The 2020 BMW 3 Series is back on top among compact sport sedans, even as the competition closes in. The compact sport sedan has been the benchmark for other automakers to aspire to and, for BMW, it has been the compass to follow while navigating shifting market demands. The 3-Series is about aspirations for its owners, too. The entry-level 330i announces that its driver has arrived at some new level, maybe at luxury, maybe performance, probably both. The M340i is a sophisticated adult commuter that lets you drop off the kids at school then rip away from all domestic responsibility. Then there is the forthcoming return of the legendary 2021 BMW M3, as well as the expected return of the 330e plug-in hybrid.

The technical reality of the 3 Series is that it has grown from compact to near mid-size proportions, the technology has never been better, it can equally play the part of sophisticate and punk, and it is once again the benchmark for the compact sport sedan, in spite of so much competition. From the outside, the 3 Series doesn’t look much different than its predecessor. But it’s longer and wider, the front fascia wider and bolder with rakish headlights, and a rear that is equally buffed up with a more pronounced spoiler and larger dual chrome tailpipes.

Inside is a technology showcase that borrows cues from the i8 electric supercar. Cabin space is a tad roomier up front, and the standard front bucket seats provide all the hugs for all the body sizes. The rear seats are less welcoming, with the rear bench best for only two adults or two child safety seats. All 2020 3-Series get Apple CarPlay compatibility with Android Auto is coming mid-2020, an 8.8-inch touchscreen, power features, run-flat tires, Bluetooth connectivity, and automatic emergency braking as standard equipment. Starting at $41,745, the 3-Series has synthetic leather upholstery and real wood trim pieces that make it a luxury value, but temptations such as Live Cockpit Professional or Vernasca leather or any body color other than black or white will nudge the 330i closer to $50,000, at which point we would ask, why not just get the M340i? Aspiration and temptation go hand in hand with the 3-Series.

The 2020 3 Series is familiarly modern and doesn’t look much different than its predecessor, but it’s nearly three inches longer, half an inch wider, a bit taller, and has a 1.6-inch longer wheelbase. The longer wheelbase pushes the wheels to the edge, and the wider stance makes it appear sportier, more athletic. Up front, the classic twin kidney grille keeps getting larger, like the 3-Series itself. The nose is stretched larger and wider, and the LED headlights are more rakish with larger inlets for the fog lights.

The beltline rises up higher from the front fender into the rear lights, giving the rear end a larger, buffer look, more so than prior years. The kink in the frameless glass of the rear windows is more dramatic, and the rear spoiler is larger. Overall, it’s wider and longer proportions make it more muscular in the way of sport sedans, but still toned for these crossfit times. The 3-Series only comes as a sedan; for coupes or convertibles, look to the even-numbered BMW models. 

Larger, stronger, quicker, and with better handling, the 3 Series is back on top. Behind the wheel, the 330i and M340i could be mistaken for different cars. The 330i is quick and spry, but the M340i takes those attributes to new levels and adds in more precise steering, responsive handling, and enough growl to make your insides howl. At about $13,000 more than the $41,475 330i, it better.  Redesigned last year, the 330i uses a more powerful 2.0-liter turbo-4 rated at 255 hp and 295 pound-feet of torque, up from prior years. Peak torque hits at 1,550 rpm for plenty of grunt off the line, in 330i rear-wheel drive or 330i xDrive all-wheel drive. BMW pipes in some of the engine’s noise, and we wish they wouldn’t. New for this year, the M340i amps it up with a revised 3.0-liter turbo-6 that makes 382-hp and 369 lb-ft of torque from 1,800 through 5,000 rpm, increases of 62 hp and 39 pound-feet over the 2018 model.

