Maverick Life

Maverick Life

BMW 3-series Gran Turismo: Risky business

BMW 3-series Gran Turismo: Risky business

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.

As for the boot, the 520 litres on offer is presented as a large, deep and useful space, accessible via a wide-opening tailgate that can be remotely operated. You can even use a foot gesture under the rear bumper to trigger the opening action – useful if you’ve got your hands full of shopping bags.

So, the GT certainly delivers in terms of space and utility. And it does so without losing sight of the need to still offer the kind of upper-crust comfort and convenience levels a premium brand like BMW is reputed for.

However, in this instance, dynamic expectations are equally high. The 3-Series has an enviable reputation for athletic prowess that extends across the range – and should, therefore, hold true in the case of the Gran Turismo line, too. In fact, to me, even the GT badge suggests a measure of dynamic capability.

For now, the 3 GT is offered with a choice of three petrol and a single turbodiesel engine. The petrol line-up comprises a 320i, a 328i and the range-topping 335i. Buyers get to choose between a six-speed manual and an eight-speed auto gearbox.

But the most likely candidate for best-seller status will be the 320d turbodiesel. Part of the reason is a maximum output of 135 kW combined with a torque peak of 380 Nm. Those figures are impressive for a compact oil burner, but not exactly in the sports car league.

And yet, the good news is that even the 320d delivers on the performance front. The turbodiesel feels zesty and eager, with no lag to speak of, and the low-down slugging power of a steam train.

It’s probably best matched to the eight-speed auto, but with the proviso that the paddle shift option box is ticked – it really does add a satisfying edge to the driving experience. Select “Sport” mode and the cog swaps become incisive, even slightly percussive, accompanied by a satisfying, if understated, growl.

At 7.9 seconds, the 0-100km/h time is brisk enough, as is the 230km/h top speed. Perhaps even more telling is the car’s tractability – in fourth gear, it will zoom from 80 to 120km/h in just 6.5 seconds.

The biggest surprise is the handling of the car. Given that it is taller, and also larger in every other dimension than the low-slung Touring, and that it weighs 1,575kg, the GT provides a satisfyingly precise and poised driving experience.

The steering, while over-assisted at parking speeds, becomes more communicative as the speedometer needle moves around the dial, while the dialogue between chassis and driver is always unambiguous. The car feels majestic through smooth, fast sweeps, but is tidier than expected through tighter twists – not razor sharp, mind you, but certainly agile enough.

Put it this way: the 3 GT feels, reacts and communicates like a 3-Series. Yes, the crispness of the sedan may have been blunted slightly by the extra bulk, but it really is engaging to drive. And the driving modes, ranging from Sport to Eco, allow a measure of tailoring to match specific preferences or driving situations.

Given the combination of rocketing fuel prices and our rather flaccid economy, fuel consumption remains another key statistic. The 4.9 litres/100km claim for the combined cycle may be official, but it’s unlikely to be attained in real-world conditions.

Thus, depending on load, situation and driving style, the 320d GT’s appetite for 50ppm premium diesel is more likely to be in the 6 to 7 l/100km bracket in mixed conditions – still pretty good, given its particular combination of space, luxury and gusto.

That pretty much sums up the 3 GT as a whole, too: a car that ends up being more than the sum of its parts. Frankly, I was sceptical of the concept – and I still question just why SA motorists are so vehemently opposed to the contemporary station wagons.

The existence of the 3 GT proves, however, that the anti-estate trend isn’t unique to our shores, and that there is a wider demand for a vehicle that is perhaps more versatile than the more typical estate car configuration.

The 3-Series Gran Turismo is meant to fill the gap for those seeking 3-Series dynamics with more space and more versatility – and it does just that quite convincingly. It’s also handsome and more aesthetically cohesive than the 5 GT.

But will South Africans prefer it above a compact SUV like BMW’s own X1 or the Audi Q3? And to what extent will its unique FAV status be accepted in a notoriously conservative market? Only time will tell…DM

BMW 320d Gran Turismo

  • Engine In-line four-cylinder, 1 995 cc, turbodiesel
  • Gearbox Eight-speed automatic
  • Power 135 kW @ 4 000 rpm
  • Torque 275 Nm @ 1 750 rpm
  • 0-100 km/h 6.9 sec
  • Top speed 230 km/h (governed)
  • Fuel consumption 4.9 l/100 km (combined cycle)
  • CO2 emissions 119 g/km
  • Price R462 923 (before options)
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