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Car reviews - BMW - 3 Series - Touring

Our Opinion

We like
Wonderfully nimble handling, punchy and frugal small turbo engines, class-leading cargo space, standard power tailgate with split glass screen, more frugal than an SUV
Room for improvement
Bouncy ride without optional sports suspension, flat standard seats, expensive options, rear headroom a bit tight

BMW logo27 Mar 2013

By MIKE COSTELLO

JUDGING by the media launch program in the rolling hills around Adelaide, BMW knows its target buyer for the new 3 Series Touring.

It’s hard to see a company choosing sharp and narrow country roads – with more than a few hairpins thrown in for good measure – as ideal launch conditions for a family SUV.

However, the Touring wagon is a different kettle of proverbial fish – it may come close to SUVs for cargo space, but it runs rings around them in the twisties.

BMW is banking on this discrepancy as the key selling point: what’s a well-off family buyer who doesn't want to follow the herd into SUVs to do?

The Bavarian company’s latest foray into the small luxury wagon market launches one year after its sedan sibling, with the promise of marginally more cargo space than its arch-rivals – the similarly priced Mercedes-Benz C-Class Estate and Audi A4 Avant.

But it’s the dynamic driving abilities BMW Australia is most keen to spruik – let’s indulge them.

Just as the 3 Series sedan is the most fun to drive premium mid-sizer in its class, so is its load-lugging counterpart. The extra practicality comes at the cost of a circa-60kg weight increase, but this is still a wonderfully nimble and balanced car.

We only had the chance to drive the 320i petrol and 318d diesel on the launch, both of which handled the undulating and narrow ribbons of tarmac with equal aplomb, staying swift, smooth and sure.

We’ve driven honed sports cars that are less fun through a sequence of fast, sweeping bends than this humble family wagon. It’s some chassis, this one, and another reminder of the weight distribution (nee balance) benefits of rear-drive.

The electric power steering sets an example to all vehicle manufacturers, delivering the feel of a conventional hydraulic set-up with the variable assistance afforded by electronics.

All this does, however, come with a major caveat: drivers will only really get the best out of the car if they spend $2200 on the adaptive M suspension, which lowers the ride by 10mm and adds adjustable dampers.

This is because the standard suspension setting is actually a step backwards, causing some choppiness over rougher roads and more bounce than we’ve come to expect from BMW.

We’ve touched on this issue before, but a swift comparison between a 318d with regular suspension and the 320i with the sports suspension (with both cars set to engine/transmission Sport mode) amplified the marked discrepancy.

Likewise, more aggressive drivers are advised to get the Sport Line package or pay a stand-alone $1000 for the grippier ‘sports’ seats, since we found our bodies lacked support on the flatter regular pews.

On this note, in typical BMW fashion (and its not just BMW, but most premium brands), there are a host of expensive options available that ought to be standard. The base 318d, for instance, should come with a reversing camera and front/rear sensors built in, not as extra-cost add-ons.

No complaints with the engines, though. Both the 320i’s 2.0-litre turbo petrol and the 318d’s 2.0-litre turbo-diesel are familiar to us, and both are corkers.

The petrol’s twin-scroll turbo irons out turbo lag – a key for BMW with its switch away from normally aspirated engines – with a fat torque curve (all 270Nm is available between 1250 and 4500rpm) adding muscularity.

This little unit pulls like a train, and the standard eight-speed automatic transmission’s ratios are all but perfect. If the mark of a good automatic is its ability to remain anonymous – much like a good butler, come to think of it – then this unit is about as strong as it gets.

The small, entry diesel can’t match the larger (and pricier) Benz C250 CDI, but it’s no slug. There is the smallest of lags at take-off, but a strong spread of power once rolling. Fast overtakes pose no problem.

Claimed fuel economy is an almost hybrid-like 4.7 litres per 100km – we managed 6.0L/100km through a day of hard driving.

The cabin is typical 3 Series, with an ergonomic dash layout and a quality feel. Drivers who enjoy the ease of entry of a taller SUV may not be enamoured of the low-slung seats. The plus side is the super low loading floor in the back, just 62cm off the ground.

Taller front occupants may feel boxed in by the large B-pillars, though, and rear headroom is on the tight side for taller bodies.

The cargo space is a key selling point, with a standard electric tailgate and separate opening glass window. The seats fold flat, freeing up 1500 litres of storage space, and the loading area has hidden storage areas and an excellent, movable divider bar with straps to hold down bags.

So to the verdict: BMW Australia is likely to only sell a few hundred units of the 3 Series Touring this year, which is a shame to keen drivers such as us.

We think the benefits of the wagon body style far outweigh the costs, unless you absolutely must have the commanding road view and higher hip point of an SUV.

If you’re going to buy a premium wagon, the 3 Series may just be the new benchmark.

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