JOHANNESBURG – “Lite”. It's a term used to describe products lacking in certain aspects. Foodstuffs, such as low-fat margarine, are often labelled as such in relation to their similar but higher-in-calorie counterparts. This tag has also been applied to the new BMW M340i xDrive, with some dubbing it a “lite” version of the upcoming, full-fat M3. At the build-up to the second BMW M Festival, hosted in the City of Gold, we had the chance to find out whether this description was suited to the current range-topping Three (until the aforementioned halo M model arrives in 2021, that is). 

Press start

I grip the thick leather-clad M Sport steering wheel and with the press of the start button, the digital instrumentation cluster lights up. Sited near the top of the crisp 12,3-inch BMW Live Cockpit setup, an "M340i" logo is displayed, flanked by the speedometer and rev-counter, which arch towards the model designation. The LED daytime running lights wrapped round the headlamps mirror these concave gauges.

Although some (myself included) miss the contemporary round gauges, which mimicked the traditional analogue items found in previous BMWs, the futuristic arrangement frees up pixels to relay myriad additional information to the driver. In this case, the navigation system indicates a straight piece of tarmac followed by a left- and then a right-hand turn. The location: Kyalami International Grand Prix Circuit.

Ready, set...

Granted, a racetrack is not a place the M340i will often frequent. That’s a task much more suited to the upcoming M3. However, driving the only six-cylinder 3 Series in the current local line-up does give me the opportunity to test its limits ... or try, at least. I switch to sport plus and nudge the shifter into drive. The sports seats (a no-cost option on this M Performance model) are comfortable and supportive.

Riding on optional (R11 000) 19-inch cerium grey alloy wheels (18-inchers are standard) shod in Pirelli P Zero rubber (sizes 225/40 fore and 255/35 aft), the M340i makes its way to the starting line. “When you’re ready,” the says instructor. Without hesitation, I plant my foot firmly on the accelerator.

...Go!

The midsize sedan launches from standstill, its 275 kW and 500 N.m of torque sent to all four corners via BMW’s rear-biased all-wheel-drive system. The speedometer reads 100, 120 and then 150 km/h before we reach the marker at which the brakes should be firmly applied. The M340i’s claimed 0-100 km/h time of 4,4 seconds certainly seems possible.

With the vehicle now pointed in the direction of the second corner, the eight-speed automatic swiftly shifts up a ratio as I increase speed. Foot on the brakes, the digital rev needle jumps counter-clockwise. Steering response is direct, sending ample feedback from the road to my palms. Equipped with M Sport suspension, the M340i’s 10 mm reduction in ride height is perfectly suited to the billiard-smooth circuit. Although I prefer a firmer steering and suspension setup, round town (where this BMW will be driven most) those prioritising comfort over dynamism might find such a setup irksome.

However, I think long journeys are this BMW’s bread and (high-in-fat) butter. It will devour every kilometre as it cruises towards the desired destination, while its occupants are treated to a six-cylinder symphony each time overtaking is required ... which I suspect the M340i will do with aplomb.

Exiting the final right-hander, applying the throttle with (admittedly) too much verve, results in a touch of oversteer. The xDrive system, however, quickly steps in to keep the rear in check.

Summary

The M340i is distinctive, with its M Performance kit and model-specific cerium grey finishes lending it striking yet subtle exterior design cues. Sporting a generously endowed turbopetrol mill, the newcomer slots neatly between the 330i (which received the second highest road test score from the CAR team so far this year) and the still-to-arrive M3, which BMW says will employ the "most powerful engine" in its segment.

The six-cylinder sophisticate is not “lite” by any means. With stellar perceived interior build quality, dynamic capability and eagerness to be driven hard, all while providing peace-of-mind with its xDrive system, the M340i is just right, balancing outright performance with comfortable cruising ability.



FAST FACTS

Model: BMW M340i xDrive Steptronic
Price: R981 711
Engine: 3,0-litre, inline-six, turbopetrol
Power: 275 kW @ 5 500 r/min
Torque: 500 N.m @ 1 850 r/min 
0-100 km/h: 4,4 seconds
Top Speed: 250 km/h
Fuel Consumption: 7,5 L/100 km
CO2: 172 g/km
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Maintenance Plan: 5-year/100 000 km