There are few cars as popular as the BMW 3 Series. It has long been known to British car buyers as a benchmark for quality and handling. So much so that, for periods of its life, it gained more signatures than even Ford's Mondeo from fleet buyers.
The executive class, however, is a particularly fast-paced environment, where the likes of Mercedes' new C-Class, Audi's A3 Saloon and Jaguar's XE have come along, matched, and in places beaten, the 3 Series at its own strengths.
That could be about to change. BMW knows that getting the price, CO2 emissions, quality and handling right are essential to winning the majority company car market share. For 2015, it has given its 3 Series a thorough makeover in order to bring the fight back to its recently revitalised rivals.
From the outside, the changes seem minor - refreshed styling including new head and taillights and bumpers are the obvious changes. Beneath, though, lies a reworked chassis for improved comfort and handling, and inside the cabin has been treated to upgraded materials.
Under the bonnet is a range of new engines, too. A three-cylinder petrol engine makes it into a 3 Series in the 318i for the first time, while company car drivers will be pleased to hear the bulk selling 320d diesel now achieves 99g/km CO2 emissions in Efficient Dynamics Plus form. A new sub-50g/km plug-in hybrid 330e also joins the range in late 2016 - another first.
Until we can try more of the range in September, though - including the facelifted touring estate model - here we're driving the new range-topping 340i petrol saloon, previously called the 335i.
Its twin-turbo six-cylinder engine produces 322bhp, and as a result it's capable of 0-62mph in just 5.1secs. It sends that power to the rear wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox as standard, or, in this case, an optional eight-speed automatic gearbox.
What is the 2015 BMW 340i like to drive?
As a range-topping 3 Series (save for the even quicker M3), the 340i is a seriously impressive and addictive way to get around. Its six-cylinder twin-turbo engine is all-new (it isn't simply lifted from the M135i or M235i, despite having the same power) and its superbly smooth but hugely punchy power delivery is a joy to exploit.
There's an excellent throttle response too, and a considerable amount of low down pull for easy overtaking on faster B-roads. It's also happy to rev right to the redline, at which point you're being treated to the muscular roar of the engine and exhausts in unison.
The 340i has more noises up its tailpipe, though; burbles on the overrun off the throttle and the odd pop on gear changes. The revised optional eight-speed gearbox works extremely well, too. It's sharper on multiple downshifts when taking control with the wheel-mounted paddles, but remains calm and intuitive when you just want to cruise along.
Elsewhere refinement is good. Our test car was a Sport model (not available in the UK on the 340i) and wore 18in alloy wheels, which did kick up some road noise over coarse surfaces. However, wind noise is well suppressed and the 3.0 petrol is as good at being reserved at steady revs as it is howling at high ones.
When asked for feedback, the answer current 3 Series owners gave was 'more comfort, please, but also, an even sharper drive.' Not a simple task, but BMW's engineers bit their tongues, went away and stiffened the 3 Series' body, altered its dampers to give a wider range of adjustability and reconfigured its steering in a bid to give a greater sense of the road beneath.
The changes are more noticeable in some places than others. Certainly switching our car's optional adaptive dampers between Comfort and Sport shows a bigger difference in ride. The stiffer Sport setting doesn't stray too far from what went before; firm but nicely controlled, but Comfort feels even more compliant over rough surfaces than previously. That said, our smooth German route was hardly a test, so we'll wait until a UK drive for our final judgement here.
The best handling 3 Series we've experienced have always been on larger wheels with adaptive dampers and this new 340i doesn't disappoint. Body control, especially in Sport mode, is spot on, while even this heavier-nosed six-cylinder model is happy to turn in sharply when asked, which bodes well for the lighter smaller-engined models.
The steering, while no quicker, feels a touch more responsive off centre too. Sport mode adds too much weight out of lower speed corners, but get up to speed and things improve. Comfort mode strikes the best balance between weight, precision and feedback across all speeds.
What is the 2015 BMW 340i like inside?
Despite the changes, not a whole lot different from what went before. There's enough room for a couple of tall adults to sit in the front seats comfortably and a generous amount of steering wheel seat adjustment for fine-tuning your favoured driving position.
In the back, tall adults will find their knees touching the front seatbacks if two adults sit in front and three abreast is a squeeze, but headroom for two is good. It's a similar situation in rivals such as the Mercedes C-Class, though, and the Audi A3 Saloon and Jaguar XE are actually marginally more cramped.
Accessing any saloon's boot is never as easy as a hatchback's, but the 3 Series' is one of the easier to slot large suitcases into. In the overall space race, the 3 Series comes up trumps too, beating the A3 Saloon and Jaguar XE and tying with Mercedes' C-Class. It's also a usefully consistent shape, but it's disappointing that folding rear seats are optional, even if they do leave a flat floor once down.
One criticism we've leveled at the 3 Series in the past is cabin quality. Yes, judged against family cars it looks good, but against its executive rivals some of its switchgear and dash plastics have looked and felt a tad cheap. New door trims, piano black dash accents and a soft-touch cupholder sliding cover improve things in this new model, but the switchgear remains.
The 3 Series' dash layout, however, is still to be commended. The climate control buttons are logically arranged, while our car's optional Professional iDrive system still can't be beaten in the ever-improving world of car infotainment systems. It has a crisp, colourful screen, a pleasingly simple scroll through menu arrangement and the rotary controller between the front seats is intuitive and flanked by useful menu shortcut buttons.
You now get more equipment in every 3 Series than before, with every trim getting at least 17in alloy wheels, LED daytime running lights, climate control, iDrive with sat-nav, cruise control, Bluetooth, DAB radio, automatic headlights and wipers and tyre pressure monitoring.
Should I buy one?
It's too early to tell if the 3 Series has retaken its handling benchmark crown from Jaguar's XE - we need both cars on the same UK road before we can determine that. What's certain is that it's lost none of its ability to thrill, yet it offers an even wider range of adjustability to the driver, if wanted, without compromise. Look down the price list, and the 3 Series looks competitive compared with rivals throughout, too.
Having only driven the 340i, a model unlikely to find many homes in the UK, we're hesitant to hand back the 3 Series range our highest five-star rating either. Drives of the big-selling models such as the 320d Efficient Dynamics and new three-cylinder 318i in September will determine whether it's moved the game on enough to deserve it.
The 340i isn't our pick of the range, then, even if its emissions of 159g/km should be admired considering its performance. One thing's for sure, if you're lucky enough to be choosing from a list of poky petrol saloons, the breadth of the 340i's capabilities will be hard to ignore.
What Car? says...
BMW 340i M Sport auto