A six-cylinder BMW 3 Series. It's a wonderful thing; as beautiful and perfect as a perfectly-cooked steak, or a cloudless summer day. And yet it is, as we all know, a breed that's on the wane; one that the bane of downsizing has decimated.
Happily, though, the six-pot Three isn't dead just yet. It might live on only in the M Performance version of the latest model - the M340i - but oh, what a thing it is. "The M340i just lobs up and smashes home every one of the standard car's absolutely plain dynamic advantages," said Matt Saunders while road testing the M340i last week (well, not literally, but you get the gist). And even being four-wheel-drive is no impediment, it seems. "Deactivate the car's DSC and you'll find you can gas it up into a slide at will," says Matt, "and also keep it sliding with power and a bit of corrective lock dialed in, which is something most four-wheel drive performance cars decline to allow."
Jolly good stuff. But there's one catch: the M340i will cost you a not-inconsiderable £47,000, or thereabouts - prices haven't yet been confirmed. Surely we can find something that does the job just as well for our trade-off budget of half that cost?
First thoughts turn to the Audi S3 Saloon. On paper, it's a direct match for the M340i: a suave executive car with added chutzpah, four-wheel drive, a sub-5 0-62mph time, a swanky interior and the right badge. This one looks the part, too, with its black paint, privacy glass and red leather flashes. It's loaded with options, only four years old and has done a relatively reasonable 40,000 miles. For the price, this feels like quite a lot of car, then, but the trouble is that the comparison with the M340i only really works on paper. The S3's fast, composed and stable, but it doesn't really involve you in the process like the M340i does - what's more, the one thing that's stand-out about the BMW - the steering - is the S3's biggest weakness.
How about this Mitsubishi Evo X FQ-360, then? Again, a blisteringly quick four-wheel-drive super saloon, except this one was a great car in its own time and remains so today. It's even faster than the M340i in a straight line and could probably show it a clean set of heels in the corners too; what's more, with just 25k on the clock, it's barely been used, and at £21,900 you'll have some spare change from our budget. Trouble is, really, that interior: nobody in the market for a BMW is going to downgrade to the sort of plastics you'll find in the Mitsubishi, and especially not at this price. And can you really see the Evo looking at home on the golf course? Hmm.
Time, then, to pay a bit of attention to the elephant in the room. We try to stay away from recommending older versions of the same car in Trade Off, because it rather defeats the object. After all, you know you can get an older version of the same thing for half the cash.
But as BMW is so keen to point out, the M340i is technically not an M car. Yet for £23,500, you can get yourself exactly that, a full-fat M3 - and, frankly, that's about as good an alternative to the M340i as you're ever going to get.
Of course, we're talking about an E90 here, so you will have to settle for one of the last-but-one generation. This one, for example, can be had for just within our budget - well, £50 over, but then the M340i's price is not yet confirmed, and any PHer worth their salt should be able to haggle that off in any case.
It isn't four-wheel drive, so you won't get the all-weather usability of the M340i, but just look at what you get instead. The headline news is not just a fabled BMW straight-six, but one of the most iconic V8s in recent memory; a glorious life-affirming banshee of a thing that sears its way into your soul when you're extracting every last rev but, amazingly, can equally don a pair of slippers and pussyfoot around when you aren't feeling like playing.
The same can be said of the chassis, with adaptive dampers which offer you the choice between cruisey comfort and hard-edged track focus. In the latter mode, this M3's crisp agility and balance are renowned - even if its steering isn't quite as laden with feel as its predecessor's, it's more than a match for the M340i's. And with the traction control turned off, of course, the M3's notoriously capable of creating lurid amounts of tyre smoke.
You won't even have to compromise on practicality, as the example we've found is a saloon, with four doors and seating for five. Running cost are a bugbear, mind you, with maintenance and repair costs significantly higher, and 23mpg to the M340i's 37.7. But then again, you're saving so much by buying the older car that you can probably afford a few extra trips to the petrol station and a couple of big bills.
It is, when you stop to think about it, to be celebrated that today's semi-skimmed M340i is capable of doing everything the full-fat M3 was just a few short years ago, with better fuel economy, improved refinement and markedly better safety standards added into the bargain.
But it is also to be celebrated that you can now buy a bona fide M car with one of the most fabulous V8s ever produced for half the cost of its softer, more sanitised modern alternative. And it's that particular celebration we'd rather be a part of. Wouldn't you?
SPECIFICATION - BMW M340i XDRIVE
Engine: 2,998cc straight-six, twin-turbo
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 370@N/A rpm
Torque (lb ft): 369@N/A rpm
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
Price: circa-£47,000 (tbc)
SPECIFICATION - BMW M3 (E90)
Engine: 3,999cc V8
Transmission: 7-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 420@8,300rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@3,900rpm
Top speed: 155mph (limited)