|March 29, 2020 Follow us|
Bridging the gaps
Jack Yan attends the BMW 3-series Touring launch, taking in roads between Auckland and Paihia, and thinks the Bavarians have a winner in more ways than one
You don’t have to look very far to find motoring journalists raving about the BMW 3-series. For generations, the Dreier has been the press’s favourite junior executive range, thanks principally to being a driver’s car. Until the advent of the 1-series, the 3 was the way most people were introduced to the BMW marque, and it had to be good—an expression of the company’s ‘Freude am Fahren’ and ‘The Ultimate Driving Machine’ slogans.
However, in New Zealand, it was only the two- and four-door Dreiers that buyers embraced. The Touring, the estate version originally introduced in the 1980s as part of the E30 line, failed to catch on in the same way buyers flocked to its rival, the Audi A4 Avant. In fact, the Avant was this magazine’s first ‘Car to Be Seen in’ back in 2001.
BMW is seeking to redress the balance with the F31, the latest incarnation of the Touring, by offering the widest range New Zealand has seen of the body style, including Xdrive models—BMW’s way of saying four-wheel drive.
Four rear-wheel-drive models—the 318d, 320i, 328i and 335i—and three Xdrive models—320i, 320d and 330d—should give BMW sufficient clout to challenge its rival in Ingolstadt. But to make it more tempting for New Zealand buyers—who should, based on what’s on the road, favour wagons—the models are cheaper than the two outgoing equivalent E90s.
As with the saloons, BMW offers Sport Line, Modern Line, Luxury Line and M Sport trim levels.
When Mark Keene, BMW’s product manager, was quizzed about why buyers didn’t favour the Tourings to the same extent as the Avants, he said it was a matter of perception. It was why the Xdrives were added to the range, to change people’s ideas. It is an intelligent system, too, which detects wheelspin earlier, with instant torque transfer.
Certainly with four-wheel drive, BMW should be able to make a strong case about the Touring’s versatility. Keene also saw no risk of cannibalization of BMW’s successful X1 and X3 SUVs, which appeal to a different type of buyer.
Lucire managed to sample a selection of the rear-wheel-drive F31s on the BMW launch, which saw us tackle some splendid B-roads between Auckland and Paihia. (The Xdrive 3 Tourings won’t arrive in New Zealand till May.)
They certainly make a strong case for the range, as we tested 318d, 320i and 328i versions.
Stepping between each one, there was less difference than one might think. The three sampled were four-cylinder models in different states of tune, delivering 105, 135 and 180 kW respectively. However, only the latter two have BMW’s twin-scroll turbocharger with Valvetronic, and the change in power delivery was noticeable. We also had to make do without the paddle shifters on the 318i. However, in terms of comfort, finding the right driving position, and even round-town commuting, they are remarkably close.
Then there are the mod cons depending on the model: the Smart Opener tailgate, a $1,500 option for most models, but standard on the 335i and the 330d Xdrive, allows one to open the tailgate by putting one’s foot beneath the bumper, activating a sensor.
But it’s the style and versatility that really speak to us. We’ve always liked wagons ourselves, favouring them over SUVs generally. Attaining a Sloane Ranger image just seems to be wasteful in many cases, unless you genuinely are taking the vehicles off-road. The Dreier makes a better case of this than most.
There are the luggage net, the elastic strap and storage under the loading floor, all of which help make the Touring practical on the inside. (There is no spare: the BMW has run-flat tyres.) The standard roof rails tell others that it means business. They are subtle, but they are there when you need them.
The sleek lights, which aren’t shared with other BMW series, give the 3-series range a slight non-conformity and style that makes it appealing to younger, more adventurous buyers.
The integrated roof spoiler endows it with a touch of sportiness, and that’s where the BMW magic really comes in.
As with the saloon, the 3-series Touring is the best handler in the segment. It corners flatly, it is composed over bumpy roads, its steering is direct and responsive, and the weighting is just right. Ride, even on some of the gravel roads that we encountered, is comfortable, the cars soaking up the bumps securely. Interior refinement is also excellent for its class.
The addition of the Eco Pro setting allows each model to travel in a fuel-saving mode, with higher gearing and energy-saving air conditioning. However, slip it into sport and use the manual shifters, and the more powerful Tourings have a throaty roar that you could swear was coming from an inline six, not a four.
It is, dollar for dollar, the best driver’s station wagon in its class.
We didn’t notice that there was an extra 50 mm in the wheelbase or 97 mm in length—the Touring drives exactly like the saloon.
It really is a vehicle that combines the best of all worlds: the civility of the saloon up front, the handling of a sporting saloon beneath, and the versatility of an estate down the back. With Eco Pro, and the fact that F31 is 40 kg lighter than E90, it makes for a comfortable urban vehicle, helping save fuel and energy where possible.
It makes more sense than its immediate premium German rivals, and as we drove the cars about, we felt that they belonged as much on mountain roads as in civic settings. If cars are about image—and in Lucire they always are—then the BMW 3er Touring works in more places than the saloon, which has a sense of the gentleman’s city express about it, especially as it gets bigger with each incarnation.
In New Zealand—and to an extent in Australia—there’s a certain pride in expressing an egalitarian image, even if the rich–poor gap has worsened in the last generation. It’s why wagons have done well Down Under: you might just need the room down the back to do a mate a favour and carry a big load. Somehow, that’s more politically correct than a sedan. The traditional antipodean wagon is a staple, and that’s why they continue to sell well. The BMW’s 3-series Touring bridges that social gap, too—yes, you might have paid NZ$77,800 at the lower end for your 318i, and you enjoy a spirited drive, but you haven’t lost that humility which says you can give a friend a hand when you need to cart a few DIY supplies over the weekend, or some surfing gear, or a few skis up the mountain.
The BMW 3-series Touring, then, is not only versatile in the practical sense, but it’s versatile in the social sense. Mark Keene’s belief that the range will change perceptions might just be on the money. •
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Jack Yan is publisher of Lucire.
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