Along with the return of GTA-badged Alfas and the Yaris GR being better than anyone dared hope, BMW's confirmation that it would - at last - build an M3 Touring ranks as some of the best car news of 2020. Yes, it won't be on the road until the year after next and, yes, it will have the contentious grille, but an M3 Touring will have to do a lot worse than that to fall out of our collective favour. It promises, finally, to be the combination of full-fat M car excitement and Touring practicality that we've waiting decades for. All the bad or necessarily boring stuff - the iX, the X7 and so on - can be forgiven if the M division wagon is up to scratch. There are group tests being primed with C63s and RS4s already; the forums can't stop talking about it, we can't stop talking about it. The recent feature on the E46 concept looks really daft now. The M3 Touring is really happening. Pinch yourself.
However, those after a 3 Series with a straight-six, loads of power and exemplary handling are already well catered for. Behold the new M340d Touring, a 340hp mild-hybrid uberdiesel; the new Alpina B3, the latest take on a familiar recipe with the M3's engine aboard; and a last generation, rear-drive F31 340i. Not just any old 340i, though, one that's been treated to specialists Birds' 'B3-40i' kit which, among other things, includes a 430hp upgrade and a Quaife limited-slip differential. Quite the trio, right?
The M340d is already familiar by the day of the photoshoot, having been required for 600 essential travel miles in the previous days (long story). It won't be the biggest revelation of this test to discover that the car excelled at a long motorway journey, averaging very nearly 50mpg, cruising with imperious refinement (including very intelligent coasting) and packing all the overtaking punch you could ever possibly need. The 340d sits perhaps a little incongruously in the 3 Series line up, given the 330d also boasts a six-cylinder diesel and plentiful performance, but it's a lot easier to make the case for after time spent behind the wheel. As is often the way with BMW engines of this type, it is diesel power at its most persuasive, with the starter-generator motor expunging lag, the twin turbos providing great troughs of torque and the configuration ensuring consummate smoothness. There remains little better for a long journey.
But that could be said about most big diesels. What's notable about the M340d is that it still feels like a good BMW in the process. As a very fast oil burning wagon it probably gets an easier time of critical assessment than something like the equivalent M340i saloon, though on this experience there are sufficient BMW signifiers - from the great driving position to the xDrive's tangible rearward bias - to elevate it above humbler models. Its faults are negligible: occasionally the auto can be flustered when asked for kickdown, apparently unsure whether to deliver a downshift or plunge further into the torque reserves, and a big diesel up front has pilfered some agility from the chassis. As a package, though, the M340d is easy to be impressed with. If diesel is to meet its maker sooner than we think, it's going out in some style.
Nevertheless, there's the BMW way - and then there's Alpina. Even when Munch is at its best, the long-term tuner seems to find ways of markedly improving what's on offer, and it's a pleasure to report nothing has changed in 2020. Obviously the B3 and M340d are not eye-level rivals - there's the best part of £25k between them - although it says much about the Alpina's sky-high quality that it not only feels worthy of that markup, but also its £84,625 as-tested price. It's that good.
Frankly you're under its spell before getting in, the Alpina keyring made of the same soft, waxy leather as lines almost all of the interior. Daft though it may sound, the B3 feels and even smells a cut above the standard BMW offering. Admittedly some of that comes from optional items - see the beautiful milled aluminium shift paddles - but features like the build plaque, the Alpina badges and, of course, the trademark wheels ensure a smug satisfaction before moving an inch. With an Alpina outside the house, you'd always feel content.
To drive, it isn't short of superb. Though it will eventually rival the M3, to compare the Alpina with the only other M-badged car here is as inevitable as it is irresistible. Because the differences are night and day. It's weighs pretty much the same as the diesel yet delivers a more incisive turn in and better body control, for which we can thank the increased negative camber on the front axle and Alpina's own take on the adaptive dampers (with bespoke Eibach springs, too).
The steering feel is lighter but better connected, free from the mush and fuzz that still afflicts BMW systems to some extent. It rides with even greater aplomb despite those enormous wheels, the Comfort mode sufficing for almost all situations and Comfort+ there - unique to Alpina - for long motorway slogs. Finally, despite more power and just as much torque, the Alpina boasts additional grip and probably better traction than the diesel, thanks to bespoke Pirelli P Zero tyres which are an upgrade over the OEM-fitted Bridgestone Turanzas.
