325i. Racing, you know.


An indelible line from the first 323i to this M340i

Then came the 325iS and the Shadowline, and the 328i and iS, which starred on road and track through to the late 80s. Still incredibly popular and increasing in demand as the spinners fight the collectors, the first SA Three is a cult. The E36 followed in 1990. It was such a big launch that they brought Concorde to fly BMW guests around the country.

Despite the M3 joining the range, the by then 330i continued BMW’s straight-six domination of Stannic Group N racing in SA. The mid-90s E46 continued that in twin-Vanos style, before the 2004 335i brought turbocharging to that classic straight-six rear wheel drive mix. That evolved through to the F30 and now voila, into this 2023 all-wheel drive mild hybrid M340i.

So there’s an incredible and hugely significant direct 40-year line from that first 323i to the first M340i. Built on racing and street cred and in spite of the almost eternal presence of the M3s of the day above them, top regular Three represents some splendid history. And it does so in the typical top 3 Series style you’d expect from BMW.


The big M340i changes are inside

The BMW M340i also stands the sports sedan in great stead. It’s beyond gratifying to see BMW keeping this car so current and competitive. Gives us hope that cars like this may live on. Anyway, four years into its Life Cycle, this 2023 M340i xDrive gets its Impulse, or LCI. That’s BMW-speak for a mid-cycle refresh.

Subtly different, It gets slimmer, simpler L-DRL headlamps atop and edgy if hungrier gaping lower grille. Thank goodness this one has conventional kidneys. Makes for a viable alternative to the controversial M3. It is the better car, after all. Moving aft, new trapezoidal tailpipes, sculpted bumpers and a subtle rear spoiler retain excellent M340i’s proportions.

The big change is inside. And this is where the conundrum comes in. A bit bigger than the previous 3-series, despite a longer body, it will still carry your average four adults. The steering column could be a bit more adjustable for smaller folk. And then there’s the elephant in the room. But let’s first consider this car’s immense strengths.


Superb M340i 3-litre turbo hybrid straight-six

Being what M340i is and what it represents, as you’d expect, its mighty quick and so much fun on the right roads. M340i also returns impressive highway fuel economy and its so quick that it makes you wonder why they even bother with that harder, tauter, harder to live with and pig ugly M3? That’s pushing it, but still!

So let’s just cut to the chase. BMW’s turbocharged B58 3-litre straight-six is superb. Helped along by its new hybrid gubbins, it delivers a creamy 285 kilowatt peak at 5800 to 6500 rpm and 500 Newton-metres torque between 1800 and 5000 revs. Power and torque peak are indeed unchanged from pre hybrid days. All that is simply used to prop up the envelope.

Twinned with an excellent eight-speed automatic now enhanced by the 48-volt mild hybrid collar starter-generator snug in its bellhousing. It may only deliver 10 kW, but the additional 198 Nm torque more than handily supplements the combustion engine. Electricity is stored in small 48-volt battery where the previous 12-volt lead acid device was once mounted.


Splendid, seamless ZF automatic gearbox

The ZF autobox seamlessly summons the perfect ratio for your immediate driving needs. And offers the choice of three different Comfort, Sport, and Sport+ modes to match your mood. And then a full manual mode is quite literally at the tip of your fingers. Best of all, manual mode makes you upshift at redline too – it won’t shift for you.

The xDrive additional traction allows the new M340i to launch harder, nailing 100 km/h in 4.15 seconds, and devouring the quarter-mile in 12.3 seconds at 175 km/h. The hybrid torque really comes into effect higher up the speed range, with 160 km/h coming up in 9.9 seconds, while overtaking acceleration is just as significant.

