BMW M340i xDrive (2019) International Prototype Drive

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The M340i xDrive will slot into the new BMW 3 Series line-up between the top of the 4-cylinder cars and the next M3. Featuring far more than just casual input from the brand's M Division, as well as the only 6-cylinder engine in the new G20 range, it's the one that will get driving enthusiasts salivating. Is it as good as BMW claims it is?

Well, that question can't be answered completely... yet. You see, the car we were asked to fling around the challenging Portimao circuit in Portugal was but a prototype. Driving a car on a track is a different story to the road and we will have to wait a while before the latter's going to happen. Also, we were not allowed to completely switch out the stability control system. Nevertheless, trying to follow an "enthusiastically" driven manual M2 Competition, piloted by none other than the Head of BMW Driving Dynamics, Dutchman Jos van As, was an illuminating – and fun – experience. 

It's not an M... but it might be all the M you'll ever need

Sharp responses, strong brakes and linear, strong power make the M340i xDrive both easy and fun to drive fast.

The M340i xDrive is the first M Performance 3 Series variant, ever. Think of it as a bridge between your "mainstream" 3 Series cars, and the full-fat M3/M4. As you may have noticed in my G20 first drive report earlier this week, the new car is a very solid base to work from when creating a performance-oriented car. The tracks are wider, the centre of gravity lower and the suspension mounting points stiffer. For the M340i BMW has not held back when it comes to dishing out its best tech – the M340i xDrive gets M Sport suspension (adaptive damping remains an option), variable sports steering and M Sport brake system as standard. Also included, you'll be happy to hear, is the M Sport differential, 18-inch M light alloy wheels (19-inchers are optional) on mixed tyres and... xDrive all-wheel drive.

The latter item is of particular interest, seeing as it's the first xDrive 3 Series that will reach South Africa (curiously, only America will get a rear-wheel-drive version of the car). But don't stress... BMW's M Division has proven that it knows how to counter the effects (weight etc.) of the additional hardware on the front axle by clever tuning. So, in most instances the xDrive system will prioritise rear-wheel drive anyway, only shifting power to the front once traction limits are reached at the rear. It can move up to half of the power to the front axle, BMW claims. Theoretically, and when driven with vigour, the M340i should respond to vicious throttle application out of a corner by letting the rear tyres light up for the briefest of moments (accompanied by a slight slide allowed in Sport and Sport+) before power goes to the front to help pull the car through the corner. 

Wider tracks, longer wheelbase, stiffer suspension mounting points and a lower centre of gravity - all good things for a performance car.

Indeed. Driven in its sportiest mode (but without deactivating the stability systems completely), I dive into one of Portimao's frightening corners at the exact moment that Van As in the M2 Competition gets it completely sideways in front me. I back off the throttle momentarily and then hit the gas as I regain my focus. The back-end of the M340i xDrive let's go for a glorious moment or two, which allows me to steer (admittedly very briefly) on the throttle before the Bimmer pulls straight and slingshots out of the corner with a mighty burst of acceleration.

This is a very, very fast car – one that makes even relatively hamfisted driving look good, or at least more skilled than they are. I don't usually say this kind of thing, but I am very keen to drive the M340i xDrive without the electronic nanny peering over my shoulder.

Surprisingly for a track experience, we get to do a fair number of laps, and while Van As said we were going to have a relaxed warm-up and slow cool-down, he was pretty much tail out on every corner right from lap one. Portimao is an extremely difficult track with a particularly tough, long final corner that requires a fair amount of confidence. The extra fast laps were necessary, in the end, to allow me to focus more on the car and less on avoiding the kitty litter (the track's gravel run-off areas, for those unfamiliar with racing jargon). The M340i xDrive possesses great body control and steering accuracy, and when driven in the appropriate mode (we cycled through them), it is deliciously sensitive to throttle inputs. Maybe I would like a little more feel through the steering, but it's hard to say based on a single track experience (tyre pressures etc. also have an impact).

Note the change in rear-bumper finish (as well as much larger exhaust outlets) of the M340i xDrive.

As the number of laps piled up, so did my confidence, and sooner rather than later I was far bolder with my right foot in that last corner, revelling in the excellent high-speed stability and grip. It's also worth pointing out that the brakes, having worked hard during all the test drives, didn't once leave me in doubt of their sustained stopping power; the pedal remained consistent in feel throughout. Four-piston fixed calliper brakes with 348-mm discs are fitted at the front, with floating calliper brakes and 345-mm discs employed at the rear.

It's got the power

Fans of fast 3 Series variants won't be disappointed, the M340i xDrive is likely to dynamically trounce its rivals.

The significantly reworked 6-cylinder engine under the bonnet pumps out peak outputs of 275 kW and 500 Nm of torque, which is 35 kW and 50 Nm more power and torque than the most powerful engine in the previous-gen 3 Series (the 340i) produced. Consequently, the G20-spec M340i xDrive is significantly faster than the previous flagship (F30-generation) 3 Series, with a 0-100 kph time of 4.4 sec. The transmission is the familiar 8-speed sports automatic, with shorter ratios for the lower gears to improve acceleration. There's also a Launch Control function (untested by us), and of course, shift paddles on the steering wheel – speaking of which, I wish the wheel looked a little racier to reflect the personality of the car.

And the sound? In reality, it is quite muted even with the M Sport exhaust unit. BMW says it becomes more vocal in Sport and Sport+, but the aural soundtrack is never quite as "intensively perceptible" as the maker claims. Still, it's there when you focus on it from behind the wheel, and when standing next to the track the pops and bangs that seem to constitute an "exciting" sounding car these days are certainly present and loud.

What's the story for South Africa?

A mesh kidney grille finish and Cerium Grey trim accents differentiate the M340i from "lesser" G20s.

The prototypes we drove in Portugal were all camouflaged, so it's hard to say what the M340i xDrive's specific design features look like compared with the standard cars, but BMW has already released images of its newcomer without the camo. The design of the front-end is significantly more aggressive to aid cooling and aerodynamics and I do believe this is the first time that I've seen such a particularly strong mesh finish to BMW's trademark kidney grille. Instead of the gloss black or satin silver that is typically used for accenting on "special" cars, the M340i uses a trim colour called Cerium Grey metallic – it's used liberally for the exterior mirror caps, kidney grille, tailpipe trims and model lettering, among other places. Replete with its M Sport suspension, the M340i xDrive sits lower down than its siblings – it most definitely looks pretty fast, even standing still.

Though official pricing hasn't been released yet, we expect this car to be positioned around the R950 000 mark, perhaps even slightly higher. That would pitch it straight at the Mercedes-AMG C43 when it arrives in the third quarter of 2019. Based on our track experience, combined with the drives of the regular 330i M Sport, it is pretty clear that (as far as dynamics go, anyway) the M340i xDrive will be very, very hard to beat.

Related content:

BMW 3 Series (2019) International Launch Review (w/video)

New BMW 3 Series (2018) Price in SA

BMW Steers Digital Car Revolution [w/Video]

The new BMW M340i: Your budget-friendly M3

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