You don’t need me to say it again: wagons are the best.
In today’s era of bloated crossover utility vehicles, the general public has been more or less trained to dislike the traditional station wagon. There are many reasons, but the main one revolves around the wagon being “uncool”. People don’t necessarily want to be seen driving the same type of vehicle that their grandparents drove, back in the day. Internet enthusiasts have done a reasonably good job defending the goodness that is the wagon, but it only goes so far (read: not quite far enough to really affect sales figures).
I had the chance to test out BMW’s new and completely-revamped X1 compact luxury crossover a few weeks ago, and came away really impressed at its ability to differentiate itself from the Mini Countryman that it is now heavily based on. It delivered the usual BMW feel, lots of interior space (thanks to much-improved packaging), an excellent powertrain, and an overall design that I felt was much more relevant to its intended target market. This time, I was back at BMW Canada’s headquarters to pick up a 2016 BMW 328i xDrive Touring, painted in a shade of Mineral White Metallic. It’s quite different from the X1 that I had tested, but in terms of pricing and interior dimensions, they aren’t too far away from one another. How will things pan out in practice?
The BMW 328i Touring makes no excuses – it’s a station wagon through and through. If you’ve seen a 3-series sedan, the Touring is more of the same, but with a wagon rear-end grafted onto the back of it. How I spot 3-series Touring from a distance: I look for the satin-aluminum roof rails that run the length of the long roof. Otherwise the trademark 3-series design cues remain: the long hood, front axle pushed forward, and the passenger compartment pushed rearward, and the Hofmeister kink – all of which do a good job emphasizing the rear-drive look that BMW has been famous for. Out of the range, I like the sedan’s proportions, and then the wagon comes in a close second. The 4-series coupe, with its more bulbous proportions, never really appealed to me like the old E92 3-series coupe did.
The updates for 2016 (BMW calls it a Life Cycle Impulse) bring several small upgrades. In terms of aesthetics, BMW enthusiasts will notice the shape of the LED daytime running lights, and the new LED light pipes integrated into the taillights. My particular 3-Series Touring rides on some attractive 18-inch Style 21C wheels for the winter, and hiding within those wheels are up-level brakes (as part of the M Performance package) and electronically variable dampers.
Inside, my specific tester is an example of BMW’s Individual customization options. The brushed stainless steel trim or wood that is standard issue on most cars is replaced with a glossy white, almost ivory-like trim. It runs across the right side of the dashboard, and is also found on the door pulls. I can’t say it would be my choice of trims – in the right light, the grain in this material just makes it look dirty. I can understand wanting to co-ordinate the colour themes inside with the exterior, but I’d rather just have the textured stainless steel.
The rest of the interior is typical BMW, with a big iDrive screen fixed at top of the centre stack, and BMW’s trademark gear selector. For the driver, the steering wheel is heated (as part of the Premium Enhanced Package), which is a wonderful touch for Canadian drivers in the winter. The iDrive monitor integrates satellite navigation as well as full infotainment, and a full 360-degree camera that activates when you’re trying to park. Aside from the added cargo space (with integrated privacy cover), there’s really not much that differentiates the 3-series Touring from the sedan. BMW drivers will feel right at home here.
Under the hood, is the standard BMW “28i-series” engine, which in 2016, means a direct-injected, turbocharged (twin-scroll) 2.0L gasoline four-cylinder engine. Gone are the days of the silky-smooth naturally-aspirated straight-sixes, but the turbo-four is a real workhorse. Rated at 241hp @ 5000rpm, and 258 lb-ft of torque from 1250rpm all the way up to 4800rpm. In practice, the torque delivery right off idle is one of the best attributes of this N20 engine. The twin-scroll turbo allows the engine to ingest more air sooner, making turbo lag pretty much a non-issue. The laggy turbocharged small-displacement engines of the ‘80s isn’t found here – the linear torque delivery really makes this engine feel larger than it actually is. Those looking for alternate (and more efficient) forms of propulsion can also opt for a 2.0L diesel engine in the 328d.
Paired up with the turbo-four is the ubiquitous eight-speed automatic transmission, sourced from ZF. We’ve been long-time fans of this transmission, with its crisp shift quality and good manners, whether in the city or on the highway. Eighth-gear at 100km/h is well under 2000rpm, for what it’s worth. Putting the 3-series Touring into one of the Sport modes not only firms up the damping, but it also increases the weight on the steering (though it doesn’t really help with steering feel), and re-configures the transmission for more spirited performance. I found myself regularly driving in the Sport+ mode (which also reduces the traction control intervention thresholds), and controlling the transmission myself with the shift paddles behind the steering wheel. While it’s unfortunate there’s no manual transmission option with the Touring, this automatic is one of the best.
