Old in body, young in spirit.
Austria is a really nice country. It looks exactly like in those commercials with purple cows and chocolate addicted beavers, pretty much like Belgium and Switzerland actually. There’s a lot of green, smooth asphalt, and driving roads for a “Need For Speed” dream, lakes and mountains from Game of Thrones. But we didn’t go to Austria to enjoy the scenery, instead we went there to test drive the new BMW 340i.
BMW 3 Series has celebrated 40 years of existence this year. For six generations it was the leader in its class, the bulls-eye in front of the gun for everyone who wanted a piece of it. The pressure is even higher for the new generation who has to keep the legacy going without distancing itself from the recipe that made it famous.
The 340i LCI is a substantial facelift of the actual F30, in terms of power. It has a new straight six turbocharged engine developing 320 hp, along with some new adjustments to the way it looks and feels. It replaces the 335i and it’s the main competitor for the Audi S4. It goes from 0 to 100 km/h in just 4.8 seconds. That’s as quick as an E92 BMW M3.
BMW’s customers asked for more comfort and sportiness in the 3 Series, and that’s quite a challenge for any automaker. BMW tried to resolve to make the perfect, balanced machine by making some adjustments to the suspension and steering system. They have to be either very careful or very bold since the new Jaguar XE delivers good suspensions and great driving feel. Even the new Alfa Romeo Giulia with rear wheel drive wants of piece of the action.
Driving the BMW 340i
From behind the wheel, the new BMW 340i seems much faster, more refined, but also a bit fake. It’s still a BMW though – you sit low in your perfect driving seat – not too soft, not too harsh – the engine is very quiet when you just want to cruise, but wakes up violently when you’re ready to break the law. On those perfect Austrian roads, the suspension seemed just right for the perfect road conditions, it remains to be seen how they handle a harsher pavement. The car we drove was fitted with adjustable suspensions which feels a little harsh in Sport Mode and too soft in Comfort Mode. The steering was also adjusted and this new one has a very short ratio, it’s very quick and precise, but it does not have that nice weight on initial turn, like the hydraulic steerings had and it beefs up quite artificially, sometimes where there’s no point in doing so. There are things to fix with the steering feedback, but driving the new BMW X1 made us believe that an electric steering with some feedback might not be a mission impossible.
While the 340i shapes up as a great driving car, the biggest disappointment remains the steering wheel and we feel that BMW has a bit more work to do.
Driving the E36 323i
Heading back to the hotel, we came across all the BMW 3 Series generations. So in order to experience the progress BMW has made over the last 40 years, we jumped on the opportunity to test drive a 323i E36 from BMW Classic’s garage. The E36 is not only the first true modern 3 Series but also a very successful mode which was on the list of Car & Driver’s top ten best cars in every year of its production.
The 323i four door sedan was equipped with a normally aspirated straight six delivering 170 hp and 245 Nm. It only had 4,000 kilometers on the odometer and did not feature any special body kit and wheels. It came with green seats that were as soft as a cat’s paw and it smelled old. A good old.
I switch the key in the ignition in the old fashion way and the engine wakes up like a sleepy kitten who heard milk pouring in the bowl. It moves slowly, but smooth and the five gear manual is a peach. Who says BMW can’t make nice manuals? This one had a nice weight to it and it’s a pleasure to feel that clutch working in your palm. I started to shift gears to get a feel for it and quickly reached 4,000 rpm with a nice sound coming from under the hood.
Under heavy acceleration, the E36 323i shines and comes back to life like BMW normal aspirated engines. The high revving sounds like a swarm of metal bees invading your ears and it makes all the body panels rattle with a natural, metallic sound.
The steering in the E36 is not as fast or as precise as the new one, the ratio is much longer, but it feels attached to the wheels and it tells you everything you’re doing right or wrong. The suspensions are surprisingly good for a car made in 1998, even for a low mileage one. Might be because of the small wheels and tall rubber, so it actually felt more comfortable and less noisy that the one in the new 3 Series. The car leans at initial turn in, but settles down in the middle of the corner, and the feeling is just right. The E36 felt like a car you get to know step-by-step, kinda sort of like dating. If you love a challenge, you will love this BMW.
While the 340i is a beauty to look at, the driving experience might be a bit too modern and soft for hardcore enthusiasts. The E36 323i did look like a granny in church clothes compared with the new model, but felt like a first date with the love of your life. In the end, the two cars match their times and can’t be more different, so while the enthusiasts will scout the classifieds for a used E36, the progressives will enjoy the tech and comfort of the new 3 Series.