Band wagon

BY Haney Louka. Apr 29 04:00 am

The case for wagons is getting more difficult each year. Crossovers have systematically eliminated traditional SUV shortcomings and now provide all of the efficiency and utility of a wagon with the added benefits of all-wheel drive and a higher seating position. But every once in a while, a true wagon comes along and reminds me what makes this the format of choice for my family’s needs.

Such is the case with this Mineral White BMW 328i xDrive Touring that graced my driveway for a little more than a week. At a starting price of $48,050, this little wagon isn’t inexpensive. In fact, it’s a full ten grand more than the front-drive-based X1 crossover and $4,000 more than the larger X3. With consumers viewing crossovers as generally more appealing than wagons to start with, price alone will limit the 3 Series Touring to being a niche player on BMW’s sales charts.

But let’s cut to the chase. The 3 Series Touring is the kind of car I’d just get in and drive for the sake of driving. I can’t say the same for BMW’s crossovers, or most crossovers for that matter. So for those who do give the 3 Touring a serious look, they will discover that this is a sports sedan first. That the cargo hold opens up to swallow 1,500 litres of their stuff is just a bonus.

Standard equipment includes BMW’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder that is turbocharged via twin scrolls to the tune of 241 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. Power is delivered through an eight-speed automatic and xDrive all-wheel drive, meaning no three-pedal option for those wanting the wagon with a stick. Yes, all two of us.

An automatic start-stop system allows the engine to shut off rather than idling while the car is stopped; these systems are becoming more popular because they represent a simple way to lower fuel consumption in the city. Strangely, the system in our tester didn’t operate consistently, even when the engine was up to operating temperature. There is a dash-mounted button to disable the feature.

Other standard kit includes power front sport seats, 40/20/40 split-folding rear bench, push-button start, a panoramic moonroof, ambiance lighting, and a whole slew of features befitting this premium marque.

But of course that doesn’t mean there is no room left for options. Our tester benefitted from the $5,400 enhanced premium package, which added (among other things) a heated steering wheel, rear view camera (Really? Not standard?), auto-dimming mirrors, parking sensors front and rear, a slick heads-up display, satellite radio, a sonorous Harman Kardon sound system, and BMW’s ConnectedDrive.

ConnectedDrive is BMW’s way of merging your mobile device with the vehicle’s user interface. I’m sure it’s great, but we’re here to talk about driving.

And to help us talk about driving, our tester was also graced with the M Performance Package. This $1,900 package nets 19-inch alloy wheels, upgraded brakes, adaptive suspension, and variable sport steering.

The $895 metallic paint tops off the option list for an as-tested price of $56,245.

While I’m normally thankful when car companies install winter tires on press vehicles, my late-April test drive didn’t benefit from such rubber, and in fact the tester’s 17-inch wheels and Pirelli Sottozeros meant that the M Sport Package wasn’t able to deliver its full effect. And the grey twin-spoke wheels included in the M pack would have looked amazing on this car.

But I was able to appreciate the other M Sport components, specifically the adaptive M suspension. With settings of eco pro, comfort, sport, and sport plus, the car’s designers have managed to give the car a driver-selectable dynamic range that will please pretty much anyone.

Even though the suspension gets firmer with sportier selections, BMW has taken a more holistic approach to the drive modes available: throttle response, transmission programming, and steering effort are all tweaked to deliver maximum effect for the system.

The variable sport steering adjusts ratios in relation to the steering angle provided by the driver. It’s independent of vehicle speed but increases ratio as the wheel moves off centre. It’s a seamless system that quietly goes about its business, and to good effect.

I’d be happy to deride the only available transmission as a slushbox, but how could I when the eight-speed is capable of cracking off quick, direct gear changes, particularly when the vehicle is being driven in one of the sport modes. And its response to commands originating at the paddle shifters is immediate.

So I love the car’s dynamics, but what’s not to love? In a word, engine. BMWs have traditionally been about silky inline-six engines with melodious soundtracks. Sixes are still available on the 3 Series, but not in the wagon. The direct-injected two-litre that we do get in the wagon provides plenty of punch over a broad range of engine speeds though, enough to complete the 100 km/h sprint from a standstill in a little over six seconds. And it’s economical, with official city/highway ratings of 10.6 and 7.2 L/100 km respectively.

But it just isn’t that intoxicating sound that I want to hear after I’ve spent nearly sixty grand on a compact wagon. It’s noisy at idle, sounds gruff around town, and smoothness is not its strong suit. It only really sounds good under hard acceleration. That’s great and everything, but it should sound good all the time.

The 3’s cabin is as driver-oriented as ever, and very tastefully done in a typical Teutonic black kind of way. The classic BMW four-gauge instrument cluster is a demonstration in elegant simplicity. The matte metallic trim provides a nice break from the black without the more traditional look of wood.

The 3 Series Touring may be a lot more money than the X1 and even pricier and smaller than the X3, but it has some serious handling chops that belie its practical profile.

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