Matt Robinson finds plenty to be cheerful about, while tackling Irish roads and Irish weather at the wheel of the BMW M340i xDrive
One thing our fine country is known for is somewhat inclement weather.
Blame it on us being located at the edge of one of the planet’s largest oceans, in the direction of the prevailing winds, but the reason we’re known as the Emerald Isle is that our lush scenery is a direct result of rather soggy conditions.
It is in such a wet and slippery climate that, traditionally, the rear-wheel-drive ethos of BMW has always seemed weirdly perverse. Front-wheel and four-wheel-drive vehicles offer much better traction in adverse weather, which is the reason that Audi has secured itself such an enviable reputation through its quattro system, while previous fast BMWs have been shunned by those who need to get about in the rain and snow, and on autumn leaves strewn across the roads.
This car, though, promises to rectify that balance. It’s called the BMW M340i and, for the moment, it is the most powerful and fastest variant of the new seventh-generation 3 Series range.
It uses a turbocharged 3.0-litre straight-six petrol engine, coupled to an eight-speed automatic gearbox, to deliver healthy numbers of 374hp and 500Nm to the wheels. The difference in this case is precisely which wheels receive that power — and, for the M340i, xDrive means it is all-wheel drive.
Furthermore, that ‘M’ in its model name is new, as it represents the second of BMW’s two-tier performance offerings. In time, a new flagship M3 will be announced, but — prior to this generation — there was no M340i; there were just 340i and 335i models.
The M indicates that the M340i is an M Performance car, a kind of ‘halfway house’ between the regular range of cars and the full-on fast M3; BMW offers similar in other ranges in its portfolio, such as the Z4 M40i, the X5 M50i and the outgoing M240i, for instance.
However, the M340i isn’t just a trim level, as the same department (yes, the M division) that makes the M3 works on the chassis of this vehicle. So the M340i’s differential, brakes, steering and suspension are enhanced to allow the underpinnings to cope with the 3.0-litre engine’s robust outputs.
That translates into serious performance, with 0-100km/h coming up in 4.4 seconds and the car needing to be limited to a 250km/h maximum speed (nowhere in Ireland is that a problem, obviously) and in turn the M340i feels seriously quick out on the road.
That xDrive traction means the driver is more confident getting on the power sooner out of junctions and bends, regardless of the road conditions, while the lusty powerplant up front delivers ample acceleration right across the rev range.
Certain features of the M340i are also superb — such as its eight-speed automatic gearbox being near-imperceptible in action, while the steering is fast and precise, and the breathed-upon M Sport brakes strong.
It also has a good ride and luxury-car-like levels of refinement. Very little of either road surface noise or wind roar makes its way into the cabin of the M340i, while the adjustable damping provides a comfortable ride despite the larger wheels fitted at each corner.
Overall, it’s a very accomplished and impeccable thing to drive, and it should be just as capable in our wet conditions as it is in the dry.
But is it a faultless car? Not quite. At a starting price of almost €74,000, there’s a suspicion that a good 330d or even 320d M Sport would make buyers feel almost as content at the wheel, for a fraction of the M340i’s cost.
It is also a heavy car, the very four-wheel-drive system that is its USP adding up to a kerb weight that is in excess of 1,700kg. You feel this in the way it drives and handles, and you would certainly feel it at the pumps as the fuel consumption — despite being quoted at 7.0 litres/100km, or 40.4mpg — will more likely be in region of about 8.8 litres/100km (32mpg) on a steadily-driven basis, and even worse if you enjoy the BMW’s power often.
It’s also quite understated in appearance, with just a handful of ‘Cerium Grey’ details on the outside and trapezoidal exhaust pipes marking it out as something different to the aforementioned 320d M Sport. OK, some people like understated performance cars, but also some people like to shout about their vehicle’s status and the M340i is discreet to the point of anonymous.
Inside, it’s a typically high-quality BMW cabin, but the German company can’t quite match its rivals for the intuitiveness of its digital instrument cluster, and there’s also a feeling that all BMW interiors look the same these days.
Where the M340i would perhaps make more sense — but where it is unlikely to win much favour in a country that adores a three-box saloon — is as a Touring.
BMW has never made an M3 Touring out of the factory and fans of fast estates have cried out for the company to do so in the past. An M3 Touring is highly unlikely to happen this time around, either, so the M340i Touring would go some way to appeasing the marque’s wagon fans.
Nevertheless, the M340i is an excellent addition to the 3 Series family and one that leaves plenty of headroom for the proper M3 that is incoming. Its steadfast sure-footedness, thanks to xDrive, and its effortless performance are bound to win it an army of admirers, and look set to poach some sales away from Audi quattros, Mercedes 4Matics and Jaguar AWDs. And if you buy one, then you’ll know that when it rains — and it surely will– you’re in the safest of hands.
Because the M340i is a new breed of performance BMW: one that doesn’t only work at its best when the sun is shining.