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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.

CAPE TOWN – Its safe to say the G20-generation BMW 3 Series is one of the most highly anticipated new cars to arrive in South Africa so far in 2019. Still, the venerable 3 Series is these days facing a threat from within its own Bavarian stable, as the buying public continues its migration away from sedans and towards SUVs, with the high-riding X3 even replacing the saloon on Plant Rosslyns production line in Pretoria.

That said, there is certainly still a local market for the compact executive sedan, particularly if it happens to wear a German badge on its snout.

As associate editor Gareth Dean pointed out when he drove the petrol-powered 330i in Portimao, Portugal late in 2018, the new-generation 3 Series takes an evolutionary approach to exterior styling (and a revolutionary one to cabin design, given the requisite options are selected). Interestingly, the 320d I drove in the Western Cape was not equipped with the M Sport package, but rather the Sport Line kit, which nevertheless provides a fairly aggressive front and rear treatment, and a suitably athletic profile. In fact, from some angles, I’d argue this simpler spec looks more attractive than the M Sport kit.

Under the bonnet of the 320d youll find the latest version of the Munich-based brands 2,0-litre, four-cylinder turbodiesel engine, which here delivers 140 kW and 400 N.m of torque to the rear axle. Interestingly, the torque figure is the same as that of the 2,0-litre, four-cylinder turbopetrol mill found in the 330i, the only other engine derivative offered at launch (more variants are expected later, of course).

Although the 320d is outgunned by the 330i in terms of outright power, it still does plenty to impress dynamically. The engine is peppy and highly capable in the mid-range, which makes exiting tight corners an effortless process. It communicates well with the eight-speed automatic torque-converter, which shifts smoothly and swiftly. The cleverly spaced ratios of this gearbox endow the 320d with impressive acceleration off the mark as well as a refined cruising ability.

Indeed, the oil-burner is surprisingly hushed, with almost no diesel clatter or vibration making its way into the well-insulated cabin. In fact, you really have to concentrate to hear the engine when driving at cruising speeds. Theres very little tyre roar, either, although I did notice some wind noise at higher speeds. Still, perhaps the most impressive feature of the 320d is its fuel consumption. After some 250 km of driving, the turbodiesel sedan consumed only a quarter of a tank, which equates to a figure not far off the claimed 4,8 L/100 km.

And the ride? Well, for the most part, the 320d offers a plush experience, but its 18-inch alloys sacrifice some degree of comfort over rutted tarmac. Although it shares plenty of characteristics with its predecessor, based on my first impressions, Id say the G20 doesn’t feel quite as engaging to drive as the previous model (although Ill certainly wait for the M340i and upcoming M3 to arrive before making a definitive call). That said, the 320d is more than capable of tackling a set of corners in a manner we have all come to expect from a 3 Series, and likely still ahead of the competition when it comes it dynamics.

Interestingly, while the 320d and 330i are evenly priced, theres a distinct difference between the two once you’re enjoyed some time behind the wheel. While the 330i has more character and better performance figures, the 320d counters with a terrific mile-munching ability that makes it very well suited to open-road driving. That its turbodiesel engine takes small sips from the tank (resulting in a very respectable range) is another bonus.

So, is the 3 Series still the premium mid-size sedan benchmark? Well, while its probably a little too early to say, Id venture its German rivals will have a hard time matching the G20s all-round abilities, considering its now even loftier levels of refinement and much improved cabin.

PORTIMãO, Portugal – For more than 40 years, the BMW 3 Series, with its combination of luxury and rear-wheel-driven dynamic agility, has won favour with buyers looking for something a little more dashing than its business-suited segment rivals. Now in its seventh generation (check out pricing here), the 3 Series faces stiffer competition than ever, and its engineers have to shoulder the massive challenge of bettering a car that’s not just the core of the company’s product portfolio but also a motoring institution.

Evolutionary outside 

BMW has carefully instituted aesthetic changes that remain close to its predecessor, while moving the game along without ruffling too many feathers. Perhaps the most noteworthy elements are BMW’s more angular take on its signature kidney grille and much narrower, L-shaped brakelamps that lend the rear a bit of visual width. Otherwise, the taut sheetmetal and proportions are unmistakably 3 Series.

Sitting on a compact version BMW’s CLAR modular platform, which also forms the foundations of the 5 Series among others, the G20 3 Series measures in at 4 709 mm long and 1 827 mm wide, making it an appreciably larger car, especially in its 2 851 wheelbase, which stretches some 40 mm past that of the F30.

Revolutionary inside

In all honesty, the F30’s interior wasn’t at the forefront of material quality and was beginning to look rather dated. The new BMW 3 Series, with a neat centre console that now incorporates the previously perched infotainment screen, clean lines and dense, slush-moulded trim, more than atones for its predecessor’s so-so finishes. Factor in a crisp digital instrument cluster and there’s a pleasing but sporty simplicity about the 3’s interior that does enough to carve out its own take on premium midsize accommodations.

BMW’s Intelligent Personal Assistant is pegged as one of the new car’s technological highlights; an automotive PA that can waft you with cool air, blue lighting and vigorous music from your on-board collection when drowsy, or sniff out good restaurants and other points of interest, all the while learning your preferences and moulding itself to your lifestyle. As with many voice-driven infotainment systems the implementation is hit and miss, but maybe time and practice will change that.

Behind the wheel

The tweaked aesthetics and new technology are welcome improvements, but it’s what happens behind that chunky steering wheel that’s really important. What is it like to drive?

Well, it’s not vastly removed from what you’d experience from the outgoing car … but that’s actually a great thing. The servo-assisted steering is marginally lighter but still feelsome and possessed of a more pleasingly progressive self-centring action. Body control remains supple, and whether you’re wafting along motorways or avidly tacking wonderfully sinuous mountain roads such as those on our launch route, the 3 always feels poised and in its element – a feat that sounds so straightforward, but remarkably few cars can capably carry off.

In the course of the G20’s development, BMW’s engineers managed to shave up to 55 kg off the kerb weight of certain models, and the agility that’s traditionally garnered the 3 such praise is very much in attendance, despite the new car feeling more substantial and planted. Although we’ve had few qualms regarding the F30’s ride quality, time spent with this latest model showed that BMW’s engineers have worked hard to make the ride feel even more resolved; implementing new lift-related adaptive dampers that rein in excess body dive under cornering and resist rebound.

Powertrain

Serving up 190 kW and 400 N.m, the 330i’s 2,0-litre turbopetrol is a solid performer that impressed on the roads near Portimão. Barring a slight hesitancy in response to sudden, hard throttle inputs, the four-cylinder unit pulls like a freight train and gels well with the eight-speed Steptronic auto transmission. That well-balanced chassis also inspired enough confidence on the narrow hillside roads to muck about with the paddle shifters. In most lower-powered cars, these manual overrides are largely a gimmick, but with the sportiest setting on the drivetrain management system engaged the transmission’s response to paddle inputs was surprisingly snappy.

In keeping with the new 3’s more polished demeanour, refinement has also taken an audible step up. Plentiful sound deadening and acoustic glass for the windscreen ensure that just a distant snarl of engine noise permeates the cabin when burying the throttle, while motorway stints are pleasingly serene.

Different enough?

BMW was never going to make sweeping changes to the 3, remaining true to its core product by leaving much of what appeals relatively untouched and smoothing out the bits that don’t.

Does it break the mould? Not as such, but as was mentioned earlier, the existing formula was already so good that the new car’s improved material quality and a modicum of refinement added to a satisfyingly adaptable package has just served to firmly cement the 3 in the finely balanced habitat it has created for itself in the premium midsize sedan scene.

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