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It’s one of the most unfortunate side-effects of getting old: realizing that you’re no longer the young upstart you used to be, and are now firmly part of The Establishment. Sooner or later, no matter how cool you are, people will look at you as The Man, the authority figure, the old guy in the room. And despite the old saying, aging and respect are rarely related; pitchers are still trying to blank David Ortiz during his final season. Linebackers didn’t go any easier on Peyton Manning last year, and you bet that the Utah Jazz locker room wasn’t a fun place to be after Kobe Bryant scored 60 on them in April, even if it was his last game. In an age when Bob Dylan is doing Frank Sinatra covers and Robert DeNiro is starring in movies with Zac Efron, our capital L-Legends are beginning to seem as vulnerable as the rest of us.
In the automotive world, nowhere is this more apparent than in the compact luxury segment, where for over 40 years, the BMW 3 Series has been The Man. For all intents and purposes, it single-handedly ushered in the modern sport sedan, and formed the basis for one of the most beloved performance cars the world has ever known. Without it, Mercedes wouldn’t have built the 190E (which became the C-Class), and Audi likely wouldn’t have reinvented itself on the strength of the A4 back in the ’90s. The tension has only risen from there. It’s safe to say that BMW’s bread-and-butter car wears a target on its back bigger than any other model on the planet. In fact, you could rename the segment “3 Series-Fighters,” and we doubt few, if anyone, would protest — competitors included.
But one thing it’s never done is rest on its laurels. Like most legends, the 3 Series isn’t just competing with its rivals, it’s also competing with its own history. Worse, with each refresh and restyling it also has to reckon with what every current and former owner, journalist, BMW fan, and car guy thinks it used to be, regardless of whether or not it ever actually was. That’s a lot to be up against, and yet year after year, the 3 Series has never stopped behaving like the legend it is. There hasn’t been a “last good one” yet. Or “the one that nobody wants.” It’s never gone through an awkward phase as badly as the bigger 5 and 7 Series have. Since 1975, against all odds, the 3 Series has consistently been the 3 Series, and everyone else has just been trying to catch up. But a rising tide lifts all boats, and the competition is as fierce as ever, especially with a new crop of “Official 3 Series-Fighters” like the Cadillac ATS and Jaguar XE joining the fray. Still, after spending a week in a 340i, we came away more convinced than ever that the 3 Series is still the legend — and benchmark — it’s always been.