The point is that Alpina's overhaul is far more methodical, in-depth and comprehensive than simply fitting some jazzy rims and cranking up the power. For typical use on British roads, the B3 is stellar; expertly blending composure with compliance, finesse with fun and delivering the opulence you'd expect alongside the entertainment you might not.
As for the engine, it's broadly very good, though it would be something of a surprise if M GmbH weren't saving up a little in reserve to deploy in the M3. The S58 3.0-litre is their engine, after all; its appearance in the B3 the first time a non-SUV Alpina has used an M powerplant, and there's no way BMW is going to share its best effort two years ahead of its own. So although the B3 matches the incoming M3 Competition on torque, with 516lb ft, it's down on headline power, with 462hp playing 510hp of the BMW. With peak twist from 3,000rpm to 4,350rpm and peak power from 5,000-7,000rpm, it drives how the figures imply. There's a treasure trove of mid-range riches to plunder, the Alpina surging forward in any gear, along with a willingness to rev - but it doesn't strive for the limiter like a sprinter dipping for the finish tape. Which the old S55 certainly did in M cars. Still, that's likely the way that Alpina prefers it, and the unit remains a mighty engine regardless - Autocar tested this very B3 to 100mph in less than nine seconds. Expect the M3 to inject a little more top end vigour, and with it a selling point over the B3. Heaven knows it's going to have one heck of a job otherwise...
Going straight from Alpina to the Birds B3-40i might seem like something of a demotion, yet it proves the calibre of the British tuner's work that the car doesn't wilt for a moment under the spotlight of direct comparison. Birds is plain in its criticism of the base 3 Series, citing "the suspension's lack of talent and crashy ride over bumpy road surfaces" as well as "significant margins for improvement" when it comes to traction. Combined with what it calls a "deliberately modest" engine output, the B3-40i kit focuses on three key areas: sorting the suspension, improving the traction and increasing the power.
Thus the silver F31 you see here has 430hp through nothing more than software (with a two-year, unlimited mileage warranty), that Quaife ATB limited-slip diff and a bespoke, passive Bilstein suspension setup designed specifically for UK use. All in it'll cost you £5k; with early version of the B58 340i nearing £20k, a B3-40i could be yours for well under £30,000. Hopefully then you'll excuse the spoiler alert on this one: anyone considering a 340i must buy this upgrade as well, it's as simple as that.
Or, more specifically, the chassis upgrades (everything is offered individually), because they're sublime. The Birds car addresses damn near all the criticisms levelled at recent six-cylinder BMWs, whether M Performance branded or otherwise. The standard damping is sloppy, too languid in its response and prone to heaving the car over bumps when it should be settled. Those problems were compounded by the lack of a locking diff, inside wheels flaring up with wheelspin at inopportune moments.
But no longer. The Bilstein arrangement is firmer than a Comfort setting on BMW's adaptive dampers, sure, but the pay off in terms of poise, confidence and control is more than worth it. No longer does the car feel unduly taxed by imperfections or flummoxed by poor surfacing, instead delivering accurate, effective bump absorption without totally jettisoning rolling refinement. On this limited experience it feels a really sweet everyday compromise, and a drastic improvement from standard. With the Quaife ATB getting power to the road with a great deal less fuss as well, the modifications ensure the driver is better connected with a better sorted chassis. Which really is as good as it sounds.
Moreover, so effective is the chassis overhaul and so in keeping with OEM characteristics is the engine tune that it's hard to notice, initially, having almost another 100hp. Which sounds unlikely, yes. But it points to the quality of everything else done, and the way it handles the extra power, that the same output as an old M3 doesn't immediately grab your attention. Retaining that BMW feel means it's still not the world's most thrilling straight-six, though the acceleration is never anything less than vivid and the sound - from front or back - more vocal and more authentic than anything its maker has done since. It's a really nice job.
