28-years. That is the length of time that has passed between the global launch of the E36 3 Series in 1990 and the seventh generation G20 models which debuted in 2018. To put that into a bit of perspective, Cell phones and the Internet hadn’t made it to SA yet, the majority of today’s Formula 1 drivers hadn’t been born and a US Dollar cost R2.59.
When comparing cars, the level of technological development from year to year can seem incremental at times and rarely do we get to truly appreciate the more distinct differences between models separated by decades rather than months.
Old vs. New
The current M340i xDrive offers a number of noticeable upgrades over the previous-generation F30 340i, but just 35kW separates the two and both offer a similarly modern driving. Now the gap between the two cars you see here is a slightly larger, the Aegean Blue E36 328i Individual was built in 1997, as opposed to the 2020 built date of the Black Sapphire Metallic G20 M340i XDrive opposite.
Aside from an insight into how things have progressed over the years, they make for an interesting comparison as both models represent the top ‘standard’ 3 Series offerings in their respective ranges. The first thing you notice is the sheer size difference, the G20 is 27.6 centimetres longer and 11.7 centimetres wider than the E36, a car that was considered huge when compared to the tiny little E30 which it replaced.
Producing 142kW and 280nm from its 2.8-litre inline-six powerplant, the 328i was credited with a 7.3-second 0-100km/h time and a 236km/h top end when new, good enough to see off just about any of its rivals in its day but. The M340i meanwhile, offers quite literally double the power, aided by a single twin-scroll turbo the 3.0-litre motor now punches out 285kW and 500nm, that means a 4.4-second 0-100 km/h time and a top speed well in excess of 250km/h were it not for that pesky limiter.
If those M340i figures seem impressive, driving the cars back-to-back really highlights the differences between the two. Press the accelerator pedal to the floor at walking speeds and the response from the naturally aspirated 328i is initially more immediate, but once the M340i decides which of its eight gears is best suited to the job (a process which takes just a fraction of a second) it launches down the road with such enthusiasm that you are left wondering whether it is pushing out a whole lot more than its claimed 285kWs. The extra traction offered by the standard xDrive system allows even less experienced drivers to push the M340i into and out of corners with more confidence and the immediacy of the gear changes gives an uninterrupted surge of power that can get you into trouble all too quickly. No, it doesn’t understeer like its Ingolstadt rivals but getting the rear to misbehave requires serious commitment. Compared to the 328i performance-wise, it is on another planet entirely, even the current F80 M3 would have its work cut out to keep ahead of the overachieving M340i. Official fuel economy figures are still more marketing tools than factual data, but it was interesting to note that driven around town in a similar manner the newer car managed 12l/100km opposed to the 328i’s 13l/100km.
Journalists often complain of an aloofness in modern cars that removes the connectedness one felt in more engaging vehicles of the past, but some of that ‘engagement’ wasn’t necessarily built in. The E36 3 Series was developed as an executive luxury saloon intended to offer the most advanced driving experience in its day, it was far more comfortable and refined than the E30, yet compared to today’s luxury saloons it feels anything but. That said, once you get used to the tighter confines of the 328i’s cabin and the higher seating position, it feels far more wieldy down the road than the physically much larger M340i, the manual gearbox really does add another dimension to the driving experience, practising your heel-and-toeing and rev-matching makes even short journeys a bit more fun. It may be well down on power but there is more than enough of it to keep you entertained and it actually offers a less fidgety ride over most road surfaces. That said, the brakes are not particularly great and the steering can feel a bit vague around the centre point.
The M340i’s interior also has a steering wheel and four seats but that is where the similarities end, the wireless charging and Apple CarPlay connectivity are superb and the digital dashboard looks space age compared to the analogue instrumentation in the 328i’s cabin.
The centrally mounted E36 electric window buttons still seem like the better layout but the M340i has all of its major controls logically placed - unless you want to turn off the air conditioning, that requires delving into the iDrive system. The E36 was not necessarily BMW’s finest moment in terms of interior build quality but the facelifted models were an improvement, 20-years on this pampered model looks far better than most but the G20 really has moved the game on here too.
So, what about value for money? The E36 328i Individual cost around R220,000 in 1997, adjusted for inflation that would be the equivalent of R741,290 in 2020. A fair way off the R1,100,000 recommended retail price of a new M340i, but aside from the massive leap in performance and safety levels, the newer car comes with a huge standard specification list that makes up for a lot of that extra cost.
This particular car came with another R178,650 of additional features including Comfort Access (R8,900), Driving Assist Professional (R34,500), a Head-up Display (R17,000) and the very effective Laserlight headlights (R15,000). Aside from Comfort Access, which is extremely useful, we wouldn’t bother much with the rest of the extras, especially the Driving Assist package which-like in every other car on the road is at best a distraction and at worst an accident waiting to happen.
If you are happy to give up some of that rabid straight-line pace and the sound of that straight-six then the G20 330i may well be the pick of the range, at R740 295 it happens to cost the same as an inflation adjusted E36 328i, but you get all of the refinement and technology that nearly three decades of development brings. In addition, the 2.0-litre turbocharged inline-four produces 190kW which means a 5.8-second 0-100km/h time. That is on par with an E36 M3.
In conclusion then, the M340i xDrive is quite obviously a huge step on from the 328i, but this was never about whether things had moved on, but rather by how much. Just like its forebears, the M340i is a class-leading offering with a level of competence that has to be experienced to be believed. The 328i on the other hand has long since fulfilled that role and has now become a rather enjoyable modern classic. Who knows what type of car BMW will be producing thirty years from now, but we can’t wait to compare it to a well-kept classic M340i.