by Chuck Giametta
What changes will make the 2021 BMW 3 Series different?
Return of the high-performance M3 and a low-emissions plug-in-hybrid. They’ll help BMW flesh out the lineup of its compact premium sedan, which was redesigned for model-year 2019. The seventh-generation 3 Series got a new understructure, evolutionary styling, and its largest-ever dimensions. It was also accompanied by BMW’s promise to restore class-leading road manners.
This 3 is handsome and roomy, and its handling is improved. But it didn’t recapture the title of definitive sports sedan. That crown has been gradually relinquished over the years, notably by the 2011-2018 generation, as BMW blurred the car’s enthusiast focus in pursuit of higher sales.
The German automaker’s renewed performance commitment should be bolstered by the 2021 M3, which is likely to offer more than 500 horsepower and be available for the first time with BMW’s xDrive all-wheel drive (AWD). BMW will at the same time generate some green appeal with the 2021 330e iPerformance plug-in. It’s designed to travel 17 miles or so on battery power alone and will also offer both rear- and all-wheel drive.
Should I wait for the 2021 3 Series or buy a 2020?
Wait if you covet the ultimate expression of 3 Series muscle in the form of the M3. It’ll return from a two-model-year hiatus and is likely to be the only 3 Series available with manual transmission.
Wait also if range anxiety and recharge times curb your enthusiasm for pure-electric premium sedans, such as the 3 Series rival Tesla Model 3. By reverting to conventional gas-electric-hybrid operation when its battery is depleted, the 2021 BMW 330e will boast a range of nearly 400 miles – almost 100 more than the Tesla Model 3 Long Range.
The 2021 3 Series lineup will return the four-cylinder 330i and the six-cylinder M340i models, both again available with xDrive. The M340i will boast some M3-grade styling and performance elements but stop short of the encompassing hot-rod treatment bestowed by the factory’s storied M tuner group.
Note that the BMW 4 Series, a two-door-coupe take on the 3 Series, will be redesigned for model-year 2021. The convertible version will follow. All-new for model-year 2022 will be the 4 Series Gran Coupe four-door-hatchback. They’ll all transition to the automaker’s Cluster Architecture (CLAR) platform, a modular substructure that underpins today’s 3 Series as well as most other BMW cars and crossover SUVs.
Will the styling be different?
The 2021 M3 will have its own look, and the 330e will get some hybrid-specific details. But except for a possible new color choice or two, the balance of the 3 Series line will retain the styling and dimensions that came online with the model-year-’19 redesign.
The car grew 2.9 inches in length, about a half-inch in height and width, and 1.6 inches in wheelbase (the distance between front and rear axles). The enlarged proportions play over a beautifully sculpted and more aerodynamic new body. Evolutions of brand trademarks such as the twin-kidney grille and Hofmeister kink rear-roof-pillar dogleg remain. Most important, the longer wheelbase translated to more legroom, especially for the rear seat. That erased a lingering 3 Series deficit and will again give the ’21 one of the roomiest cabins in the class.
The 330i models will again be the volume sellers and should return in standard Sport Line trim and offer Luxury Line and M Sport options. Each will again feature subtle differences – extra brightwork for the Luxury, for example — plus specific front- and rear bumper designs and individual alloy wheels (19s for M Sport, 18s otherwise).
Expect the 2021 330e iPerformance model to follow suit, with the added distinction of blue grille slats and a second fuel-filler-type door – probably in the left front fender — for the plug-in charger port.
The 2021 M340i models will again come with M Sport-level accruements, including larger front air intakes, lower body skirts, gloss-black accents, and M-logoed blue brake calipers.
The ’21 M3 should turn the M Sport look up an aggressive notch, with bulged fenders and a blistered hood, even more prominent vents, sharper aero addenda, a lowered suspension (still on standard 19-inch wheels), and an optional carbon-fiber reinforced plastic roof.
Full-LED headlights should again be standard on all versions of the 2021 3 Series. Expect options to include U-shaped daytime driving lights, as well as adaptive LED headlights with hexagonal light rings and blue L-shaped elements.
The cabin design won’t change. The dashboard will continue anchored by a landscape-oriented 8.8-inch central infotainment display as standard and a 10.25-inch display as part of the BMW Live Cockpit Professional option. The larger screen should again be standard on the M340i and M3 and both should include imbedded navigation. Rather than sitting conspicuously atop the dashboard like a grafted-on mobile tablet, both flatscreens rest in a dedicated dip, for a more integrated appearance.
