2023 BMW 3 Series Review: Great Car, Less-Than-Great Updates

bmw m340i

Will Sabel Courtney

For a large swath of the car-loving public, the BMW 3 Series has long stood as the Platonic ideal of a daily driver. Possessing a delicious blend of exquisite handling, delicate balance, Goldilocks power and room for four adults at a reasonable price (at least, for a luxury brand), the 3er has been the gateway drug to a lifetime addiction to Bimmerdom.

Yet with every new generation and every mid-cycle update come tweaks that also seem to challenge that reputation. More power is usually in the cards, and new technology to better make the most of it; so is added space for our ever-growing proportions and our ever-growing lives.

2023 BMW 3 Series: What We Think

At its core, the 3 Series is still the excellent compact sports-luxury sedan it always has been (even if, by traditional standards, it isn’t all that small anymore — it’s actually about the same size as an E39-generation 5 Series). It’s still fun to throw around corners, still comfortable, and in M340i form, packs a remarkable turbocharged inline-six that delivers stunning acceleration and remarkable real-world fuel economy. (Car and Driver‘s independent testing found it can spring from 0-60 in 3.7 seconds, while still getting 33 mpg at a steady 75 mph.)

However, that was all true of the 2022 model. While the 2023-specific changes are generally minor, some of them feel leave an odd taste in the mouth. The new front and rear end designs are a bit more busy, even awkward than the pre-facelift versions, and while the new infotainment system is visually impressive, it loses a little bit in terms of usability when weighed against its predecessor. None of these are dealbreakers — the 3 Series still stands on the podium of its category — but they beg the question as to whether they actually improve the car over its immediate predecessor, or are merely differences for difference’s sake.

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The 2023 design updates are minor, thankfully

Blessedly, the updated 3 Series seems to have been spared the worst of the brand’s recent design … adventures. There’s no Angry Birds pig kidney grille, no unnaturally low-mounted headlights, no crossover-height beltline. Unlike, for example, the iX or the new 7 Series or XM, a time traveler from the ’80s would be able to I.D. this as a Bimmer pretty quickly. Nevertheless, BMW made a few changes to the exterior design to reflect the model’s novelty … but whether they’re improvements is largely up to the beholder.

To my eyes, at least, the new front fascia seems more bulbous, thanks in large part to the painted bodywork on either side of the lower grille that replaces fake air intakes on the old model. (Folks who consider a young Jay Leno the pinnacle of handsome will find a lot to like here.) In back, the opposite issue arises; the additional black trim down low, especially at the sides, draws the eye upward and makes the car look taller and less sleek than its predecessors. Maybe this is a case of BMW trying to trick would-be crossover buyers into sticking with the sedan; regardless of the rationale, though, it results in a slightly less-attractive car.

The big news inside is the new dual-screen setup

As is becoming common in many a fancy car these days, the latest 3 Series boasts a broad panorama of high-resolution displays atop its dashboard. While it’s comprised of a single panel of slightly curved glass, there are actually two displays below the surface — an all-glass instrument panel for the driver, and a touchscreen system in the center.

The only other notable change inside lies with the shifter. With BMW long since having switched away from mechanically connected shift levers to electronic ones, they’ve still had drivers use a physical lever to click between P-R-N-D-L — at least, until the last year or two. The 2023 3er now uses a toggle switch located behind the cupholders; it doesn’t seem to save any room on the console compared with the previous shift lever, so it seems as though the only practical rationale for the change is to make it easier to extricate Big Gulps from their holsters.

While the hardware is impressive, the software that makes use of it is seemingly designed at least as much for flash as function. The system is blessedly quick to react, and capable of rendering impressive visuals with ease — but the contents of the display seem better suited to impress would-be buyers in showrooms and auto shows than for people who need to quickly access key info with minimal distraction while piloting two tons of steel down the Jersey Turnpike at 90 miles per hour while sandwiched between a pair of Escalades.

Perhaps you remember the delightfully simple amber gauges once common to BMWs, which told you exactly what you needed to know while booking along down the highway? Today’s all-digital instrument panel looks more like a first-person-shooter readout, with sharp-angled bars for speed and power. (The pre-facelift 3 Series also had virtual gauges, but those more closely resembled, well, traditional gauges.) If you want to see engine speed, you’ll have to put the car or shifter into Sport; otherwise, the “tachometer” on the right only shows total percentage of power being currently used. That’s fine for an electric car, but for a gas-powered one, it seems an odd choice. There’s already a way to tell how much power you’re using; it’s called “how far your gas pedal is from the floor.”

Climate controls have been switched from intuitive, easy-to-use dedicated physical buttons to a small band of barely differentiated touchscreen below the primary display that’s almost impossible to tap accurately while driving. (The defrosters, thankfully, still boast dedicated hard buttons.) And only the direct temperature control is always accessible; if you want, say, to turn on your heated seats or redirect the fan, you have to first land on the tiny, undefined “Climate Menu” button, then find your way to the specific feature you’re looking for. Likewise, while the volume and direct tuning functions for the stereo still have their own tactile functions, everything else goes through the screen and its small, ill-defined faux buttons.

Perhaps most disappointingly, the row of eight dedicated programmable preset buttons common to BMW dashboards for so long has been sunsetted. These weren’t just ideal for saving radio stations across multiple bands — hey, some of us love satellite and FM alike — but could even be used for tasks like firing up the navigation system and directing you to a preset spot.

And once you’re in the music function, the display quickly fades from the regular audio menu — featuring options to change channels, bandwidths, settings and so forth — to a minimalist panel that shows the album art, artist and track name. Granted, there’s an argument to be made that it’s actually better to have less distracting info there while driving … but if that was the ideal, why have the entire panel fill up with a colorful, eye-catching display of the album art of radio channel logo’s colors? And with all that empty real estate, why not make the text larger?

If much of this seems like carping, well, it is. Many of the issues afflicting this Bimmer are also true of many, if not most, new cars going on sale these days. Buyers want flashy technology, manufacturers want to save money and future-proof their cars; touchscreens accomplish both. iPhones and Androids and Macs and PCs have left consumers with the impression that flashy, colorful user interfaces with dense menus and multiple pages are good; it’s no surprise automakers would follow that trend, even if the cognitive demands and level of risk are far different for someone noodling on their home computer and someone in a fast-moving vehicle.

But that doesn’t reduce the legitimacy of the complaints, because they’re not stemming from a place of ignorance; they’re coming from one of hypocrisy. It’s the same sort of reason why people complain about BMW products have anodyne, lifeless steering: because it feels like a betrayal of the values the company has long championed. Not only does the company have a long history of building cars with the opposite sorts of traits, the company used to celebrate those traits. BMW was proud of its simple designs, its involving driver experience. Their slogan was The Ultimate Driving Machine, and it didn’t ring hollow.

As I said earlier, the 2023 BMW 3 Series remains a great car in many ways, with sound fundamentals; if I were in the market for a vehicle in this price range, it’d be at the top of my list. I simply wish the brand would be sure to remember the little things that made their cars great, as well as the big ones.

Base Price / Price as Tested: $55,846 / $66, 120

Powertrain: 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six; eight-speed automatic; rear- or all-wheel-drive

Horsepower: 382

Torque: 369 lb-ft

EPA Fuel Economy: 23 mpg city, 31 mpg highway

Seats: 5


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