The estate bodyshell is enjoying a modest comeback as folk look for a stylish (and, usually, more efficient) alternative to the modish SUV. Here's how BMW's latest measures up.
- Our car: BMW 330d xDrive M Sport Plus Edition Touring
- List price when new: £47,330
- Price as tested: £54,995
- Official fuel economy: 42mpg
- Fuel economy on test: 36mpg
Long before somebody invented the ubiquitous SUV, family folk drove around in estates. Stretched saloons with a humungous boot, they were useful utility cars that negated the need to buy a dreaded multi-purpose vehicle (MPV), otherwise known as a people carrier.
Unlike many van-shaped MPVs, estates didn’t need to offer a cramped third row of seats that ate into the luggage area - and because they weren’t as high off the ground, estate cars were often more enjoyable to drive, too.
Since the SUV took over our lives, sales of estate car dropped through the floor. They account for only seven per cent of the market, while SUV’s claim almost a third. So why on earth would you want to buy a BMW 3-Series Touring (BMW always gives its estates the 'Touring' moniker) like our latest long-term test car?
Our 3.0d M Sport Plus Edition costs just over £47,000 and is exceptionally well equipped. Build quality matches the badge but if you want to buy a similarly-equipped X3 to sit a few inches higher off the ground, expect to pay another £15,000.
The Touring is BMW’s best-selling estate and also looks great. It’s still as instantly recognisable as the 3-Series estate I owned 12 years ago but this one looks sharper, more aggressive – especially in Oxide Grey metallic with contrasting black alloy wheels, grille and trim.
What about standard equipment?
The M Sport Plus package includes a powered electric tailgate and a slot under the boot floor to stash both the roll-out luggage cover and separate net divider. Normally I dump them in a corner of the garage to gather dust.
There’s another covered load space in the floor to hide valuable items, too. I’m also pleased to see the Touring still has a tiny button under the rear-wiper mount to open the tailgate glass separately and drop smaller items in. A neat touch.
Boot space and comfort
Inside, the BMW is roomy, although cheaper estate cars offer extra space and even more equipment. The Volvo V60, for example, can gobble up slightly more luggage.
This 3-Series is, in fact, bigger in every way compared to the previous generation Touring, with a load capacity of 500 litres. That rises to more than 1,500 litres with the rear seats dropped, electronically from the boot side, or via two levers from the cabin. Only the Skoda Superb estate is larger.
Inside, the cabin is a very lovely place to sit. In our top spec M trim leather and metal dominate, it feels as classy as a Porsche. The technology is first class, with the three of the latest USB-C cable ports appearing front and rear.
Even in times of splendid isolation you can chat with an ‘intelligent personal assistant’ for certain functions, while there’s a BMW app to operate others from a mobile phone. There’s the choice of a built-in dashcam, too.
I sold my soul to Apple years ago, which is good because CarPlay is free for a year in the 3-Series. Weirdly, however, there is no such option to plug-in and play from your mobile if you are operating on Android Auto.
Still a treat to drive?
And we haven’t even mentioned the driving experience yet. Like almost everybody else, the 25-mile round trip to the supermarket is about as much as I can muster at the moment. Never in the history of motor writing has it taken so long to empty such a fine car of fuel.
But if you enjoy driving more than simply getting from A to B then the brilliant 3-Series is one of the best handling compacts out there. In saloon form it’s a benchmark – and the Touring version isn’t far behind. You will only really spot the difference on a fast corner, helped in this instance by xDrive.
For driver involvement, the tried and tested BMW straight-six-cylinder diesel unit delivers power effortlessly. Enhance by tapping through the various drive settings, from Sport to Eco-Pro. It revs far easier than most diesels and the cabin remains remarkably quiet.
My next report will reveal more – but if I do have to stay away from people for a while, I could think of far worse places to sit tight than the Beemer.
Thirteen years ago Britain was about to slip into a major financial crisis as the government bailout of Northern Rock resulted in panic at the banks. The best-selling car was a Ford and unleaded petrol was around £1.03 a litre.
Not much has changed, I suppose, but at least car technology has improved for the better, as I’ve discovered driving a 2007 BMW Z4M Coupé alongside the long-term 3-Series Touring.
Ask any car salesman and connectivity behind the wheel is a big selling point these days. Buyers want infotainment as standard – and the 3-Series is probably loaded with more technology than the original Space Shuttle.
There are design similarities between the Z4M and our latest G20-generation 3-Series but the technology is worlds apart. Just connecting a Bluetooth phone to the Z car is a mind-boggling challenge that involves a hidden button in the armrest and key settings – the navigation system is slow, ponderous and lacking in any great detail.
The 3-Series, on the other hand, is constantly in touch with my mobile phone, streaming music, reminding me where I’ve parked the car and even using the same ringtone if I really need to have Ride of the Valkyries announcing an incoming call.
What's useful and what's not
Useful bits? It depends how much of a techy you are. Install the BMW Connected App on your phone and a whole raft of apps will also appear on the 3-Series’ widescreen.
I’ve scrolled through a labyrinth of features in the 3-Series, 90 per cent of which I will likely never use. At least my niece was impressed that Bruno Mars is downloaded in the BMW’s hard drive (although I have no idea how or when I managed that).
Far more useful for me has been the wireless charger shelf on the centre console, which works on my iPhone despite it being wrapped in a thick leather case. No more charger cables and scrabbling to locate USB sockets.