The main gauges will remain a digital cluster measuring 5.7-inches, or 12.3 inches with Live Cockpit Professional. Both relegate the tachometer and speedometer to crescents on at their flanks, freeing the core for all manner of configurable data, including redundant mapping for the navigation system and, for the plug-in hybrid, specific energy-management readouts. It’s all modern enough, but traditionalists will miss the simple, sporty round gauges of yore.
You needn’t be an iconoclast to dislike the console-mounted automatic transmission lever. It’ll remain a chubby wand that toggles fore and aft to select Drive, Reverse, and Neutral. (It also toggles in an adjacent gate for manual-type gear changes, though you’re more likely to use the standard steering-wheel paddles for this.) Choosing Park requires an awkward twist of your thumb to reach a button on the lever’s rear face.
More user-friendly is BMW’s iDrive central infotainment control. A twister/push/pivot aluminum coaster supplemented by big buttons, iDrive has come to define a precision interface and is an inviting alternative to the system’s voice commands. Available frivolities will again include gesture control that adjusts audio volume with a twirl of your finger in the air, as well as the automaker’s Intelligent Personal Assistant, a virtual concierge that answers to “Hey, BMW.”
All passengers will continue to enjoy spacious seating in an airy cabin rife with small-items storage. The trunk will remain among the largest in class, at 17 cubic feet. Positioning the 330e’s lithium-ion battery cells beneath its rear seat means the plug-in model shouldn’t sacrifice much if any trunk volume, although it’s unknown whether its rear seatback (or the M3’s) will have the 40/20/40 split/fold capability standard on the other models.
Despite some anomalous plastic details, interior materials will again be solid enough. But compared with the opulence of Mercedes-Benz, the elegance of Lexus (and now, Genesis), and the sophistication of Audi, expect a relatively sterile environment.
Look for the ’21 3 Series Sport Line to return leatherette upholstery and gloss-black accents and the Luxury Line to continue with full leather upholstery and wood trim (full leather will be optional otherwise). The M Sport-optioned and M340i models will come with leatherette, their own sport front seats, M Sport leather steering wheel, and tech-patterned aluminum trim. The M3 should mix and match all that while adding specific instrumentation and shift levers, plus super-bolstered cloth-and-leather seats.
Not for the carryover 330i and M340i models. The 330i will return with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine of 255 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. Teamed again with a quick-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission, this engine furnishes fine overall acceleration and alert response once you’re underway. Judicious throttle application can mitigate some off-idle lag that manifests as lethargy away from a stop and an aggravating pause in low-speed traffic. Expect about 5.6 seconds 0-60 mph with rear-wheel drive, 5.3 with xDrive all-wheel drive.
The 2021 M340i will reprise a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six-cylinder engine with 382 horses and 369 pound-feet of torque. As with the four-cylinder, stabbing the gas pedal at very low rpm will have you waiting a beat for the power to come on. But there’s less delay with the six, and a bigger payoff, too. The M340i will again be a smooth stormer, sprinting to 60 in just 4.2 seconds and accelerating from midrange and highway speeds with muscle that makes merging and passing a thrill.
The 330e iPerformance model will borrow its basic powertrain from BMW’s midsize 530e iPerformance sedan. It’ll pair a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with an electric motor for what likely will be a net 248 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. It, too, will come exclusively with an eight-speed automatic transmission.
The 330e will be capable of plugging into the residential or commercial grid for enough charge to drive emissions-free on battery power for around 17 miles (figure around 16 with xDrive). Driver-selected modes can preserve this charge for later use, but anytime the 330e isn’t traveling on electricity alone it’ll act as a conventional hybrid, with sensors determining the optimal mix of gas and electric power and the battery replenished via regenerative energy captured during coasting and braking.
Expect the 2021 M3 to have a specially built twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six. In basic form it should have 473 horsepower and 442 pound-feet of torque. Not necessarily meant exclusively for track work but bearing a racing surname, the M3 Competition version should have 503 horsepower with the same 442 pound-feet of torque.
In support of powertrains that promise pin-you-to-your-seat acceleration, the M3s will benefit from an encompassing approach to high performance, with suspension, tires, brakes, and steering maximized to provide a clear step up from the M340i. Expect the “base” M3 to offer a choice of a six-speed manual transmission or a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. Some reports say the Competition version will come only with the dual-clutch.