The mainstream horsepower and torque ratings don’t quite suggest blistering performance, but the 3-series Touring moves quicker than the heavy 1735kg curb weight would suggest. The additional body work and glass associated with the wagon greenhouse, as well as the xDrive all-wheel drive system do add some weight. The linear and early-hitting torque output, combined with the excellent programming of the eight-speed automatic transmission makes for a 0-100km/h time of about 6.3 seconds. This is a car that hides its weight very well.
The ride is slightly firm, with the dampers doing their best at simulating a firmer spring rate – some would even go as far as describing the ride as a little busy as a result. The default “Comfort” mode is more appropriate for the broken streets of Toronto, though I’m not a big fan of the extra-light steering. While you don’t get all the configurability of a full-out M car, you’re able to configure how the Sport and Sport+ modes behave. For example, you can opt for the firmer chassis settings (dampers and steering), but keep the powertrain in standard comfort mode, for smooth and quiet operation. In a nod to true technical performance, BMW places an oil temperature gauge – not coolant temperature – in the instrument cluster. This is arguably a more important metric to keep an eye on, as coolant more or less just comes up to temperature and stays put.
The upgraded Harman-Kardon sound system sounds great with a very balanced output, right out of the box. Like in many BMWs available today, this 3-series Touring amps up the engine sounds through the stereo system. It becomes somewhat more noticeable in the Sport and Sport+ setting, producing a deep bellow that tricks your ears into thinking you’ve got a more impressive powerplant under the hood. The iDrive system, which controls all aspects of the entertainment system, froze on me a few times during my testing. This resulted in an “unenhanced” engine note, which sounded less impressive. It’s a difficult balancing act – some may prefer a quieter, more insulated ride, and others may prefer a more engaging aural experience. Instead of having to play with different amounts of sound insulation (and likely compromising either way), the virtual sound management allows BMW to find a happier medium for everybody’s tastes.
One of the big talking points behind the shift to smaller, turbocharged engines, is the win-win factor of increased efficiency, and increased power. It’s important to understand the conditions of where these new-era engines are happiest, because certain driving habits are sure to break far away from the estimates that BMW quotes. In that regard, BMW says you should expect to get 10.5L/100km in the city, 6.9L/100km on the highway, and 8.9L/100km in a combined cycle. Over a two-week period spanning 1300km, I managed to hold onto an indicated average of 10.1L/100km. One factor behind this figure is the winter weather. Even though it has been an unseasonably warm December, the mornings are still chilly, enough to have the heated seats and heated steering wheel come in handy. The 3-Series xDrive Touring will accept 60L of premium 91 octane fuel.
In terms of pricing, the BMW 3-series xDrive Touring sits in a very dense section of the BMW lineup. Surrounding it, is the all-new and fully-loaded X1, and even the X3. The base MSRP for the 3-series xDrive Touring starts at $48,050. My particular wagon was equipped with the $5,400 “Premium Package Enhanced” selection, and the $1,900 M Performance Package. The Mineral White metallic paint is an additional $895, bringing the total as-tested MSRP to $56,245. In today’s anti-wagon world, it’s not hard to see why the wagon sells in such small numbers (relative to the crossovers at the same price point).
The competition doesn’t seem to want to even bother – Mercedes-Benz no longer sells a C-Class wagon, and Audi will only sell you an A4 wagon, if you’re okay with it being jacked up and covered in black plastic cladding. Volvo comes to mind in some instances, but the standard V60 wagon doesn’t quite deliver in terms of driving dynamics, and all-wheel drive is only available on the older (less efficient) five-cylinder powertrains as of this writing.
Enthusiasts, and those in the know, will understand the appeal behind the 3-Series Touring. To put it simply, you’re able to carry people and stuff, in the same manner as you would with one of the taller crossovers. The biggest benefit, at least to me, are the improved driving dynamics – the lower centre of gravity makes it feel like driving a car, and not a truck. Another advantage are the aesthetics – instead of looking like a bloated crossover, the 3-Series Touring is just a 3-Series sedan, but with a longer roof grafted onto the back. Station wagon look be damned, it’s a look that I like a lot. The only thing I’m really wishing for is for BMW to drop in the turbocharged six-cylinder engine out of the 340i into the wagon. How do you give a unicorn more unicorn powers? Give it more horsepower.