Given the assortment of remits, ages and prices here - a Birds 340i will likely cost half a 340d - this was obviously not meant to be a conventional test with an outright winner, but rather a celebration of what can be achieved with a 3 Series Touring base for those after something extra before the M3 turns up. Interested parties should certainly be encouraged by all three, because even without the M division car there's so much to like. The M340d emphatically proves that diesel power still has a place among performance cars, which has become even more pertinent with the demise just this week of the M50d motor. It's searingly fast, a pleasure to drive, spookily efficient and - now a rarity for a BMW, it seems - really handsome as well. There's a lot to recommend it and precious little to be disappointed by. Rational money buys a 330d, yes, but you'll come away from a 340d experience little short of overawed.
It's a similar story with the Birds car; most will be happy with an old 340i, because it's a perfectly decent car. For those who really care about the way it actually drives, the B3-40i deserves immense credit for realising the potential of the platform without detracting one bit from its intrinsic appeal. If BMW had made an M340i Touring like this a few years back, it would have been raved about. Hopefully that's all that needs to be said.
Even alongside a couple of great 3 Series, however, the Alpina stands a long way out. It's no overstatement to say that there's a palpable genius about the car, the familiar formula of big, powerful engine in large, luxurious estate car given its most thorough reworking yet. It appears to have every base covered, but its completeness never seems aloof or uninvolving. Instead it'll do everything you'll ever need of a 3 Series, while still being an expensive rarity to lust after. So towering was its performance against unconventional opposition that the car's direct rivals seemed diminished even from a distance: this is a more accommodating fast wagon than the occasionally brusque Mercedes-AMG C63, and a demonstrably more enjoyable one than the one-dimensional Audi RS4. Hand on heart, BMW will be doing well just to match this level of all-encompassing ability, let alone surpass it. Obviously we can't wait to find out. Bring on 2022.
SPECIFICATION | ALPINA B3
Engine: 2,993cc, twin-turbocharged straight six
Transmission: 8-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 462@5,000-7,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 516@2,500-4,500rpm
0-62mph: 3.8 seconds
Top speed: 187 mph
Weight: 1,865kg (unladen)
MPG: 28.5 (WLTP)
Price: £67,950 (on the road, as standard; price as tested £84,625 comprised of Alpina Green metallic for £1,740, Alpina Classic 20-inch forged wheels for £2,080, Merino leather, Ivory White for £1,900, High-performance brake system for £1,680, Panoramic glass sunroof for £1,400, Harmon Kardon sound system for £820, Acoustic glazing for £190, Driving Assistant Professional for £1,870, Galvanic embellisher for control for £95 and Milled aluminium gearshift paddles for £280)
SPECIFICATION | BMW M340D TOURING
Engine: 2,993cc, twin-turbocharged straight-six diesel with belt-driven starter generator
Transmission: 8-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 340@4,400rpm
Torque (lb ft): 516@1,750-2,250rpm
0-62mph: 4.8 seconds
Top speed: 155 mph
Weight: 1,880kg (unladen)
MPG: 48.7-52.3 (WLTP)
Price: £54,325 (on-the-road, as standard; price as tested £62,615 comprised of Visibility Pack (High-beam Assistant and BMW Laserlights) for £1,500, Technology Pack (Head-up display, Harmon/Kardon surround sound, Enhanced Bluetooth with wireless charging, BMW Gesture Control, WiFi hotspot preparation) for £1,900, Shadowline Plus (19-inch Jet Black 791 M wheels, Black mirror caps, Sun protection glass, BMW Individual high-gloss Shadow Line with extended contents) for £750, Premium Pack (Panoramic glass sunroof, Electric front seats + Driver Memory, Lumbar support, front) for £1,900, Comfort Pack (Steering wheel heating, Comfort access, Luggage Compartment package, Extended storage) for £890, Towbar, electrically folding for £850, Interior Trim Aluminium Fabric high-gloss BMW Individual for £500. And breathe.)
SPECIFICATION | BMW 340I TOURING (F31)
Engine: 2,998cc, straight-six turbo
Transmission: 8-speed auto, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 326@5,500,6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 332@1,380-5,000rpm
0-62mph: 5.1 secs
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,690kg (unladen)
CO2: 158g/km (NEDC)
MPG: 41 (NEDC)
Price: £39,125 (price new 2015, now from £22,000 + £5,000 (including VAT and fitting) for Birds B3-40i upgrade)
(Spec for standard car)
Image credit | Harry Rudd
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