While there’s no manual transmission, all 3 Series sedans get an 8-speed automatic transmission that is ubiquitous across the BMW lineup. The automatic’s fine in the 330i for everyday driving, but the revs drop dramatically between second and third gears. Sport mode diminishes this, and helps it reach 60 mph in 5.6 seconds with rear-wheel drive, according to BMW. The 330i can reach a 155-mph top speed when equipped with an optional package. In the M340i xDrive, that time drops to 4.1 seconds and reaches the same 155-mph top speed, when optionally equipped. There is plenty of thrust and virtually no lag, especially with launch control. The exhaust can snap, crackle, and pop, even more so when you open the baffles on the sport exhaust, but the soundtrack is amplified here as well.

It’s silly to lament the 6-speed manual, as good as it was, as the automatic and the paddle shifters are quicker to use. But these paddle shifters are on the smaller side, and tucked closer to the column, like attached earlobes, so it’s more of a reach for smaller hands. The lack of a flat-bottomed steering wheel also seems off. When it comes to handling, BMW outfits the 3 Series with an upgraded double-joint front strut suspension and five-link rear suspension. Our time has been spent in cars with the adaptive dampers in the M Sport suspension, which lowers the ride nearly half an inch and stiffens the shocks. It also comes with larger 19-inch wheels that mute the feel on center, which is amplified by the thick steering wheel. The smaller 18-inch all-season tires swap precision for ride comfort and make better sense for 330i buyers who don’t want or need the performance tuning of the M340i.

Our week in the M340i was with the rear-biased all-wheel drive system that BMW calls xDrive. As balanced as the distribution is between front and rear axle, the most impressive handling component of the M340i xDrive was laterally. In tight twisting turns, the M340i stays neutral, even with all the side-to-side motion. The wider track and longer wheelbase help, but mostly it’s the optional adaptive suspension with electronic dampers individually controlling each wheel. For only $700 more, it’s a must-have for anyone considering track days or spirited driving. For performance driving, upgrade from the all-season run flats standard on the M340i, or get a second set to swap at the track. The run flats don’t provide enough grip demanded by the turbo-6.

The BMW 3 Series posts impressive fuel economy. Both the 2020 330i and 2020 M340i are more efficient than their predecessors, as well as most of their competitors. The EPA estimates the 330i at 26 mpg city, 36 highway, 30 combined, which is an improvement of 3 mpg combined over the outgoing model. It drops to 25/34/28 mpg with xDrive all-wheel drive. The 2020 M340i is rated the same in rear- or all-wheel drive at 22/30/25, which is an improvement of 2 mpg combined over the outgoing M340i.

The NHTSA has yet to crash-test the 2020 BMW 3 Series, but it still earns a top score. The IIHS awarded the 2020 BMW 3-Series a Top Safety Pick+ when equipped with the headlights specific to the Executive package. Add that to its good outward vision, safety options, and standard safety gear, it’s just a federal score away from a perfect 10. The 2020 BMW 3 Series comes standard with lane-departure warning and low-speed automatic emergency braking that detects pedestrians and cyclists as well as vehicles. Optional equipment includes active lane control and adaptive cruise control that can stop the car, then start it again within 30 seconds, which makes stop-and-go traffic less aggravating. A new parking-assistance feature can maneuver itself into parallel or perpendicular spots.  All 3-Series now come with LED headlights, though the best-performing ones are exclusive to the adaptive automatic high beams on the $5,900 Executive package. Expensive, but the package is loaded with all the safety features, as well as heated front and rear seats.

The 3 Series is marginally larger, longer, wider, and even taller than the outgoing model, but interior space is just about the same. The standard front buckets wear synthetic leather upholstery and have lumbar and seat cushion adjustments. Along with the tilt-and-telescoping tiller, it’s simple for drivers of various sizes to find a great position behind the steering wheel. Contrast stitching with real leather is available for $1,450, but BMW will throw in ambient lighting for just $250. The rear seats of the 2020 330i won’t fit three adults in comfort, and the battling belt buckle holders won’t make the ride any better, but the occupants sit more inboard which makes it safer in side collisions. The 40/20/40-split folding rear seats also make sense for a car full of four, with the middle seat acting as a large pass-through for long items like golf clubs, skis, or long pieces of bamboo to feed the pet panda. Otherwise, two child safety seats fit in the back, and the wide and deep trunk stores 17 cubic feet.

