Notes from the Road, A Personal Automotive History – Issue 26: “(Almost) Catching Up”


It’s been a while since this series had an entry.  Unfortunately, that was not the result of a slower rate of automotive turnover, but rather was the result of reduced time for blogging!   Given there have been some noteworthy changes, it seemed high time for an update!

For anyone who has been following the series, when last we visited the stable it was occupied  by the Mercedes Benz CLA45 AMG and the 2015 Mini Cooper Countryman S.  It’s probably not  surprising  that, spoiler alert, both  of these have been replaced, albeit for  very  different reasons.   To kick  things off, let’s  talk about the CLA45.

After roughly 18 months of ownership, the balance sheet for the CLA45 finally tipped against it.  Let’s break this into pros  and cons:

  • The Good
    • Crazy personality
    • Quick in motion
    • Nice soundtrack
    • Sharp looks
  • The… Less Good
    • Throttle laaaaaaag
    • Dual  clutch laaaaaag
    • Fit  and finish

Now  for  many, the good would outweigh the bad here.  The CLA45 is, well,  a  CLA, so you do know what you’re getting into with regards to fit  and finish and overall quality.  That said, Mercedes really does cut to the bone with the CLA  series.  It just feels wrong and the AMG badge exacerbates  that over time.  Again, this might not bother many, but over time  the little rattles, and the overall quality of the materials, start  to really get to you if this kind of thing is  a pet peeve.  Similarly, small  engine,  big  turbo, drive by  wire, and dual clutch can add up to deadly lag from a dead stop.  You can somewhat drive around it by feathering the accelerator before getting on it but,  again, if 0-“not 0” time is  a pet peeve, the setup  of the CLA45 starts to get to you.  Once moving the high strung nature kicks in and it  absolutely hauls, but in normal daily driving, in an area with endless traffic and tons of stop and go, it starts to really hurt the  experience.

OK, so the CLA45 was out.  What replaced it?  Oddly enough, a kind of limbo.  The departure of the CLA45 marked a return  to a safe known quantity and a decided departure from anything that could be conceivably be considered high on the personality scale these days.  Yep, back to the 3 series!  A 2017 BMW 340i, to be specific.

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I have to  acknowledge  upfront that my relationship with the 3 series is… complex.  It was the first car that made me realize a sedan could actually be exciting  and after a very brief drive in the 1986 325i 5-speed of a  family friend,  I was hooked.   It took until 2001 before I would actually buy one for myself, and that  was my beloved 330xi.  The E46 set such a high bar and  was, in  many ways, the perfect BMW, with a foot in both the high strung driver cars of the past, and the point and shoot future that was emerging.  Since 2001 I’ve owned some kind of BMW nearly every year, so a return to the badge in 2017 was probably less surprising than the departure was!  That said,  and at the risk  of piling on to an overly worn cliche, the 3 series really isn’t the 3 series anymore.

Oh sure,  it is certainly competent, but it has gone pretty far to the point and shoot side of that equation.  It’s gotten quite large, as I’ve pointed out in other entries (nearly the size of a classic 5 series), and this  was pretty evident immediately on driving the 2017.  It’s also gotten fairly… bland?  Even the 340i (which has an embarrassing number of /// badges and is now, unsurprisingly, called the M340i) feels really like a GT car rather than a sporty compact sedan.  Now this isn’t universally a bad thing, as we’ll see, but it is noteworthy and for folks who built their love of the brand on the E30 and E46, feels like the end of an era.  Of course this also isn’t a huge surprise and BMW does have a car to sell us; the excellent 2 series!  The need for 4 doors is a cruel master though, and BMW hasn’t (yet) brought a 4 door 1/2 to the US, so the 3 series is it for anyone still resisting the push to CUVs.

So what about the 2017 340i then?  Well there is definitely a lot to like.  BMW remain absolute masters of turbo charging.  The 321HP B58 I6, mated to the 8 speed ZF8 auto, is butter smooth.  Power off  the line is instantaneous and while, by the numbers, the 340i  is significantly slower to 60 than the CLA45, it feels faster.  Handling wise it now feels like the bigger, heavier, GT car it is and has nowhere near the railed feel of the CLA45, but it is by no means a bad driving experience.  Body roll is minimal and the ride splits the difference between grip and comfort quite well.  Steering and brake feel are excellent, with the artificially boosted feel of EPS very nearly fully gone, and brakes  that are very  well matched to the power and weight, exhibiting no fade and satisfying grip.

It is important to note that there are also some benefits of the move to a more GT oriented car,  and that is in interior fit and finish, as well as overall build quality.  Compared to the CLA45, the 340i feels vault solid and the cabin, while aesthetically fairly simple, is to my  eye very high quality.  Of course this makes sense as the 3 series lines up with the C class Benz which, to be fair, does actually have a bit of an edge over the 3.  The real issue with the Benz is that the fit and finish gap between CLA and C is massive while the 2 to 3 series gap is more progressive.

This is a lot of commentary on the 3, and as indicated up  top it didn’t hang around long, so let’s wrap this  entry  now with  some final pics.  Stay tuned for the next entry to see the current stable!

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