REVIEW DATE: 09 Oct 2008
Once the undisputed leader in the Compact Executive Estate sector, BMW's 3 Series Touring has lately had to face off increasing impressive rivals. Hence the most recent package of improvements. Jonathan Crouch checks out the latest version.
Premium Compact Executive Estate versions of cars like Audi's A4 and Mercedes C-class are extremely impressive but they'll never be the driver's ultimate choice in this sector. That honour should always belong to BMW's 3 Series Touring, courtesy of its unique rear wheel drive layout. But is that enough to safeguard sales of one of BMW's most crucial cars? To make sure, the latest model benefits from a useful package of improvements.
It will be a surprise for most people to learn that many compact executive estate cars are only fractionally roomier than their saloon equivalents and some (Audi's old A4 and Alfa Romeo's 156 step forward) have even campaigned with less space out back. This is a little alarming because estate buyers in this sector are typically asked to pay around £1,000 more for the privilege. That's extra money for extra space that may not necessarily be present. The carrying capacity of BMW's 3 Series Touring isn't smaller than that of a 3 Series Saloon, it's exactly the same. Like the other load-luggers in this sector, however, it justifies its price premium on grounds of versatility with a soupcon of 'lifestyle' kudos thrown in.
Unusually for a 3 Series, it could be that what's on the bonnet gains as much attention as what's under it where this revised model is concerned. The styling of today's car has been updated in a number of small ways but the raised lines that fall down the middle of the bonnet are most noticeable. Elsewhere, the BMW trademark ringed side lights are standard and the grille has been tweaked while the entire rear light clusters are now entirely ruby red in colour and the side skirts have a more pronounced crease line.
The 3 Series Touring is heavier than the saloon by some 90kg but any variations in the driving dynamics are negligible. There's still that all-important 50:50 weight distribution and an advanced five-link rear axle set-up. This is quite simply the most rewarding driver's car in the compact executive estate segment and, sampling its poise through the bends along with its polished responses, it's hard to imagine an equivalent model eclipsing it until BMW themselves replace this car sometime in the distant future.
"If you want the most dynamic estate car that realistic money will buy however, this should still be your first port of call.."
Good news in the latest version comes with the improvements BMW has made to its controversial iDrive control interface, now featuring scrolling menu displays to enhance usability. There's 8 gigabytes of music storage capacity in the system too, enough for 100 albums. At the wheel, it's much as before except that, at last, you have the feeling in entry-level models that over £20,000 has been spent on this car. The quality of the trim materials around the cabin has been considerably enhanced.
There's no point in evaluating an estate car of this type by examining basic carrying capacities. No, the practical advantages of the 3 Series Touring and its ilk over their saloon counterparts only really make themselves felt when there are less than four people in the car. You get a 460-litre void back there to fill with the paraphernalia of your choice and that doesn't compare at all favourably with the 460-litres you get in the saloon for well over £1,000 less. Fold the rear seats down, however, and the available space mushrooms up to 1,385 litres. Forget about taking garden rubbish to the council tip or shifting that chest of draws home from the furniture store: you could hold a wedding reception back there or have it converted into a squash court.
The 3 Series Touring's 60:40 split-folding seats open up the possibility of seating a passenger in the back while still maximising the available loadspace and there are other practical features included in the package as well. Most notable is the split tailgate which opens up two different cargo access options by opening up in two sections. You can simply lift the standard tailgate to get at whatever you've got inside or release the rear window hatch which flips up to reveal a smaller aperture. Perhaps you've reversed up too close to something and there's no space to let the full tailgate swing upwards or maybe you just can't be bothered to open it. In either case, the hatch allows smaller items to be quickly and simply dropped inside. Under the floor, there's a waterproof container that can be used to house dirty items that might play havoc with the boot-floor carpet and the boot itself has a handy cargo net to keep unruly objects under control.
BMW offer a typically formidable range of powerplants for 3 Series Touring buyers to furnish their vehicle's engine bay with and there's not a dullard amongst them. The petrol range runs from the 143bhp 318i, through the 170bhp 320i to the 218bhp 325i. Then things get really serious. The 330i manages 272bhp but if that's not fast enough, then there's a twin-turbo 335i flagship variant putting out a massive 306bhp.
If you'd rather go for diesel power, there's an entry-level 318d model. Most however, go for the 163bhp 320d which manages to get from rest to sixty in just over eight seconds on the way to 143mph. If that's not fast enough, there are three other diesel variants on offer. First up is the 197bhp 325d, which sits just below the 245bhp 330d in the pecking order. Flagship of the diesel line-up is the 335d which ups the ante to a massive 286bhp. BMW offer the 3 in ES, SE and M-Sport guises with the latter piling on the sporty styling accessories that you'd expect to find on an M3. Even the entry level cars feature ESP stability control, manual air-conditioning, a CD stereo with MP3 input and alloy wheels. The SE models add features such as cruise control and climate controlled air conditioning while the M Sport variants get bigger alloy wheels, firmer suspension, the now trademark anthracite headlining and sports steering wheel and seats.
BMW continues to lead the way with regard to emissions and fuel economy in the compact executive estate class and in the current climate, that's a highly lucrative position to be in. The marque has also communicated the strides it has made in terms of improving the green performance of its products very effectively through its EfficientDynamics brand. This is a catchall term for the various technologies contained within BMW products to boost their green performance and the 3 Series features the majority of them. The results can save buyers a pretty penny in fuel and emissions based taxation. The 318d is the star from an environmental point of view with its 60.1mpg combined economy and 123g/km emissions but even the 330d can manage 49.6mpg and 152g/km while the 330i chips in with 39.2mpg and 173g/km.
As with most compact executive estate cars, once you've paid the initial purchase price for a 3 Series Touring, pence per mile costs aren't huge. That has to be weighed against the fact that you'll be getting less engine than if you opted for a less prestigious badge. For example, a ritzy 220bhp Ford Mondeo 2.5T Titanium Estate is about the same price as 143bhp BMW 318i SE Touring but will cost a heck of a lot more to run over a typical three year ownership period. In terms of pence per mile figures, you'd have to look a lot further down the Mondeo range before you came to a model close to matching the 318i's showing. Are the relatively minor changes that BMW has visited upon today's 3 Series Touring enough to keep sales strong in the face of ever-increasing competition? For a lesser car, perhaps not, but the latest generation version was already so good that, to be honest, not a lot of remedial work was really required.
There are all kinds of things you might object to - the price and the relatively restricted luggage space with all the seats in place for example - but in general, these are issues also faced by this car's immediate rivals. If you want space, buy an MPV. If you want the most dynamic estate car that realistic money will buy however, this should still be your first port of call.
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