How a BMW launch car mis-spec lost it a review star

BMW 340iThe pre-facelift BMW F30 3 Series was a class-leading five-star car whose crown was only recently usurped by the surprisingly excellent new Jaguar XE.

No problem, we all thought: BMW was preparing a facelifted 3 Series to launch just a few months after the XE went on sale, which would surely restore its leadership of the sector.

So it was with surprise that my hot anticipation of driving it for the first time recently was tempered by the realisation it was too compromised to hand over the five-star review score held by its predecessor.

And how did BMW manage to make the new version of a car 20% worse than the one it’s replacing? By ticking the box of an unforgivable option on the launch spec cars.

Variable Sport steering is the offender. A £290 option that, in the options list, sounds rather tempting: it provides a “variable wheel angle depending on steering-wheel input angle,” says BMW. How clever.

But then you read that “as steering-wheel input angle increases, (there’s an) over-proportional increase in wheel angle (not speed-dependent). This option adds Sport+ mode to the Drive Performance Control (and is) configurable in Sport Mode.”

This is where it’s not so good – basically, the more you steer, the more it steers. Which I know from earlier iterations is plain odd, and certainly hard to become accustomed to given the organic linearity of the rest of BMW’s cars.

Even worse was the performance on the road in the facelifted LCI (Life Cycle Impulse – BMW nomenclature for a facelift) cars, though. It was:

  • Gloopy and slack about the straight-ahead
  • Inconsistently and artificially weighted during initial input
  • Went through striking variations in steering weight during cornering, from very light to very stiff
  • Seemed to ‘magnetically stiffen’ during sweeping corners, requiring conscious force to turn the car and not let it ‘steer’ itself off line
  • Had negligible purity and feel

On an already compromised test route, it was sadly the aspect of the car that was impossible to ignore, the constant irritation and frustration at it often overriding positive impressions of the car’s brilliant 3.0-litre engine, apparently improved ride, engaging and rear-led handling, better-quality cabin and other detail improvements.

Deeply frustrating. The 3 Series LCI is an improvement over the current car which, as the class leader until recently, should have left journalists hotly anticipating the tight challenge coming up with the Jaguar XE.

Instead, it left us all asking one another how we found the steering, most of us grimacing in response. It certainly made it hard for us to justify a five-star first drive review score – to our frustration, given how the F30 launch car had scored a full five.

If only, if only BMW had not ticked that option box on the launch cars…

No, if you’re desperate to spend extra on making your 3 Series’ steering different, avoid Variable Sport steering at all costs, and go for weight-changing Servotronic instead – a mere £85.

Better still, keep it standard. Because it was pretty damn good before and, with the LCI model, BMW can only have improved it, right? Later this year, we’ll find out.

But even if it’s not quite as good, it’s going to be infinitely better than the Variable Sport setup that, right now, has cost BMW a review star.

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