PROGRESS REPORT

“THE ZF EIGHT-SPEED AUTO MAKES MANY TWIN CLUTCH BOXES SEEM HOPELESSLY CLUNKY ”

WORDS & PHOTOS ANDY ENRIGHT

WITH BMW celebrating its centenary this year, how’s the report card on its biggestselling line, the 3 Series?

We missed the Three’s 40th birthday shebang last year, but in an effort to put that right, we’ve got a shiny 340i.

We pondered putting this up against an E21 3 Series to bookend the development of the range, but after a bit of head scratching, we decided that there really wasn’t much point.

We like to think the pace of change in vehicle development has slowed, with only small incremental advances but the F30 3 Series demonstrates that latter-day progress is, if anything, accelerating. In many regards, a BMW 320 from 1975 is closer to a BMW 328 from 40 years earlier than it is to the car I’m sitting in. The old 328 made 59kW (79hp) from its 1971cc engine, while the 320 eked 81kW (109hp) from its 1990cc. In other words, BMW added 38 per cent more power to a 2.0-litre petrol engine over those 40 years. Fast forward four more decades and BMW gets 185kW (248hp) from a 3 Series 2.0-litre lump, an increase of 120 per cent over the 320.

But the car we’ve booked doesn’t have a 2.0-litre engine. Whereas once the base 3 would have been the only four-pot available, it’s now the other way round, with four-cylinder engines dominating the range and this 340i with its twinturbocharged straight-six sitting at the top of the mainstream range. BMW treated the F30 to what it

calls a ‘Life Cycle Impulse’ in 2015. We expected a usual lights and bumpers mid-life facelift, but the changes went a lot deeper. Stung by criticisms that the 3 Series wasn’t as good to drive as a Mercedes C-Class, engineers at Munich wrought myriad changes to chassis, steering, powerplants, interiors and, yes, lights and bumpers.

This new B58 3.0 litre turbocharged straight-six engine is an interesting thing. It’s certainly rapid, demolishing 100km/h in just 5.1 seconds and it’s even acceptably economical, although our test figure of 9.9L/100km was some way off the 5.9L figure BMW quoted.

It’s not the most charismatic sounding engine, but you’ll forgive that for its tractability and lack of turbo lag. The ZF eight-speed auto is the game-changer that makes many twin-clutch boxes seem hopelessly clunky. The lever changes the right way (push forward to change down) and the paddles zip through ratios as quick as you can flick. Want three pedals and a stick? Not in the 340i.

So where’s the commonality between the old E21 and this slick turbocharged F30 with its Connected Drive tech, parking cameras, EfficientDynamics gauges and Driving Experience Control switches? Look beyond all the tinsel and it’s there.

It’s present in the simple four-clock dash architecture.

Fuel, speedo, tacho, water temperature – nothing’s changed. Likewise you can see cues in the styling. The Hofmeister Kink, that recurve in the C-pillar that Hofmeister had nothing to do with, is the most noticeable design feature.

The basic inline-frontengine and rear-drive layout hasn’t altered and nor has the way BMW has marketed the car as amongst the sportiest options in its class. Even this Luxury spec 340i rides firmly and switching it into Sport+ mode instantly dials out the Dynamic Traction Control software. There aren’t many other manufacturers that would do that these days. Nor were there many car makers who would have attempted to sell you a car that handled as lairily as the 323i back in ’77.

Steering fidelity, consistency of control weights, handling adjustability – all the things that matter to the keen driver are as much a feature of the F30 as they are of the E21.

So as much as some things change, and change radically, others stay the same. Let’s call it 41 years of the right stuff.

“THE ZF EIGHT-SPEED AUTO MAKES MANY TWIN CLUTCH BOXES SEEM HOPELESSLY CLUNKY ”

Shark Fin

One design feature that has now been accepted as a 3 Series staple is the shark’s fin antenna, originally seen on the E90 in 2004 and which helped with telephone and GPS reception. Spawning an instant industry of non-functional cosmetic stick-on products, the real thing is car wash-proof and suitably aerodynamic.

Since its introduction it’s been copied by virtually every manufacturer.

Size matters

While it’s not going to come as any great surprise to hear the 3 Series has got bigger and heavier, by how much might raise an eyebrow or two. The latest F30 is bigger in every key dimension than a 1975 5 Series and this 340i is wider and heavier than some early 7 Series variants. It’s 278mm longer, 201mm wider and 49mm taller than an E21 and weighs around one and a half times as much.

BMW 340i

ENGINE 3.0 inline six, four-valve DOHC turbo MAX POWER 240kW @ 6500rpm MAX TORQUE 450Nm @ 1380-5000rpm TRANSMISSION Eight-speed auto WEIGHT 1540kg 0-100KM/H 5.1sec PRICE $89,900 ON SALE Now