The dash sits lower and all the digital displays rise to the top of the soft-touch dash. A band of aluminum or real oak or maple wood binds the dash from door to door. The interior is all about accentuating the increased width, with horizontally stretched control panels and vents, and the thinnest, least obnoxious yet visually captivating stretch of ambient lighting of any luxury make. There’s no question why you pay a bit more for the BMW than other luxury pretenders.

BMW’s layered infotainment system has been criticized for being unnecessarily complex, but the latest iteration, iDrive 7.0, simplifies that somewhat. The system still offers every imaginable way to access vehicle info, from excellent voice commands to comical gesture controls. The 330i gets iDrive 6.0 with a 5.7-inch digital display in the dash paired to an 8.8-inch touchscreen with navigation on the center stack. For $1,100 more, the 330i can get the Live Cockpit Pro that comes standard on the M340i. It uses a 12.3-inch digital display that doubles as a  speedometer and tachometer. In the center is the navigation map, that is paired to a wider 10.3-inch touchscreen atop the center stack, and the controller in the console doubles as a touchpad. It includes two USB ports, and head-up display.

The newest iteration of iDrive understands normal speech, can read emails, adjust cabin climate, and even lets you give it a pet name, if that’s your thing. It also provides over-the-air updates for map data four times a year, but with Apple CarPlay standard, that might not be as essential. Still, it’s a lot of content and well worth the $1,100 so your new car doesn’t feel like an old car. Options abound on the 3 Series, and it includes good standard equipment. BMW finally came around to including Apple CarPlay as standard equipment, and Android Auto will be available for the first time by mid-2020. Yet, it doesn’t include the 12.3-inch digital cluster or iDrive 7.0.

The starting price of the 2020 3 Series is up $500 over the 2019 model to $41,745, and the extra cost adds navigation to Live Cockpit Plus. But the dynamic digital instrument cluster of Live Cockpit Pro with iDrive 7.0 is the one you’ll want, and it’s not standard on the 330i. The 2020 330i comes with the usual power features, 18-inch wheels with all-season run-flat 225/45 tires, three-zone climate control, a sunroof, a 40/20/40-split folding rear seat, 14-way power-adjustable front seats, cruise control, ambient lighting, wood or aluminum trim, and AM/FM/HD radio with Bluetooth connectivity, and, finally, Apple CarPlay compatibility. It also has standard forward-collision warnings with automatic emergency braking, and lane-departure warnings. Standard equipment on the $54,995 M340i includes Live Cockpit Pro, HD Radio, one year of Sirius XM radio, and all the M badging you could want. Most of the $13,000 upcharge on the M340i is in the performance parts. All-wheel drive, which BMW calls xDrive, adds $2,000 to both models.

Then come the options which BMW offers in droves. The most significant one for 330i shoppers is the $5,900 Executive package, which includes Live Cockpit Pro, heated front seats, heated steering wheel, lumbar support, high beam assist, and adaptive LED headlights. We’d go piecemeal for Live Cockpit Pro ($1,100), heated front seats ($500), and heated steering wheel ($190). Other piecemeal options include remote start, heated front seats and steering wheel, parking sensors, Harman Kardon sound, adaptive cruise control, wireless smartphone charging, and more. Performance options abound, too, if you can’t justify the jump to the M340i. The $2,450 Track Handling package adds the M Sport differential, brakes, and adaptive M suspension, which is an extra $700 even on the M340i. It also upgrades to 19-inch black wheels (225/40 front, 255/35 rear) with performance run-flat tires. The 3-Series also includes a 4-year/50,000-mile warranty that’s better than many of its competitors.

BMW’s 3 Series has an enormous amount of heritage to live up to as the Ultimate Driving Machine. Luckily the 2020 BMW 3 Series delivers on its hallmark attributes and more. The new 3 Series offers cutting edge technology, leading safety, while delivering class leading driving that competitors are still trying to match. Luckily for the ultimate sports sedan there remains only one choice, BMW’s incredible 3 Series.

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