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New models - BMW - 3 Series

First Oz drive: 320i Touring handles like a sedan

Taking aim: BMW is aiming the 320i Touring at families, affluent couples and "young, dynamic singles".

BMW's new mini-wagon offers a good mix of practicality and on-road dynamics

24 Jul 2002

BMW has, so far, been an almost unnoticed player in the prestige station wagon segment.

Its 530i Touring model sits quietly near the top of the market with a price tag comfortably exceeding $100,000, and thus ruling out any chance of being anything other than a player in a very small niche market.

But the company hopes to turn that around with the arrival of the 320i Touring.

With opening bids starting at $64,000 for the five-speed manual version, the new mini-wagon aims at grabbing some of the steady market share being claimed by the segment leaders - Volvo (V40 series) and Alfa Romeo (156 wagon) - while also taking a sidelong glance at the Audi A4 Avant and Mercedes-Benz C200K wagon.

The BMW has the credibility, and the (reasonable) price, to suggest it might nibble away at some of the sales success being enjoyed by the two main players who are cruising along with yearly sales somewhere in the region of 250 to 300 vehicles.

This is also the sort of figure BMW is aiming at for the 320i Touring, with something like 125 expected to be sold in Australia before the end of this year.

So what is it about the new compact wagon that gives the company such hope?While the price makes it unquestionably a premium contender at this level - the Alfa starts at under $50,000 and the Volvo at not much more than $40,000 - it is still priced under Mercedes and is on a par with Audi.

And the 3 Series Touring comes relatively well equipped, with its 2.2-litre, 125kW engine, stability control, leather trim, climate control, 16-inch alloy wheels - in fact all the gear that's standard in the sedan version of the 320i.

It appears to have the goods in terms of functionality too, with a flat-folding, split-fold rear seat, a cargo blind and a rear safety net, as well as standard roof rails and a rear window that can be opened independently of the tailgate.

The 320i Touring runs on the same wheelbase and chassis as sedan 3 Series models, which relegates it to the smaller end of the scale as far as wagons go, but it still offers much more versatility than the sedan or the three-door hatchback.

The load area holds up to 1345 litres with all rear seats folded and will carry up to 500kg. With the rear seat in place it will swallow 435 litres.

The optional automatic transmission is the same five-speed Steptronic system used elsewhere in the 3 Series range, while an M Sport package is offered to lift handling and external appearance (via a sportier set of alloy wheels) for $5800. The Steptronic auto version is $67,200.

BMW is aiming the 320i Touring at families, affluent couples and "young, dynamic singles".

It is not by a long stretch the cheapest in its class but it does have the right badge and offers a good mix of practicality with the sort of on-road dynamics expected of a BMW.

As for macho four-wheel drive possibilities, forget about it for Australia. BMW does not think local conditions require all-wheel drive in a car-based wagon like the 320i Touring.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

IF you were not paying close attention as a passenger, you would never realise you were riding in a wagon.

Road noise, wind noise, engine performance, handling - they are barely blunted when compared with 3 Series sedans.

While a more conscious evaluation will reveal that there is a little more road rumble transmitted from the back end, that's about the only significant difference you would notice.

In automatic form, the 2.2-litre six feels as sweet as ever and the five-speed auto does a more than competent job of finding the right gear for any occasion. If the driver wants, gear changes can be made manually via BMW's back-to-front version of sequential shifting (push forward to change up, back to change down), but left in full auto mode the box is willing to downshift where appropriate, such as when nudging the brake pedal while entering a downhill corner.

BMW says the wagon's extra weight has little effect on acceleration or handling, claiming acceleration and fuel consumption are very close to the sedan. Certainly it feels agile and safe on the road - notwithstanding the typical 3 Series tendency to offer a slightly blunt steering feel at highway speeds.

But with the standard stability control, as well as BMW's cornering brake control system, it is not the sort of car that's likely to get untidy in a corner.

And the suspension is comfortable and quite absorbent in standard form of both bumps and road noise.

Passenger comfort in the front is excellent, with manually-adjusted but well-shaped seats and outstanding legroom. In the back, there are three lap-sash seatbelts as well as three headrests, but legroom suffers if front passengers are greedy.

The rear load area looks a bit small with the seats in place but proves handy with its split-fold, flat-fold function as well as the standard cargo cover and safety net. The flip-up rear glass is handy for quick loading of smaller items and there's a 12-volt power outlet in addition to courtesy lights in the upper D pillars.

As a quality wagon that drives like a sedan, it is not necessary to look any further than the 320i Touring.

It's not a major swallower of massive loads, but then again neither is anything else in this size category.

As to whether it will challenge the sales volumes of Volvo or Alfa Romeo, it is certainly possible. Check this space at the end of 2002.

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