BMW admits to deliberately avoiding large design changes for its revised 3 Series range and it's not wrong. The facelifted car might look all but identical to its predecessor, but under its familiar lines are some big changes to the engine line-up - to the benefit of economy and emissions. Not that such practicalities apply to the range-topping 340i model we review here.
In the metal 4/5
Hands up time: if a new BMW 3 Series drove past us right now we'd struggle to point out how it differs to the car it replaces. That's deliberate says BMW, the company saying that, instead of making sweeping design changes, it has worked on how it drives. Look closely and you might spot some new lights - more so if you've optioned the full-on LED ones, though even the regular headlights are slightly re-positioned - they're restyled and set wider apart for a sense of greater width, says BMW's people. There are more changes to the rear lights, these now all LED, allowing for some neat detailing, but you'd have to be a fully paid-up member of the BMW 3 Series spotters society to identify this as the new BMW 3 Series 'LCI' (Life Cycle Impulse - BMW's term for 'facelift'). You might notice the tailpipes, which on anything with a '2' and above following the 3 in the model designation, brings twin exhausts. That means all those 320d buyers get an extra pipe on the other side, which is sure to bring joy to many buyers.
If the changes to the exterior are subtle then those inside are all but invisible. There are some new trim pieces around the electric seat and electric window switches, some new high-gloss material options and that's about it. There's a new centre armrest too, but the less said about that the better, as the one in the old car felt more substantial thanks to a proper button to open it. So, nothing to get excited about visually then, but BMW promises that it's all about the driving experience.
Driving it 4/5
The BMW 3 Series has long been the benchmark car in the class it pretty much invented 40 years ago this year, though lately it's not had it all its own way. Speaking to the chassis people on the 3's launch there was lots of talk about maintaining its dynamism, stability and sportiness, and they've busied themselves doing so by stiffening up the entire suspension system. That's brought increased agility, without impacting on comfort, the 3 Series promising to retain its number one position as driver's choice in the marketplace against cars like the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and the forthcoming new Audi A4.
Quite how well BMW has achieved its goals remains to be seen, as we had just a single model to choose from at the international launch event, the (rather irrelevant to the Irish market) 340i with the Steptronic Sport automatic transmission, Adaptive M Suspension option and optional Variable Sport Steering. The engine, an all-new 3.0-litre in-line turbocharged six-cylinder unit, is excellent, sounding great, offering plenty of power and being exceptionally smooth all the way to its red line. Extend it to that and it'll reach 100km/h in 5.1 seconds from rest, which is 0.1 seconds quicker than the manual version can manage at best. This engine works very well with the optional eight-speed automatic, which is quick shifting and all but imperceptible - good thing given it has eight ratios to choose from. Thing is, nobody in Ireland (and all but a handful of buyers in the rest of the EU for that matter) will buy the 3 Series with this new engine under its bonnet. Only the diesel versions sell in any great number.
Until we get to test those, on standard suspension, we'll need to reserve complete judgement, but even with a fairly unrepresentative specification the 3 Series remains a talented car. The ride is nicely judged (on the Comfort setting) and body control is impressive too. The chassis' natural balance - thanks to its 50/50 weight distribution and rear-drive layout - makes the 3 Series an enjoyable car to drive. The steering is uncorrupted like it is in some rivals but it's stymied here by the optional fitment of BMW's Variable Sport Steering. Avoid it, as while there's no denying the 3's ability to turn-in, grip and its accuracy, the steering itself feels very artificial and inconsistent in its weighting. We've no doubt the 3's got the technical make-up to keep it right at the top of its class as the driver's choice, though the Mercedes-Benz C-Class runs it close, and there's that new Audi A4 arriving soon. Add Jaguar's impressive new XE and it's little wonder BMW focused so heavily on how it drives over how it looks.
What you get for your money 4/5
The updated BMW 3 Series line-up starts from €37,140 on-the-road for the 318i SE saloon (€42,260 for the diesel-engined 318d SE) rising to €65,370 for the Touring 335d xDrive M Sport. The cheapest diesel option is the 316d SE saloon at €39,990 or €42,340 for the Touring version. The 320d starts at €43,890, the 330i at €51,330 and 340i at €64,550. The range follows the Sport Line, Luxury Line and M Sport model range as before, Sport Line expected to come with 17-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, a sporty leather steering wheel, sports seats and ambient interior lighting. The Luxury, as its name suggests, comes with high gloss chrome detailing and leather seats. M Sport brings larger (18-inch) alloy wheels, M Sport styling inside and out and M Sport suspension. As ever, there's an extensive options list to personalise further, too.
The 3 Series celebrates its 40th this year and the changes BMW has made to it will undoubtedly keep it right at the front of the pack as the driver's choice. It's a shame then that it didn't make more of an effort on styling changes, as it's competing against some formidable new - and stylish - rivals out there, not least the new Jaguar XE and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. With a new Audi A4 set to bring it even more competition the 3 Series needs to be the dynamic benchmark. We're pretty sure it will be, but will need to drive it with standard suspension and steering to really make that decision. Nonetheless, on evidence of the 340i reviewed here it all looks good for the 3 Series, even if it doesn't appear any different.