The ’21 M3 will for the first time join other 3 Series models with available xDrive AWD; some sources say the Competition version will come only in xDrive form. In any BMW, the system normally biases power to the back wheels to underscore the handling benefits of rear-wheel drive. In response to tire slip and to acceleration and cornering forces, it redistributes power automatically to optimize traction and control. It’s a worthwhile option, for snowbelt denizens in particular.
The M3 probably will get specific xDrive programming and finally match the all-wheel traction standard on direct rivals like the Audi S4 and RS 5 Sportback, Tesla Model 3 Dual Motor Performance, and Mercedes-Benz Mercedes-AMG C43
Today’s 3 Series maintains the car’s traditional 50:50 front/rear weight balance. In redeveloping the suspension, engineers applied BMW’s first application of “lift-related dampers,” designed to reduce unwanted body movements on bumpy roads and during enthusiastic driving. The technology will remain standard on all ’21 models. The M Sport suspension will again be standard on the M340i and optional for the 330i and 330e (including xDrive versions). It’ll bring firmer componentry, additional body struts, upgraded brakes, more wheel camber, and a 0.4-inch-lower ride height.
Additional handling influencers will again be offered. The Adaptive M suspension, for example, will continue to team the M Sport setup with electronically controlled dampers. Billed as both the sportiest and most comfortable suspension variant, it includes driver-selected Comfort, Sport, and automatically adjusting Adaptive modes. The adaptive setup acts not only on the suspension but on steering and powertrain response. The M Sport variable locking rear differential will remain standard on the M340i and optional on 330i models equipped with the M Sport package or the Adaptive M suspension. Expect the M3’s suspension, brakes, steering and powertrain calibrations to go a step further on all counts.
In this class, the bar for road manners is established by competitors such as the A4, Genesis G70, Tesla Model 3, Mercedes C-Class, and especially the Alfa Romeo Giulia. Our tests of the seventh-generation 3 Series in 330i and M340i guise reveals a sport sedan improved over its immediate predecessor but one that still falls short of all-around excellence.
The steering is accurate but feels less than linear through turns. That also describes the behavior of the car as a whole. Once it takes a set in a corner, it grips impressively and with outstanding balance. However, the models we tested did not initiate changes direction fluidly, suffering instead inconsistent, arthritic motions.
Married with an overly-taut ride – even with the Adaptive M suspension – the 3 Series can come across as irritatingly technical and oddly aloof. BMW engineers certainly seem capable of dialing in more passion. We urge their supervisors to allow them to, starting with model-year 2021, perhaps taking a cue from whatever added emotion comes with the return of the M3.
Will fuel economy improve?
Not for the carryover models, which should again be among the most fuel-efficient cars in their competitive sets.
Expect EPA ratings for the 2021 BMW 330i to remain 26/36/30 mpg city/highway/combined with rear-wheel drive and 25/34/28 with xDrive AWD. For the M340i, look for ratings around 24/32/27 mpg with both rear- and all-wheel drive. Expect the M3 to rate around 17/26/20 mpg with manual transmission and about 17/24/19 with the dual-clutch automatic; xDrive versions should rate about the same.
Using EPA data for the larger, heavier BMW 530e iPerformance plug-in hybrid as a guide, expect the 2021 330e iPerformance to rate around 74 mpg-e, or miles-per-gallon-equivalent when operating solely on battery power. It should rate around 30 mpg city-highway combined when driving as a hybrid. With xDrive, look for 330e ratings of around 69 mpg-e and 29 mpg city-highway combined.
Figure about 7 hours to charge the 330e’s battery to full capacity from a residential 120-volt outlet using the included Occasional Use Cable. A full charge should take under 3 hours employing a dedicated 240-volt charging station. Buyers might want to explore the BMW 360-degree Electric Lifestyle system, which encompasses services such as dedicated charger installation and the BMW Solar Energy program.
BMW probably will require premium-grade 91-octane gasoline for the M3 and recommend it for other 2021 3 Series models.
Will there be new features?
Other than technology associated with the 330e iPerformance and M3 models, don’t look for BMW to expand the already extensive roster of standard and optional features. Amenities and systems already mentioned will carry over, including standard Apple CarPlay and a moonroof. But we do hope the automaker expands the scope of standard safety features.
Included again on all 2021 3 Series models will be autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection. A premium-brand, premium-priced car ought to also come with such driver assists as blind-spot and rear cross-traffic detection and adaptive cruise control.