Bluetooth connection is child’s play – pretty much everything on the screen can be operated by voice. That includes making a call, with voice recognition so good the BMW will correctly tell me it is ‘calling Nicola’ rather than ‘calling Nick Kola’.
It’s also fun to amaze passengers with BMW’s hand recognition system that operate various controls. Draw a circle in the air in front of that digital screen and the sound volume is adjusted accordingly.
What's it like on a long journey?
Elsewhere, the Touring continues to be a model of German efficiency. After months of short journeys for lockdown food shopping only, I’ve bonded with the 3-Series on a couple of longer drives to London. A large slice of the M4 is limited to 50mph for miles – the car has averaged over 44mpg.
That is a respectable return when you consider that the 330d is capable of 0-60mph in under six effortless seconds – there’s an impressive 580Nm of torque to hand for overtaking – and can be transformed into a surprisingly roomy estate for five when required.
The eight-speed automatic gearbox reacts quickly to shifts, especially in Sport driving mode, although there’s a noticeable lag overtaking in the more everyday Comfort setting.
Issues are few and far between. That six-cylinder diesel can be noisy at start-up and is still most at home on a motorway, rather than grumbling around town. A four-cylinder 320d or petro 320i might be a nimbler choice for urban drivers.
The only other consideration for buyers is whether you actually need an estate car at all. The Touring is a £1,500 premium over the equivalent 3-Series saloon and while it offers 1,510 litres of luggage space, the four-door still boasts a very roomy boot and is a better driver’s car.
The Touring is proving itself an excellent choice as a reliable, practical and entertaining all-rounder. The cabin materials are as good as it gets at this price level and provided you aren’t adverse to touchscreen technology it’s a tough act to beat.
A £1,500 premium for the estate
The 3-Series is BMW’s best-selling car but to haul more family paraphernalia around, the Touring estate versions are a £1,500 premium over the saloon. Is it worth it? I think so.
That’s because the current, G21 iteration Touring is every bit as driver-focussed as the four-door, a compact executive that also just happens to offer better handling and cheaper running costs than an SUV equivalent.
Our seventh generation, six-cylinder diesel 330D is especially fun to own – a word not normally associated with load-lugging family cars I know. This is especially true in Sport mode, when the body and suspension respond to driver input even more sharply.
The current Touring is almost 8cm longer and 1.6cm wider than the car it replaced last year but, crucially, the rigidity of the body has improved by 25 per cent. That extra stiffness is clearly a huge improvement. The 330D isn’t exactly nimble but it feels very well balanced for an estate car.
The latest BMW chassis feels more dynamic than an Audi A4 Avant, or the Mercedes C-Class estate, for that matter. On longer journeys, Comfort mode is refined and relaxing – it’s a great place to travel.
A feel-good interior of real quality
I’ve driven a rash of sports cars costing a lot more than the BMW in recent months. I can honestly say, the build quality of the 330D is certainly on a par, or in some cases better. Trim levels are plentiful but the top spec M Sport Plus has a subtle, pleasing finish of metal, leather and quality plastic.
And what makes the 3-Series extra special is the intuitive lay-out of the dashboard and controls. Park yourself behind the steering wheel and, like a VW Golf GTI, everything is where you expect it to be. This makes the driver feel more at home, relaxed and confident.
M Sport Plus may be the most expensive but that doesn’t mean there aren’t more toys to choose from on the option list. Our car has around £7,000 of extras, including Visibility Pack (high beam assist, BMW laserlights) and Premium Pack (panoramic sunroof, electric front seats).
The box I’d have to tick if I was buying this car is the Technology Pack, which loads the BMW with head-up display, a Harmon Kardon sound system and BMW Gesture Control. It may be a gimmick, but adjusting the volume with a spin of the finger still amuses me – and new passengers even more.
The bootiful back-end
If you can’t get excited about owning an estate car, at least the 3-Series offers some genuinely useful features which might make you question buying an SUV. We crammed the 1,510-litre boot to the gunwales for a post-lockdown car boot sale.
The rear seats are easily dropped via buttons in the luggage compartment. No scrambling around for levers and handles under the seats, no squashing fingers in the process. Removing the twin luggage covers is a bit more tricky but just requires practise.
Boot floor space is flat and runs all the way forward to the back of the front seats – perfect for sliding in a chest of drawers, or several boxes of CDs in my case. The boot door then closes automatically via the keyfob, or another button on the underside of the boot lid itself.
The rear screen, which opens independently of the boot door, allows smaller items to drop in without opened the boot lid itself. It’s really handy, especially for shopping bags which fit through the gap perfectly.
The final verdict
I didn’t have the chance to drive the 330D Touring enough over the last six months because of the lockdown. Frustrating, particularly when I could see the svelte, streamlined bodywork out of the corner of my eye as I worked from a home office.
The BMW has to be the best-looking estate in its class and driving it you soon forget this just happens to be a practical family mover as well. The silky turbodiesel engine sounds more like a performance car.
Expect 40mpg-plus in everyday driving, more like 50mpg if you keep the revs down on a long-distance motorway run. Not only that, equipped with xDrive, the Touring offers safer handling, especially with the winter months ahead.
Issues? At just over £48,000 you could buy a lot of SUV for your money. However, none will offer the same driver appeal or luxury feel of this desirable class leader.
To talk all things motoring with the Telegraph Cars team join the Telegraph Motoring Club Facebook group here