Quick and effortless, the seamless turbo hybrid M340i uses its excellent transmission to essentially kill turbo lag dead. Unless you stomp on it standing still. Economy was excellent. Despite our push-on style, we averaged 12 l/200 in our test cycle. But below 7l/100 km in open road and a bit of easy town driving. The sedan advantages of 0.27 cD drag coefficient


But M340i is not all a bed of roses

It’s not all a bed of roses, however. The M340i’s excellent chassis is let down by a poorly set-up variable-ratio steering rack which steals feel. Fudgy around its centre and inconsistent in cornering, it’s accompanied by a somewhat compromised brake feel that seems more in tune to pedal travel than effort.

Steering is still precise when you need it to be and once you’re used to them, brakes are powerful and fade-free when pushed. Handling and road holding is great, even in Comfort mode. Sport is probably too hard for everyday use, but it’s brilliant when chasing that ghost in the mountain road. There’s a ride compromise, but that’s also what you’d expect.

Getting back to the M340i’s conundrum, let’s start with the recessed toggle gear selector. It means bye-bye to the gear lever you’d expect in a ‘sports’ saloon. And it’s not that the new toggle design makes way for a little more welcome storage space either. It’s just to look clever. Happily those fingertip steering-wheel paddles remain for manual shifting.


Infotainment the elephant in the M340i room

But that’s just the start. The real elephant in the room is on the dash. BMW’s new Curved Display may as well be out of Star Wars. It houses a 12.3-inch digital dial cluster ahead, and the 14.9-inch iDrive 8 infotainment touchscreen to the right. First off, its far larger than the earlier 3-series 10.3-inch screen. And whilst it looks great, it also hits you in the pocket.

Like the gear lever, all the audio controls, the radio pre-sets and those 13 handy HVAC buttons are gone. Only two defroster buttons, and a volume knob remain. Which means to do anything else, one must delve into the screen windows to find the correct menu. Or struggle with voice control to do that and really get pissed off with the car.

Either way, its slower, more cumbersome, and far more frustrating than simply pressing a button, or twisting a knob. Look, BMW is certainly not alone in this car control sin as it chases a nirvana no human will ever appreciate or master. But there’s another point to this futile buttonless dream that has us scratching our heads…


So bad it should be banned

You may not use a mobile phone in a car. For very good reason. It’s too dangerous. So why make infotainment systems ten times more difficult to run than your mobile? Surely it’s just as dangerous? And illegal? This is a car damn it. I use my phone to do all that! Is it not time carmakers worried about building cars and left the peripherals to the experts? Really!

Give us buttons and knobs any day, and a good old clear and meaningful analogue speedo and tacho. Just like my mum’s first three had forty years ago. So we can just concentrate on driving this sports saloon than rather than continually get lost in some totally OTT side interface that we can use our mobile device for when out of the car anyway.

Anyway, as we say, BMW is not alone in this obsession with stupid in-car systems. Like many of its rivals, Munich has lost the plot and replaced buttons with cyber nonsense that would be deemed illegal if that same means of control was in your hand, rather than on the dash.


BMW’s M340i sports saloon still hard to beat

As a sports saloon however, the BMW M340i is very hard to beat. Formidably quick and comfy, it is built to devour the miles on entertaining roads to drive. Which is why we love this car just for what it is.

A powerful, capable, and sensible sports sedan with a legacy like no other, warts and all. Happy 40th BMW 3. What a magnificent machine! – Michele Lupini

Testing & images: Giordano Lupini

Engine: 280 kW 500 Nm 3-litre turbo petrol I6
Drive: 8-speed automatic AWD
0-60 km/h:        1.98 sec
0-100 km/h:       4.15 sec
0-120 km/h:       5.64 sec
0-160 km/h:       9.33 sec
400m:             12.3 sec @ 178 km/h
80-120 km/h:      2.72 sec
120-160 km/h:     3.69 sec
VMax:             250 km/h
Fuel:             8 l/100 km
CO2:              182 g/km
Range:            725 km
Warranty/Service: 2y unlimited/5y 100K km
LIST PRICE:       R1.363M
RATED:            8
Tagged with: