BMW 3 Series on Tour: 1000km in new wagon lineup (and a spot of tea)
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BMW M340i xDrive Touring
A hot hatch is an ice cold can of Red Bull. An EV is a sharp shot of wheatgrass. A family SUV is a warm mug of instant coffee. And, standing in the clean pristine meeting rooms of an incredible Waikato estate, I realise that station wagons are tea.
One by one our tasting worked through different flavours of tea. Words like nutty, savoury, and fusion are thrown around with abandon by Zealong Tea Estate’s taste experts. In the midst of numerous international awards, 48 acres of near spotless land, and the firm’s status as the country’s only commercial growers, I decide not to tell them how little I care for the stuff.
I can appreciate tea, though. From a distance it comes across all workmanlike, but once you get up close you can see worlds of aromatic nuance. The subtle differences between a grey, an oolong, and a breakfast tea come from countless hours of trial and error and an enthusiastic labour of love.
In this era of SUV dominance, wagons are the same. An SUV will get you a fraction more room and a greater ability to laud over other motorists, sure, but a well-sorted wagon presents a richer ownership experience. They’re better on fuel, easier on the eye, and in almost every instance far more fun to drive.
BMW is doing what it can to keep the wagon alive, having recently launched its new 3 Series Touring in New Zealand — the latest Touring in a lineage lasting over three decades. It comes hot on the heels of the successful 3 Series sedan, an AA DRIVEN Car of the Year finalist. We rather like the “G20”-generation 3er, from its elegant styling to the way it confidently swallows corners. So tacking a squared-off wagon tail to its rear should be a winning formula.
Day one of the 3 Series Touring’s national launch event saw us make the trek from BMW New Zealand’s base at Mount Wellington to Tongariro some five and a half hours south. An even longer assault followed on day two — a bright and early start in Tongariro ending with us in Coromandel. The final day would be a cruisier saunter back to the big smoke, rounding off a trip covering over 1000km of the country’s greatest roads.
On the cusp of NZ’s entry into March’s Alert Level 4 lockdown, BMW conducted a study on 1000 Kiwis to find the best roads in Aotearoa. The results named the Coromandel Peninsula, the Desert Road, and the Thermal Explorer Highway among the top picks, and each would form a portion of each daily leg – as it turned out, luckily ahead of Auckland’s second lockdown this month.
The Forgotten Highway would’ve got my vote, if anyone’s counting.
At our disposal were three same-but-different steeds; the diesel four 320d, diesel inline six 330d, and petrol straight six M340i — each alphanumeric less meaningful than the last. Power and torque ranges from 140kW/400Nm to the M340i’s wanton 285kW/550Nm, and all models come standard with all-wheel drive.
It’s longer, wider, and taller than the last Touring, with 41mm of extra wheelbase, too. The 500 litres boot is solid for the segment, and just 50 litres off what you can fit in the back of a BMW X3. All models get adaptive LED headlights, a heads-up display, a digital binnacle, and parking assist among a bevy of other premium toys.
Apart from being let off the leash on some of the country’s best roads, our main point of interest was the $129,300 M340i. DRIVEN has already sampled the other two contenders at various points of the year, but this was the first time becoming acquainted with the M-ified wagon.
It says a lot for progress that the M340i throws down numbers that are arguably better than what you got in BMW’s not-so-old E90-generation M3. It makes 34kW less power, but 150Nm more torque — all in a practical station wagon that isn’t really meant to be a proper M car at all. But, it does try quite hard to be one. The dash to 100km/h takes 4.5 seconds, which is quicker than the E92 M3, if only by a tenth.
Perhaps just as important is the way BMW has preserved the signature sound of its inline sixes. While turbos can sometimes neuter the individuality and flavour of an engine, there’s not much of that here. Instead the M340i’s straight six howls proudly with plenty of BMW familiarity (admittedly with a little acoustic help through the speakers).
With the group losing each other on day one’s final leg it meant I was able to stretch the M340i’s legs just a little more. Awful wet weather meant BMW’s all-wheel drive system got a little workout. While it sports the xDrive badges proudly, all 3 Series Touring’s still manage to feel predominantly rear-driven when given a hearty prod.
Not to say that it’s an out of control hooligan. Along with driving in sideways rain we were able to take the 320d onto a Coromandel rally stage, and in both instances the xDrive system added a subtle extra safety net. The cars would happily let you ‘have a play’, but the front end was always there to help drag you back to equilibrium.
While it’s admirable, part of me wishes the M340i was a tad toned down. Its performance is exceptional, and I’m confident in saying it’s a better car than its Mercedes-AMG C43 rival. But, the firm nature of its ride on Kiwi roads takes the edge off. And, it’s hard to see $129,300 of value in its relatively stark, straightforward cabin — excellent "Hey BMW" communications system, aside.
What also dims its light somewhat is how damn good the 330d is.
Normally when you group problem children together the results are disastrous, but BMW’s marriage of two oddball options — wagon body-style, diesel engine — make for an incredible wagon. Granted, its ride is still a little firm. The 19-inch wheel and tyre combination is identical to that of the M340i, after all. But the difference is clear enough to change the character of the car significantly.
What isn’t so significantly different is performance and handling. The $99,800 330d hustles to 100km/h in a still respectable 5.4 seconds, and it does so in quite an interesting way. The numbers tell the story; while it has less power than the M340i (195kW), it has much more torque (580Nm). There’s an initial lurch, then a brief pause, then an utter explosion of torque.
Those wanting constant aural reminder of their BMW’s DNA will miss the 340i’s continual sporting drone. But the comparative silence of the straight-six diesel — mulling away in the shadows waiting to crush sports cars at the lights — fits the character of these cars to a tee..
It’s a wonderful car of nuance. A nutty savoury fusion, if you will.