For ’20, blind-spot and rear-cross-traffic detection was bundled in the $500 Driving Assistance package, along with autonomous rear braking and lane-maintaining automatic steering. BMW also charged extra for adaptive cruise control that maintains a set distance from traffic ahead and works even in stop-and-go traffic. Although a host of lower-priced cars and crossovers now come standard with these sorts of features, BMW and several of its high-priced rivals have a history of compelling buyers to shell out for them. That isn’t apt to change for the ’21 3 Series.
At least BMW’s driver-assist tech is broad and versatile. For example, expect the return of the Driving Assistant Professional package, which includes all the aforementioned assists and adds automatic steering designed to keep the car centered in its lane. The system also vibrates the steering wheel and applies steering inputs to help avoid collisions when changing lanes and in certain other traffic conditions.
Also on the 2021 3 Series options list will be Extended
Traffic Jam Assistant, which allows semi-autonomous driving up to 37 mph. It
uses an attention-monitoring camera that negates the need to touch the steering
wheel every 30-50 seconds if the driver’s attention is clearly on the road.
Among other returning options of note: a comprehensive head-up instrument display (HUD) and enhanced navigation with Intelligent Personal Assistant as a stand-alone extra for the 330i and 330e at around $1,100.
Also available will be an automatic parking system
that assumes steering, acceleration, and braking control to guide the car into a
parallel or perpendicular space and maneuver it out of a parallel space. That
option includes Back-Up Assistant, which can reverse the car up to 50 yards at
up to 5.5 mph along the same path it took going forward. It’s useful if the
driver doesn’t have a clear view aft, such as in a narrow parking garage. The
option also includes BMW’s Remote 3D View, which allows owners to call up a
three-dimensional live image of their 3 Series and its immediate vicinity on
Any ’21 3 Series will be eligible for BMW’s Parking Finder feature. It proposes parking options in garages and identifies on-street spaces with a good chance of being available near your destination.
The returning BMW Digital Key option employs Near Field Communication (NFC) to lock and unlock the car from a compatible smartphone, removing the need for a conventional car key. Holding the smartphone up to the door handle opens the car. Once inside, the engine can be started when the phone is placed in the wireless charging or smartphone tray. (Digital Key has thus far been compatible with all NFC-capable Samsung Galaxy smartphones running Android 8.0 and above.)
Will 2021 prices be different?
They’ll almost certainly increase for the carryover 330i and M340i. Expect the 330e to slot between those two in price, with the M3 most expensive of all. Estimated base prices in this review include BMW’s destination fee, which was $995 on the 2020 3 Series.
Estimated base price for the 2021 330i is $42,250 with rear-wheel drive and $44,250 with xDrive. Expect a modest upcharge for the plug-in technology, with the ’21 330e iPerformance model starting at a projected $42,650 with rear-drive and around $44,650 with xDrive. Estimated base price for the ’21 M340i: $55,500 with rear-drive, $57,500 with xDrive. Look for the ’21 M3 to be priced from around $65,000.
As for options prices, expect to again pay another $550 for any color other than basic black or white and around $1,450 for leather upholstery on a 330i, 330e, or M340i. Expect the returning Convenience Package to add around $2,300 to those models and include upgraded keyless entry, front-seat lumbar support, satellite radio, Active Driving Assistant, rear cross-traffic alert, active blind-spot detection, and upgraded headlamps.
Figure around $5,200 to equip a 330i with the full M Sport Package, although its go-fast goodies — M Sport differential, suspension, and brakes — should again be available in the Track Handling Package at around $2,450.
The Driving Assistance Professional Package should add around $1,700 to the price of a 330i, 330e, or M340i. Expect BMW to ask around $4,700 to fit a 330i or 330e with the Premium Package, which would include active blind-spot detection and rear cross-traffic alert, keyless entry, lumbar support, satellite radio, the HUD, heated front seats and steering wheel, Active Driving Assistant, and adaptive headlights. BMW also may list a second Premium Package priced around $2,350 (or about $1,400 on the M340i) and include just the heated steering wheel and seats, HUD, and enhanced navigation.
Similarly, look for the Executive Package to cost around $5,900 on a 330i or 330e and include all the Premium Package equipment, plus upgraded LED headlamps, enhanced connectivity, and gesture control. It would cost around $2,100 on the ’21 M340i and add just gesture control, the upgraded headlamps, and automatic parking.
When does it come out?
Expect a 2021 BMW 3 Series release date in the third quarter of 2020.
Alfa Romeo Giulia, Audi A4 and A5, Cadillac CT4, Genesis G70, Jaguar XE, Lexus IS, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Tesla Model 3, Polestar 2, Volvo S60