The 3 Series is BMW’s best-selling car, and arguably one of the most prominent automotive pillars.
Much like cars such as the Volkswagen Golf, Porsche 911 and Mercedes S-Class, the BMW 3 Series has cemented itself as the standard by which all of its peers are measured. And those peers nigh on always come off worse.
But for how much longer? The 3 Series faces a not completely certain future as electrification takes an ever-bigger grip on its heritage. Do you want a fully electric 3? It’s currently called a BMW i4. So, best to savour this 7th-generation ‘G20’ BMW 3 Series for as much as you can, just in case. And that’s exactly what I did when BMW invited me for one of their driving challenges.
The G20 3 Series rolled out in 2018, and now it’s been given a facelift. Fear not, its core goodness remains untarnished. Of course, the update introduces BMW’s swanky curved touchscreen infotainment system and other nice cabin accessories, but what we’re really here for is how it behaves on the tarmac.
And so, I found myself at the Chang International Circuit, ready to feast on two flavours of the 3 Series buffet – the suave 330e PHEV and the M340i, crowned with a 48V mild-hybrid twist and standard xDrive four-wheel-drive.
Dancing with the BMW 330e
First order of business was a drifting session with the 330e, followed by some circuit hot laps. Simply put, despite its hybrid powertrain, the 330e is a symphony of delight.
This hybrid dance combines a 2.0-litre, 4-cylinder turbo petrol engine (the same one that powers the regular 320i) with an electric motor, neatly tucked into the 8-speed Steptronic automatic gearbox. Why is this brilliant? It’s not just efficient; it’s also a wizard when it comes to regenerating energy during braking.
You get 181bhp from the petrol engine, and up to 111bhp from the electric motor. This gives the 330e a max official output of 288bhp, with 420Nm of torque to boot. And that’s without even pushing the XtraBoost button.
Wait, XtraBoost? You’d think it’s a bit of a gimmick, but nope. An extra jolt of 40bhp from the electric motor feels pretty darn impressive, especially on a track when you want to wrestle your way out of a corner. This turbocharged burst nudges the combined petrol-electric power to a smashing 289bhp for those heart-pounding moments.
The best part about all this is just how stable the 330e is on track. I went into the session thinking that it would throw its weight around corners, but the car sings through each turn like a bonafide 3 Series.
The front end was responsive even under braking, and the car was composed even whilst a bit of tail action was going on, thanks to the DSC system (we had to keep it on due to safety concerns). That battery pack does not impede its performance in the slightest, and I was left with smiles all around.
Since it was rear-wheel drive, the instructors also set up a drifting segment for us to enjoy. With a flick of the wheel, the 300e easily gets into a slide. The dance of oversteer and controlled chaos unfolds, a ballet of power and finesse. A moment of unadulterated joy and playful abandon.
Sure, it’s not perfect, but the 330e is like the kid in class who’s the closest to perfection – a mix of brilliant and almost there.
Pouncing with the BMW m340i
The m340i had a bit more of a workout to do, with a short gymkhana session to complete on top of the circuit laps. But, it is exactly the gymkhana’s setting that allowed me to really try out its 8-speed ZF automatic transmission that’s simply top-notch. The gearbox is even spiced up by that 48-volt hybrid setup that BMW’s sprinkling all over its lineup, allowing the car to minimise delay between shifts.
The transmission dances seamlessly, shuffling through gears like a seasoned partner on the ballroom floor. Three different shift schedules cater to your mood – Comfort, Sport, and Sport+. Of course, in order to get the most out of it, I was in Sport+ most of the time, and each gear change was seamless thanks to the large paddle shifters.
But where does its power come from? Unlike the 330e, the m340i uses a turbocharged 3.0-litre inline-6, BMW’s prized possession. The hybrid twist doesn’t cramp its style; it still delivers the same old peak power – 369bhp and a cool 500Nm of torque.
Smooth? Heck yeah. This engine croons its power, with no discordant notes in the symphony.
On the performance stage, this M340i xDrive proves its mettle, and then some. xDrive really comes into its own here, keeping the car balanced through corners and nudging the power down on the straights.
Best of all, you don’t feel threatened or worried each time you rock up to a corner at blazingly fast speeds, as the car keeps itself composed even under harsh braking. Zone out for a moment, and you might think you’re piloting an M3.
But of course, this isn’t an M3, and the M340i does have one minor issue. Steering on the circuit is manageable since the corners are not really technical. But, run it through its paces on the tight gymkhana course, with a lot of sharp corners, and it felt not quite spot on.
But let’s not end on a sour note. Here’s the silver lining – the BMW M340i nails its mission. Lightning-fast, comfortable, and the way it handles itself on a variety of handling courses while still being a 5-seater sedan? Definitely worth the money.
The 3 Series soul is still there
So, what’s the verdict? No doubt, the G20 3 Series family is still the charmer we fell for. This mid-life facelift didn’t botch things up; instead, it jazzed up the digital playground while keeping its driving soul intact. From the 6-cylinder M340i to the 330e PHEV that slips into your life seamlessly, you’re spoiled for choice.
Long story short, there’s no wrong way to embrace the 3 Series magic.
Photo Credits: Sean Loo (@auto.driven) & BMW Asia