Innovation. Otherwise known as a clever term for a clever idea. It’s also another word for the inability to stand still and be content with things. Which isn’t as bad as it sounds. This drive for invention – almost always meant to increase the size of the pie, if you’re a marketer – has seen many a smart or useful thing spring to life.
It’s when the pace of progress goes awry, perhaps through wanting to achieve growth too quickly – or persisting in opening more cards even though a whole slew has already been opened – that the tone gets a bit fuzzy. Sometimes it pays off, this inventiveness, other times questionably so.
Take the BMW 3 Series, for example. Sedan, coupe, convertible and estate, as well as the distant cousin called the X3. You’d think that it would be enough, that amidst all those variations – and sub-divisions within – that there’d be something in the 3er family mix to suit one’s taste. Apparently, that’s not the case.
For example, you could be looking at the F30 sedan but think it too small, and the estate a bit dowdy, and still too small. An X3 or F10 5er estate would be too big, because what you really want is a 3er-sized offering with more rear seating space or a larger cargo area to carry those pet panthers.
Well, here’s the car for you then, just the spot as envisioned by Munich. It’s called the BMW 3 Series Gran Turismo, an in-between sedan and estate sort that’s just what you’re looking for. So, okay, it doesn’t quite look like a Gran Turismo in the vein of old, but the type has got to be called something, and “estan” or “sedate” doesn’t sound quite as sexy as Gran Turismo, no?
You’d expect that attempting to come up with a mix that improves on interior space of the estate, retain as much of the performance balance of the sedan and look good enough to win hearts and minds while at that would be a tricky affair, and it is.
The precursor to this one, the larger 5 Series Gran Turismo, didn’t really cut it, in terms of sales at least. Not quite as spacious as expected, and not as keenly balanced as the F10 in disposition and poise, something about the vehicle stopped it from being wholeheartedly embraced by buyers. Might have been the rather laborious shape.
That hasn’t stopped BMW from trying once more, probably working on the adage that if you reinforce something long enough it’ll eventually become acceptable. For round two, it has tried to keep the looks from overpowering the rest of what it’s trying to achieve with the type. To be fair, the 3 GT, as we’ll call it to make things easier, does hang together more organically than the 5 GT, better integrated on the whole and less cumbersome looking as the latter.
Still, it does take some getting used to, the design penned by Page Beerman, especially when parked alongside its 3 Series sedan and touring siblings, which was the case during the presentation of the car at the international drive for it in Palermo, Sicily last month. The F30 sedan looks sharp, and the touring, despite the extended back, has a good flow-through feel about it.
The 3 GT’s increased length, ride height and raised rear haunches makes it gangly at points, especially from the side profile. It definitely needs some getting used to, even with time. In terms of size, the car – sitting on an extended wheelbase 3 Series sedan platform as seen on Chinese examples – is the biggest in the 3er family. As numbers go, it has a 110 mm longer wheelbase at 2,920 mm, is 200 mm longer than the Touring 3er and stands 81 mm taller.
Ah, but the loopy-looking kin of the family has more substance than its sleeker sisters, substance in this case being interior space – it feels spacious, the rear, with the perceptibly improved headroom aided by the increased height and 70 mm of additional rear legroom over its sedan and touring stable mates.
In this regard, the sedan feels decidedly tight in comparison, and the 520 litres of boot space gives it more 25 litres more cargo room than the touring, on top of the improvement in rear seat spaciousness. Folding down the rear seats gets you 1,600 litres of feline-carrying capability.
It’s also easier to get in and out of, courtesy of an increased crossover-level hip point height, which for both front and rear seating position is raised by 59 mm, almost identical to that of the X1 (which is eminently practical, but not exactly a looker either). The rest of the interior is familiar contemporary BMW territory, with only the perception of increased height – as per seating – the only thing reminding that you’re not in the sedan.
The tailgate configuration on this one isn’t like the hatch/boot lid of the 5 GT’s, the smaller car making do with a more conventional approach, but the two-piece parcel shelf, high-opening tail lid and large load aperture offers a very practical approach to cargo.
The larger segment of the two-piece parcel shelf opens with the tailgate, facilitating access to the load area, while the second segment remains on its railing, allowing smaller items to be left in place with the tailgate opened. Both shelves can be stored away under the load compartment floor for transporting bulkier cargo.
Elsewhere, there are four lash points as well as a variable attachment system with two rails integrated into the load compartment floor to secure items, and the rear seats – with backrests that can be adjusted through 15 stages and 19 degrees and brought into a vertical position if required to offer more cargo area volume – are 40:20:40 split/folding, with individual rear release levers.
During the drive, stowing a very large piece of luggage gave an idea of how much the car can stash away in the hold, an estimation being two such sized pieces and two medium sized bags comfortably. Volume-wise, it’s very close to the 5 GT, but the perception of working space feels better.
Elsewhere, an active rear spoiler makes its debut on the car, its job to provide both visual lightness and reduce lift at higher speeds. It can be manually deployed from the go, engaged through a button switch on the door. Pretty neat, but you’re not likely to notice for the most part.
Also new to the BMW 3 Series Gran Turismo are Air Breathers – located just rearwards of the front wheels, they’re meant to reduce drag around the wheel arches, and work in conjunction with the familiar Air Curtains.
Like the F30 sedan, the 3 GT features three equipment lines, these being Modern, Luxury and Sport, as well as an entry-level – or baseline – version. An optional M Sport package becomes available for the vehicle from July, but the pack dressed up the 335i Gran Turismo examples on call at the drive, along with a 320d GT in Modern line trim.
