Understated standout

Understated standout

BMW's M340i shines on the track and as an everyday saloon

BMW recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of M Performance with the "M Town" track driving experience at the Kaeng Krachan Circuit featuring the 387hp M340i xDrive.

While the M340i is a road car, why does it have to be tested on a track? Well, the M Performance models come with a good amount of racing DNA, and the only way to reach its maximum potential is to drive it on the track.

Note that unlike the true M models, BMW's M Performance's philosophy is described as an "understatement". On the surface, these cars have the same appearance as basic models. Only BMW enthusiasts are able to notice that these are M Performance cars from the few M logos on the body, racing carbon composite parts, brake calipers, larger wheels with special design, spoilers, and the sound of a performance engine underneath the bonnet.

While most buyers could not afford the M models, the M Performance versions offer a cheaper alternative for BMW lovers who want better performance than a standard model.

It's easy to distinguish the M models from the M Performance models, with the former coming with single-number initials and the latter with the regular three number format.

Even while stationary, the M340i looks like it has something up its sleeve.

DRIVING AT Kaeng KRACHAN CIRCUIT

BMW saloons have dwindled in recent years in the pursuit of a larger customer base by offering more comfort. However, there appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel with the M340i, which is the first M Performance model to be assembled at BMW's Rayong plant.

It comes with sporty DNA for a start, which means it's more powerful, faster around corners, and comes with all-wheel drive. That being said, is it comparable to older BMWs that were such a joy to drive, or is it just another fast saloon without a soul?

The BMW M340i xDrive is powered by a 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder turbocharged engine capable of pumping out as much as 387hp and 500Nm of torque, which is considerably higher than the 330Li's 258hp and 400Nm.

Thanks to all-wheel drive, acceleration from 0-100kph takes just 4.4 seconds (it comes with Launch Control) and the car hits 200kph before you even know it. The top speed is electronically limited at 250kph.

As you'd expect from a 3 Series, the suspension provides a high level of grip with good steering characteristics, but the engine is so powerful that every time you exit corners, traction control kicks in to keep the car on the intended course. It has four drive modes: Eco Pro, Normal, Sport and Sport Plus.

For maximum performance, switch to Sport or Sport Plus mode. This will adjust steering, throttle response, suspension settings and the way power is sent to the wheels.

For circuit driving, Sport Plus is the preferred mode, offering more power and an enjoyable rear-wheel drive character. Getting the tail out in this car around corners is pure fun. The M340i engine may look a bit like those in a family car and not very sporty compared to the engines in the M cars, but it does offer a great driving experience while costing much less to run. From the outside, you'll hear a slightly loud growl when you fire up the engine that settles into a medium purr, leading you to believe that this is just another four-cylinder petrol engine. But you couldn't be more wrong.

I've tried Normal mode (the average fuel economy is 13.3kpl) and switched back and forth to Sport and Sport+. The feeling is like having two different people in one body. The car transforms from a typical, comfortable and civilised 3 Series to a naughty bad boy with the press of a button. The engine is fantastic, revving up cleanly to almost 7,000rpm while delivering a sporty note (with backfiring), and the gearbox complements it well. Upshifts and downshifts are quick with the 8-speed automatic transmission. Just use the paddle shifters and give it some gas to be pushed back into your seat.

The handling is excellent, as well as the stopping power, thanks to the M Performance Package for the brakes and suspension.

Visually, it's the same as the standard 3 Series, with no major changes. You've really got to have well-trained eyes to spot an M340i on the road -- it looks like a regular 3 Series. This, in fact, is the weakest point of the M340i in my point of view. Even though there are M-inspired items around the car, such as the wheels, the blue M brake calipers and M badging, it still looks normal. This is a BMW that could well fit into the "understatement" category.

DRIVER ASSISTANCE SYSTEMS

Moving on to the driver assistance, the M340i is fully-loaded with high-tech features. For example, the BMW Live Recorder will record and playback video images on the centre display or via USB to your smartphone. Important data, such as speed and GPS co-ordinates, are recorded in sync with the video, and you can choose between "event recorder" and "crash recorder".

With all kinds of distractions while driving, such as talking on the phone or chatting on social media, there are intelligent safety features to keep M340i drivers out of trouble. The standard package also includes a crossroad warning with city braking function.

Parking Assistant Plus is also provided, offering safe and convenient semi-automatic parking in tight spaces.

CONNECTIVITY

With Connect & Command, BMW's smartphone application allows you to easily control the vehicle in many ways. The infotainment and navigation system can also be controlled, but my favourite feature is the ability to turn on air conditioning remotely a few minutes before entering the car. BMW's software continually updates via the Remote Software Update application.

Concierge Service can help you make reservations at restaurants, cinemas and hotels, as well as make online payments.

How about a caring car? According to BMW, this function can help drivers and passengers relieve stress by saying "I'm tired" or "I'm stressed". The car then co-ordinates the Interplay of various interior functions such as air-conditioning and lighting, to create a relaxing atmosphere.

CONCLUSION

The BMW M340i xDrive is a compact luxury car that you can drive on a daily basis, but at the flick of a switch, it transforms into one of the best performance sedans in its price range. The performance is actually comparable to an M car, while costing only half as much.

 

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