Let’s put the pandemic aside for a moment. 2020 is the year Malaysia got its first locally-assembled M car. What a time to be alive. The BMW M340i xDrive now rolls off the same assembly line in Kedah that gives us Munich’s CKD staples like the X1 and 320i. And although stauncher purists among us might refuse to speak of it in the same breath as the M3 – not that there’s any lack of breathing room in the G80’s massive nostrils – the M340i is a genuinely good reason to fall in love behind the wheel all over again while the rest of the world hurtles towards the next steps in autonomy and electrification.
The flirtation begins way before you can even get a whiff of the driver’s seat. On the surface, tastefully subtle hints of the M340i’s true identity that only keen eyes are likely to spot remind us of the incognito appeal that made some of the most definitive M cars of era past – think E30 M3 and E39 M5 – so memorable to begin with. The gunmetal-like ‘Cerium Grey’ accents look great against our tester’s ‘Black Sapphire’ paintjob. Its M Performance kidneys are much easier on the eye than the M3’s new mug too – 74 percent of respondents in an Instagram poll preferred it to the M3’s. Surely that has to count for something.
To some degree, this low-key aesthetic puts the M340i’s RM423k price tag in question given how high the benchmark has been set for visual sportiness by its sub-RM300k siblings – 330i and 330e – both tarted up in M Sport kit for that “Ultimate Driving Machine” showroom quality. Some would argue that the even a 218i Gran Coupe would turn more heads along the Louboutin-trampled sidewalks of Bangsar and Bukit Bintang, to which we’d reply its engine is pointing in the wrong direction and is missing three cylinders. And therein lies the simple truth to what makes the M340i so likeable from the get-go: our long-desired revival of the straight-six 3er is here at last.
That said, the M340i doesn’t instantly distinguish itself from its four-pot brethren with the pops, crackles and constant threats of wheelspin (this is an AWD car after all) you’d expect from a full-fledged six-cylinder M car; not if you can contain your excitement for the first five minutes in its cockpit anyway. This writer manages to, not out of willpower, but out of respect for the Bimmer’s hefty output of 387hp and 500Nm that’s more suitably dispensed on highways and open B-roads than the well-policed streets of Cyberjaya where BMW Malaysia is headquartered.
Taking the domesticated approach with the M340i in urban environments with the driving mode left in its default ‘Comfort’ setting unravels a competent daily driver within. The powertrain responds to gentle inputs with the same sort of civility you’d expect from a 320i or 330i. For something that punches a bit harder than a base Porsche 992’s flat-six, the B58 engine is fully capable of taking on a smooth and sophisticated persona when you need it to be on its best behaviour. That the eight-speed transmission managing power delivery to all four wheels is similarly sophisticated bolsters the M340i’s case as a premium saloon fit for the corporate routine.
Give the M-specific throttle pedal a cheeky little stab and the M340i sheds its office attire as hastily as Clark Kent in a phone booth, only the German car equivalent comes out of its shell with a whole new range of vocals, snorts and grunts included to back up the unmistakable croon of an in-line six combustion engine. It’s one of those intoxicating soundtracks that brings out the most childish side of your driving conscience; the one that wants to indulge in over-revving, premature downshifts and other guilty pleasures that the powertrain is never too tired to entertain.
Double-Vanos cams, direct injection and ‘TwinPower Turbo’ in a three-litre bottle make for a highly energetic combo after all. With an elastic maximum torque band covering 3,200rpm (from 1,800 to 5,000rpm), the M340i generates as much entertainment at 80kph on the right B-roads as we reckon it would at 200kph on a closed circuit – vmax is electronically capped to 250kph. BMW claims it’ll do the century sprint in 4.4 seconds, but you won’t be faulted for imagining it to be a tad swifter in reality, such is the car’s infectious enthusiasm and urgency; there’s certainly no sense of longing for the M3’s additional 100-or-so horses behind the wheel of this 3er on public roads.
For all of that straight-line prowess, the most impressive traits of the BMW M340i by far are the bits that define its dynamic identity and, in doing so, draw a clear bold line separating it from rivalling saloons strapped with a similar performance-biased six-cylinder setup – yes, we’re looking at you Merc-AMG C43. There’s just something effortlessly precise in the way it steers and how it’s damped; things that remind the driver of the thoroughbred athleticism at hand no matter the occasion or driving condition. They’re the hallmark of a properly good Bimmer, M or otherwise.
The M340i's intoxicating soundtrack brings out the most childish side of your driving conscience; the one that wants to indulge in over-revving, premature downshifts and other guilty pleasures that the powertrain is never too tired to entertain
Despite being over 200kg heavier and 10mm closer to the ground than a standard G20, the M340i rides with a spring in its step and near-perfect balance of low-speed grace and high-speed composure; you’d be hard-pressed to find an equally sporty alternative with as much flexibility and tolerance to poorly-paved surfaces. It’s all the work of an adaptive M suspension that communicates telepathically with BMW’s variable sport steering to make our ride and handling assessments of subsequent test cars feel grossly inferior. Did we expect any less from an M-badged 3 Series? Probably not.
To that end, some purists may not take to the M340i’s xDrive architecture too kindly. The all-wheel footwork is actually quite indiscernible for the most part, with the M Sport differential doing a neat job of preserving the sensation of the chassis being pushed rather than pulled, all while imbuing the car with much more traction than the standard RWD setup can muster. The difference in driving dynamics is only obvious near the 3er’s limits. And those who frequent those parts are the ones who stand to benefit the most from the added grip. Put simply, xDrive isn’t something BMW chucks into its new M3, M4 and M5 for no good reason.
For all of its talents and overflowing charisma, even a car as beautifully rounded as the BMW M340i has its flaws if you dig deep enough. For us, the anti-clockwise rev counter in the G20’s digital display feels somewhat unnatural – having two needles racing towards the middle from opposite ends is a sight for crossed eyes – which isn’t ideal in something you might seriously consider taking out on a track day for a few timed laps. The electronic driver aids, though expected at this price point, can present another challenge if we’re nit-picking; the lane keep assist in particular tugs with the same, M-spirited fervour as the moving bits under the hood. So, you might want to keep it switched off if you're on a ‘Genting run’ to avoid any unwanted surprises.
If anything, these little quirks only emphasise what a shame it is was that the M340i didn’t arrive a few years earlier as a locally-assembled F30, which had an arguably more driver-focused cockpit packing Munich’s signature amber-lit analogue dials, grab handles that swing diagonally across the door cards and a good old handbrake. But as the saying goes, it’s better late than never. And the G20 is a stellar performer nonetheless, a true extension of the pilot at the wheel that can be as docile or ballistic as you want it to be; a proper driver’s car through and through.
BMW M340i xDrive (CKD)
Price: RM422,800 on-the-road w/o insurance
Engine: 3.0L in-line 6cyl turbo, 387bhp, 500Nm
Transmission: 8spd auto, AWD
Performance: 0-100 in 4.4 secs, 250kph
Economy: 7.7L per 100km
As practical and comfortable as a 320i when you need it to be, with the same amount of useable performance you can hope to unload on public roads from a feistier and pricier M3.
The M340i drives beautifully on all occasions to assert itself as one of the finest driver-oriented premium saloons to ever go on sale in Malaysia.