Aside from the 184 PS and 380 Nm 2.0 litre oil burner and the 335i’s 3.0 litre six-cylinder TwinPower Turbo unit (306 PS at 5,800 rpm and 400 Nm at 1,200 to 5,000 rpm), three other mills are available from point of launch, these coming in as the 328i GT and 320i GT petrol and 318d GT diesel variants. A six-speed manual is the standard transmission fitment for Europe, with an eight-speed auto the two-pedal alternative, both linked to Auto Start-Stop.
Wheel sizes start from 17-inches – and 225/45 tyres – as ex-factory fitment for the baseline specification, up an inch from that for the sedan and touring. The optional M Sport pack, besides lowering the car by 10 mm and adding dress up bits, a firmer spring/damper set-up and stiffer anti-roll bars, also upsizes the wheels to either 18- or 19-inch M alloys.
In Sicily, the Mineral Grey diesels were dressed up with star-spoke style 396 18-inch wheels, but still looked as if it needed more. The larger double-spoke 598 19-incher as seen on the Glacier Silver 335i with M Sport package, with 225/45 front and 255/40 rears, makes for far greater visual appeal, offering the 3 GT necessary muscle to tighten the otherwise lumpish profile.
As for being behind the wheel, there’s no escaping the fact that this isn’t a F30 sedan, no matter how you try to look at it. The 335i GT M Sport has pace, of that there’s no doubt, but in a straight line there’s none of the tracking composure of something like the 328i sedan, and while you can achieve a serious turn of speed with this one, there’ll be less inclination to do so.
Part of it is due to the nature of the steering, which has a very light, detached feel about it. Out on the Sicilian motorways, the lightness of the variable sport steering – fitted as standard on the 335i M Sport mules – at speed was noticeable, both in terms of on- and off-centre response and tactility.
Allied to a surprisingly quick reaction to input when in comfort mode, this meant that the keeping things straight and true required a bit of concentration and work at 200 km/h. Switching to Sport mode improved the overall behaviour of the steering, tightening the response, but then introduced a bumpier ride through the Adaptive M Sport suspension.
Out on slower B-road terrain, the car becomes much more agreeable, and can even be a barrel of fun if you like throwing things around. The extra mass and height means that it’s not as clean into the corners as the sedan, and provoking it to do the slip-sliding act is a much easier affair, lift-offs being particularly giggle-inducing.
Keeping it neat and tidy requires a slower approach to things, with the need to trim speed off more going into corners. Nonetheless, while decent when you attempt it clean, the dynamics are still very much blunted in light of the car’s disposition. Turn-in feels a bit jagged, and you’ll definitely sense the bulk of the 3 GT on follow-through.
On the whole, the 3 GT is inherently lazier attempting gymnastics, but that’s to be expected – it’s not that there’s a lack of mechanical grip, just that things are less responsive. In the end, the point is that you can’t have everything, and the tradeoff for cabin comfort and space is less focus and sharpness in behaviour.
A passing word on the diesel. My co-driver and I didn’t manage to try out the oil burner, having being given the keys to a 335i on both days, but a fellow Asean journalist who did so commented that its characteristics were – expectedly – less sharper in scope than the 335i.
In urban use, this may not be such a bad thing, especially for those not looking to do the dirty on a regular basis with the car. Even with the 335i, the indications are there – set the car in comfort and putter around town and it becomes evident that this is very much the terrain it’s happiest with, GT moniker not withstanding.
For the last part of the drive, I decided to try out the back seat to see how the view from the back would be, and it’s here that the 3 GT starts racking up the points. Not quite limousine territory, but the extra headroom and legroom ensures rear occupants will have little to complain about, especially if used to something like the 3er sedan, which feels pinched in comparison.
So, what this one is all about is providing space not found in the sedan and an alternative form of versatility to that issued by the touring. Approached as such, as a pseudo coupe-shaped people-mover, you’ll begin to see the logic behind the 3 Series Gran Turismo.
The issue, however, is not about the practicality offered by the car – there’s plenty of that. Aside from a higher entry price point (it’s more expensive than a similarly-spec’d touring equivalent), the contention most will have is in the way the package is presented, or shaped.
Those wanting the sleekness of a F30 sedan will likely never contemplate this one, and the touring aficionado, a rarity in our market, is going to look at this one as a bit of a Quasimodo, practicality aside. ‘Sedate’ is probably the wrong descriptor as a coined term here, because opinion will be sharply divided with the form – it’s either going to be ‘it’s funky and I like it’ or ‘gah, it’s ghastly’ territory, no two ways about it.
Still, something like the 3 GT may find great favour for those who consider space as a priority. In markets like China, the land of chauffeur-driven LWBs, this one might well hit the mark big – you get all the accomplishment of being seen in a BMW 3 Series, but with the added allure of being able to treat it as an entry-level limo of sorts, something that the sedan and touring forms can never accomplish. As for North America, the attempt at conquest through a smaller, more refined package continues.
Closer to home, BMW Malaysia is looking at the 3 Series Gran Turismo doing well, nowhere near the same numbers as the sedan, naturally, but in a workable count, taken as an alternative to those who want and can’t get their hands on a touring, find the sedan too small, or simply as a new frontier to be seen as different in. Will it work? Time will reveal if such innovation will prevail, or hit an insurmountable ceiling.