Saturday, January 19, 2013

BMW 328i

Is this really a new 3-Series Touring? It's so big. It's like it wants to be a 5-Series. But, if you walked into a BMW dealer, you'd never get confused about which to buy. The current 5 Touring isn't just big, it's enormo-humungo-colossal. Which is why there's a definite slot in the line-up for an estate that can carry a family and their chattels, but which doesn't require a pair of tugboats every time you want to moor up alongside your house. The new 3-Series Touring is that car.

Some numbers. The Touring's wheelbase is up 50mm from the last generation, and the overall length by nearly double that margin. Actually, it's exactly the same size as the 3 saloon on which it's based, so no news there. But the stretch in size matters more in the Touring's case because it translates into usefully more space in the back seat and boot. There's more headroom in the back than the saloon because the roof is higher. Still, it avoids a furniture van look by having a rear window that's angled more towards the horizontal.

But here's a strange thing. It doesn't feel big. In common with the saloon, BMW has actually made this 3 Touring (the F20 generation) feel smaller and more nimble than the old E90 - more like the sports-compact car the 3 always was in our imaginations. The steering is sharper and emphatically higher-geared, and the body seems to roll and heave less. It just encourages you to throw it about. This makes us happy. The 3 has become a distinctive car again, separating itself in character from the C-Class. It's fun. Though, as I'll come to in a minute, you need to choose the right engine.

But first, more of the Touring-ness. As standard on the new car, the tailgate is electrically operated and optionally has one of those sensors where you wave your foot under the bumper to open it. Both these devices often have minds of their own, and, on every car I've ever used that has them fitted, they've driven me bonkers. Why have these idiotically over-complicated solutions to a problem that didn't exist? To be fair, most other people like them, but you have been warned, my friend. More sensibly, in normal BMW practice, the rear windscreen opens independently of the tailgate to let you drop small stuff in.

The seat is split 40:20:40 so two people can sit one on either side of, say, skis or snowboards or a piece of flatpack onits briefly sunlit journey from furniture superstore to buyer's remorse. Also useful is a deep bin under the floor - it's so big because it's the same floor pressing that accommodates the high-voltage battery in the forthcoming hybrid version of the 3 saloon. The outer two seat-backs fold and return easily without fouling the seat belts. All good. Less special: the quality and deployment of the boot's roller-blind cover, the luggage net and the load-retaining gadgetry is no better than industry standard. And the main bootfloor itself is high because it has to clear the rear diff and complicated BMW suspension, so the whole space is shallower than in the more luggage-hungry front-drive estates.

But the 3-Series is RWD, so it can use high-performance engines yet maintain sweet steering untroubled by torque-steer. It delivers. The steering is beautifully judged, stable at speed but agile in bends, and the car pivots through curves by sharing the effort in ideal balance between front and rear. If you choose a manual, the position of the gearbox under your elbow helps the shift.

The chassis isn't only lithe, it's supple. Maybe the Touring's ride is a fraction sharper than the saloon's, as it has stiffer rear springs. But the test car had 18-inch wheels, so perhaps they were the culprits. Whatever, it's a small matter. This car feels sophisticated. Engineered by those who love what they do.

Except the test car's engine is a bit more mixed. I had the 328i. This is the 4cyl direct-injection Valvetronic turbo, and a great idea on paper: it's light, torquey and fuel-efficient. Trouble is, at medium throttle openings and medium revs, it sounds uninspired. I've driven the 28i engine in a 5-Series, where it's quieter so you don't worry, and in a Z4, where the exhaust sound is more inspired. But here it's just a dull mechanical drone. So, turn the radio up, and enjoy the lag-free torque. And actually, when you floor it and go for the red line, it finds a more interesting voice. And it goes well, partly because it's 40kg lighter than the old Touring. Clever to lose weight while gaining size.
Look at the saloon range, and you can see more engines will be added, but, for the moment, the 328i is the only petrol. Anyway, most people buy their BMWs in diesel flavour these days. For them, there's the super-logical 320d and the fast, sweet six-pot 330d.

The numbers
1997cc, 4cyl, RWD, 245bhp, 258lb ft, 44.5mpg, 159g/km CO2, 0-62mph in 6.0secs, 155mph, 1500kg

The verdict
Good-sized wagon that's huge fun to drive. If we used half-points, it'd lose one for the missing straight-six noises.