The BMW 3 Series was for many years the benchmark of the sports-sedan segment but a revitalized competitive set sees the current version in desperate need of an update. The newly redesigned Mercedes-Benz C-class has turned into a formidable competitor, the Cadillac ATS boasts better driving dynamics, and the Audi A4 is about to be completely overhauled on a new architecture later this year. Meanwhile, BMW's 3 Series has lost some of its focus as it has tried to broaden its appeal.
For the 2016 model year, the 3 Series gets a midterm facelift that goes beyond the cosmetic. That's not to say cosmetics are ignored: The Bimmer's headlights get a sharper and more angular contour, and they're now available as full LEDs—or adaptive full LEDs. The taillights (already LEDs) have a new shape and new innards as well, although only brand aficionados will notice the difference. The front and rear bumpers also are restyled, bringing them visually closer to the 4 Series.
The interior gets a slight update, as well. New materials along with more chrome and gloss-black trim are supposed to create a richer look. And BMW promises that the navigation and infotainment system will work better and offer quicker responses.
The most important changes, however, take place under the skin. Evidently the criticisms of the current car's dynamics have been heard, because BMW has made several chassis changes that it says produce "significantly enhanced dynamic capabilities." We like the sound of that. Retuned power steering, new front struts, and revised rear dampers are said to bring "reduced roll, improved directional stability, and a higher level of steering precision." Better still, the improvements are claimed to apply to all three suspension setups: standard, M Sport, and Adaptive M.
In the engine room, the current N20 turbocharged fours in the 320i and the 328i remain, but the N55 turbocharged inline-six is jettisoned in favor of what's called the B58. The new turbo six—again 3.0 liters—is from BMW's modular engine family, which can serve in three-, four- and six-cylinder applications. (In Europe, the three-banger is the new 3 Series base engine, an indignity the U.S. market is spared.) Once again, there's also a four-cylinder diesel in the 328d.
With the new six comes a new model designation: 340i. BMW engineers tell us that the new turbo six is a better-sounding and more-satisfying engine than the outgoing 335i's N55. We'll withhold judgment until we've driven one, but the fact that BMW has recognized the issue is promising. The new turbo six makes 320 horsepower at 6500 rpm; peak torque is 330 lb-ft, arriving at 1380 rpm. BMW's claimed zero-to-60 times for the 340i are 4.8 seconds with rear-wheel drive and 4.6 seconds with xDrive. (Those figures are 0.3- and 0.2-second quicker than BMW's corresponding claims for the 2015 335i.)
All engines can be had with rear- or all-wheel drive, and all gasoline engines offer the choice of a revised eight-speed automatic or the slick six-speed manual, which now includes a rev-matching function. Only the 340i, however, can combine xDrive with the stick.
During 2016, BMW will add a plug-in hybrid. Called the 330e, it will be fitted with a four-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric motor; it replaces the powerful but unsuccessful ActiveHybrid 3, which used a six-cylinder as the internal-combustion portion of its powertrain. The 330e is expected to produce a combined output of 250 horsepower and 310 lb-ft, giving it a zero-to-60 time of 6.1 seconds. The hybrid also boasts a 22-mile range in EV mode.
For those of us who still like station wagons, the good news is that the longroof body style again will be offered in the States in the same 328i and 328d forms. As before, it's all-wheel-drive only and will appeal to a small but fiercely loyal set of customers.
While we look forward to trying out the new six-cylinder engine, we're perhaps even more eager to see whether the revised chassis answers BMW enthusiasts' prayers. It sounds as if BMW has been listening to its core constituency, which is a very hopeful sign.