The 3 Series is BMW?s biggest-selling model in Canada, with combined sales of the entire model line representing 35 per cent of the more than 29,000 BMWs sold last year.
Its appeal is easy to understand: It?s bigger than the entry-level 1 Series and aimed at a more discriminating audience, but it still comes at a price point that speaks to many. It?s also available in a plethora of variations, including convertible, coupe, sedan, wagon and hybrid. In an effort to expand on its customer base, BMW has introduced yet another variation, the Gran Turismo, and it?s set to be the most practical 3 Series yet.
You wouldn?t think so by looking at it but the GT, introduced at the Geneva auto show earlier this month, isn?t just a regular 3 Series with a sloping back glass and a rear hatch. Unlike the 5 Series GT, which is based on an existing 7 Series chassis, the 3 Series GT is built (at the Dingolfing plant in Germany) on an entirely new, dedicated undercarriage.
It has a more streamlined profile than the 5 Series GT because it is smaller overall, but also because designers lowered the rear deck height. The lower rear deck reduced rear downforce at autobahn speeds, necessitating the addition of an active rear spoiler (a first for a BMW production car) that rises automatically at speeds above 110 km/h. It can also be raised manually anytime via a button in the driver?s door.
Three cosmetic versions will be available in Canada ? Sport, Modern and M Sport ? and they are expected at dealers later this summer. Each version will have different exterior and interior trim (the M Sport adds a front apron, rear diffuser, side skirts and firmer suspension), and they?ll only be offered in xDrive variations. Pricing will released in about a month, but you should expect it to be priced at the high end of the 3 Series four-door models, excluding the hybrid. Currently the 328i xDrive sedan starts at $46,200 and the 328i Touring at $45,700. In Germany the GT sells for 1,500 euros (approx. $2,000) more than the Touring.
Power comes by way of a 2.0-litre, 241-hp turbocharged four or a 3.0-litre, 300-hp turbocharged inline six. The standard transmission is an eight-speed automatic, though the folks at BMW have not yet been decided if the six-speed manual gearbox available in other markets will be available in Canada.
According to BMW, what the GT promises is 3 Series sedan driving dynamics and performance with more interior space and increased functionality. Nowhere in BMW?s literature is the word crossover used, but the GT bridges the gap quite nicely between sedan and SUV, although it is much closer to the sedan in terms of agility, performance and size.
It offers family sized interior proportions, and, in fact, boasts more interior space than even the 3 Series Touring wagon. Trunk capacity is 520 litres, a 25-litre increase over the Touring, and folding the three-way-split seatbacks down increases that to 1,600 litres, which puts it right on par with the X3 SUV. With the power hatch open, there?s easy access to the cavernous trunk, which has a low, flat floor, and rails with movable hooks for securing cargo. Convenient release handles are located to either side of the trunk and allow you to drop the seatbacks with a single hand.
The extra interior space comes partly by a thorough tweaking of the exterior dimensions; the GT is 10 mm wider and 80 mm taller than the Touring, which provides front and rear headroom approaching 7 Series levels ? and this despite seats that are 60 mm higher than in the 3 Series sedan and Touring models ? and the windshield is more upright, at the steepest angle of all the 3 Series models. However, it?s the 292-cm wheelbase ? 11 cm longer than the sedan and Touring models ? that provides the biggest change in interior volume. That?s a significant increase, putting the GT?s wheelbase within just 48 mm of the 5 Series sedan.
?One of the main criticisms with the sedan and Touring models was rear passenger space,? says director of body design Dr. J?rgen Grittner, ?so if we wanted to get new customers we had to attack the biggest complaint.?
As a result rear passengers will benefit the most from the additional space, with 70 mm more room ahead of their knees than either the sedan or Touring. I sit in the rear with the front seat adjusted comfortably for a full-sized adult and it feels almost as spacious as the 7 Series sedan that shuttled me to and from the airport.
Despite the larger exterior dimensions, drag is kept to a low 0.28 cd, partly due to the seven-shaped air vents located behind the front wheels that help reduce drag in the wheel wells. It has, however, gained 60 kg compared to the Touring.
From the driver?s seat, there is a strong 3 Series resemblance, but you are sitting taller and have a better forward view. The raised seats are not the only things that provide the elevated perch; the suspension is 25 mm taller and wheels are 30 mm larger in diameter overall.
My test car is a 335i M Sport with the 3.0L six and eight-speed automatic. The engine provides a satisfying rush when asked to stretch its legs (claimed 0 to 100 km/h time is 5.7 sec), and the eight-speed delivers smooth gear changes. Shift points vary from urgent to leisurely depending on which drive mode is selected (Sport, Sport Plus, Comfort or Eco Pro), and for those with a more enthusiastic approach to twisty roads, gears can be selected manually via steering-wheel-mounted paddles. Variable effort power steering is light in Comfort mode, well-weighed in Sport, and the suspension also obeys your selection, firming up in the sportier modes.
If your household includes two kids, a spouse, maybe a Golden Retriever, but garage space or budget dictate that you?re unfortunately bound to one-vehicle ownership, even if it is a premium European model, you?re most likely forced to make a compromise when buying a car. BMW has done a stellar job of marrying sedanlike comportment with SUV-like practicality in the new 3 Series Gran Turismo, so it shouldn?t be too hard to convince your better half that it is a sensible compromise. In fact, I think it?s no compromise at all.
2014 BMW 3 Series Gran Turismo
ENGINE: 2.0L turbocharged I4; 3.0L turbocharged I6
POWER/TORQUE (hp/lb.-ft.): 241/255 (I4); 300/300 (I6)
TRANSMISSION: Eight-speed automatic
FUEL ECONOMY (L/100 km): 2.0L, 6.4; 3.0L, 8.1L (EU test cycle)
COMPETITION: European wagons and compact SUVs
WHAT?S BEST: Sport sedanlike driving dynamics, SUV-like interior room.
WHAT?S WORST: As usual, fuel-efficient 2.0L diesel (4.7L/100 km) not coming to Canada
WHAT?S INTERESTING: Same wheelbase as the 3 Series long-wheelbase sedan built exclusively for the Chinese market. Work begins in August on the next generation 3 Series, to be introduced in three or four years.