Life, etc

BMW 3-series Gran Turismo: Risky business

By Deon Schoeman 12 July 2013

First we had the four-door coupé, an apparent anomaly that sought to retain the graceful aesthetics of a two-door coupé, while adding two more doors for the sake pragmatic practicality. Now we have the Gran Turismo – a car that wants to combine the most desirable ingredients of an SUV, MPV and estate car into a single, lifestyle-orientated motoring solution. BMW’s first effort, the cumbersome 5-Series GT, flopped. Can the slimmer, sexier 3 GT make amends? By DEON SCHOEMAN.

It all started with the perception that some people hate station wagons. And many of those happen to be in South Africa. You see, we’ve never really moved on from the notion that a station wagon (aka estate car in contemporary automotive parlance) is a mode of transport for harassed moms with hordes of naughty, wet-nosed, noisy, messy kids.

That might have been true in the 1950s and 1960s, when big American wagons were the perfect family cars, when gas-guzzling was a term of affection and petrol cost 12 cents a litre (or was that a gallon?).

But everything has changed. Those big station wagons have become automotive dinosaurs, replaced by sleeker, sexier estate cars that have little more than a tailgate and a versatile, configurable interior in common with their predecessors.

These new-generation estates are hugely popular in Europe, where they often outsell their sedan siblings, and are considered an elegant and desirable expression of motoring lifestyle. But in South Africa, we can’t get our heads past the stigma of the station wagon moniker – and so, we’ve opted for SUVs instead.

SUVs have space. They’re also considered practical and versatile. And they’re a lot more macho than a station wagon. Besides, because they offer raised seating, SUVs make their occupants feel regal, superior and secure.

But are they really? Or more specifically, are they really that much more practical and versatile than an estate?

Strip away the gung-ho hype, the macho image and the promise of go-anywhere ruggedness (and even that’s a myth in some cases), and you’re left with a vehicle that’s awkward in traffic, awful in tight parking basements and both too heavy and too inefficient in our increasingly eco-conscious landscape.

What does all of this have to do with the new BMW 3-Series Gran Turismo? Well, in the SA-specific context, the Gran Turismo (let’s call it the GT, if you don’t mind) is meant to offer the best of all motoring genres in a single package.

More particularly, it promises the impossible: sporty dynamics, stretch-out comfort, spacious practicality – and a healthy dose of stylish individualism. In doing so, it’s attempting to create an all-new genre that I’ve labelled the fastback utility vehicle, or FUV.

But first, let’s take back a step and recognise that the 3 GT is not BMW’s first FAV. That privilege belongs to the 5-Series Gran Turismo, which was launched in 2010, and combined exactly the same attributes as those of the 3 GT, but in a larger, more ungainly package.

It’s that ungainliness that sank the 5 GT in the consciousness of would-be buyers – in its efforts to be different and luxurious, it ended up as big and as awkward as those big American station wagons – and at least those have since gained some retro appeal.

The 5 GT is due to undergo some much-needed cosmetic surgery in an attempt to make it more aesthetically palatable. But compared to the slimmer, more svelte 3 GT, even the sharpest scalpel and the sternest of slimming regimens are unlikely to improve its lot.

In other words, the 3 GT, first and foremost, manages to look pleasing, rather than ungainly. Based on the F30-generation 3-Series platform, it shares the sedan’s slightly bulbous, probing nose, adorned at the sharp end by prominent kidney grilles and larger, more prominent tapered headlight clusters.

But it’s the flowing silhouette of the 3 GT that is its most obvious visual hallmark. It’s part coupé, part estate – and certainly not SUV. Despite a 200mm increase in overall length, compared to the 3-Series Touring, the car exudes a sense of balance and aesthetic purpose.

The fastback-cum-tailgate actually works in visual terms, assisting in integrating the extended length into the overall design and creating a look that’s nicely streamlined – as a fastback should be.

The longer shape also allows a wheelbase that’s 110mm longer than the estate, most of which (70mm, to be precise) is used for extra rear legroom, with the rest contributing to a deeper, more capacious boot.

There’s one caveat to the 3 GT’s athletic visual attributes: it stands taller than the 3-Series sedan and estate. It’s the only hint that, in practical terms, the 3 GT is more MPV than fastback, with the utility talents to match.

A last design element worth mentioning are the scallops just behind the front wheels. More than just visual accents, they’re part of BMW’s air curtain system that feeds air from apertures in the front and channels it around the front wheels to reduce turbulence and improve aerodynamic efficiency.

And so, to the interior – ostensibly the 3 GT’s real reason for being. And my oh my, it is spacious. Except for the raised seating position, the front accommodation is pure 3-Series, which is no bad thing: decent ergonomics, a screen-based interface and an execution that’s smart and upmarket without allowing ostentation to get in the way of functionality.

But it’s the rear seating that tells the 3 GT story. The impression is of space in the limousine category, more Five or even Seven than Three. There’s a business class ambience to the design that mitigates a little against the 3 GT’s intended family use, but that won’t phase the junior brigade.