The formidable 3 Series is equally compelling in estate form but is it enough to driver buyers away from the Audi A4 Avant and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class Estate?

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As if an original five-star Autocar road test accolade wasn’t a big enough haul, the BMW 3 Series is back for more. No doubt spurred on by overwhelming critical acclaim, Munich isn’t hanging around when it comes to fleshing out the meat of its big-selling compact exec range.

Having been offered a streamlined selection of models from the launch of the F30 3 Series, UK buyers can now order an entry-level 134bhp 316i saloon for £25,160 – a sum that won’t currently buy you a top-of-the-range 1.6-litre Ford Mondeo Ecoboost. You can also buy a 3 Series with BMW's xDrive, in which four driven wheels feature in a BMW saloon for the first time since the E34 525ix of 1991, and even an iPerformance petrol-electric 330e garnishes the range.

Steering wheel and pedal alignment is spot on

That is not to say that the diesel engines have remained untouched with six-cylinder units being added to the range, which may leave you questioning why BMW has been so keen to embellish its range? 

Well the answer is simple enough, BMW can't afford to rest on its laurels so the 3 Series model range has been shrunk slightly with the coupé and convertible versions now classified as 4 Series, while there is the addition of essentially a grand coupé in the shape of the BMW 3 Series GT and the range is completed by ludicrous the BMW M3 and in some respects the BMW M4

All of this desire to flesh out the range and re-assess where certain models sit is down to the gains made by its closest rivals, who previously lagged behind and now closed the gap, and in some instances overtaken the BMW. Chief among them are the emergence of the Jaguar XE and Alfa Romeo Guilia, which have may not stolen the crown but certainly dislodged it in the one area where BMW previously reigned supremely - its driving characteristics.

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Meanwhile, BMW's other rivals the Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class all have been recently refreshed, and include coupé, cabriolets, quick versions and estates of the compact exec, which leads us on nicely to the 3 Series Touring. Previously the benchmark for this segment, it is now in a position where it is playing catch-up, and so concerned were BMW that this generation was facelifted in 2015.

Now its time to see if the BMW 3 Series Touring can reclaim its top spot from the new pretenders to the throne.


BMW 3 Series Touring rear

While the BMW 3 Series may be the nucleus of the BMW range, so too is the four-door saloon the central core of the 3 Series, from which all the other models like the BMW 3 Series Touring extend like spokes on a wheel.

In design terms, the F30 3 Series is a better looking and more distinctive shape than its ultra-conservative E90 predecessor. It’s a large car, longer overall than a 5 Series of 30 years ago and with a longer wheelbase than a BMW 5 Series of 20 years ago.

Impressively smooth ZF auto gearbox is well matched to the 3.0-litre motor

Overall length has grown by 93mm compared to the E90, with over half of that being between the wheels. Yet proportionally the track has swollen even more, to give the car an unprecedented footprint. However, by using higher-strength steels, BMW has been able to reduce the amount of metal used while improving safety, increasing rigidity by 10 percent and dropping weight by a total of 40kg.

The changes in proportion don’t make the 3 Series appear as enlarged as it is actually is. Instead, it seems lower, sleeker and more sporting. This effect is enhanced by the front grille, which is lower and wider than ever, and narrowed headlamps giving a more gimlet-eyed appearance. There’s a double swage line at the side and strong horizontal creases at the back, all tasked with tricking the eye into disguising the car’s physical bulk.

The facelift overhaul to the 3 Series’ suspension has been made possible by a change to the way the car’s various combination of struts and links mount to the body. Anchored at three points previously, the car’s suspension is now secured at five separate points per corner, allowing for better rigidity and robustness from the suspension assemblies themselves and more effective support of the car’s weight.

The more solid mountings have in turn allowed BMW to increase the car’s suspension spring and damper rates without adversely affecting its refinement levels.

So stiffer springs and new twin-tube dampers appear on the car as standard, with adaptive dampers continuing as an option that come in tandem with a 10mm drop in ride height.

As for the range itself, even if you’re not after one of the many different body types and restrict your trawl to the saloon only, you’re going to need to set aside a lot of time with BMW’s configurator, paper and pen to work out which is best for you. First up is engine choice with a wealth of four- and six-cylinder petrol and diesel options to peruse.

The petrol range is made up of 2.0-litre units powering 316i, 318i, 320i and 330i, while a straight six is found under the bonnet of the 340i. Heading up the diesel range are different tunes of the same 2.0-litre powerplant which you will find in the 316d, 318d, 320d and 325d, while the 330d and 335d come with BMW's six-cylinder oilburners. As you will find with the saloon, the Touring is also available with xDrive which has the capacity to drive all-four wheels, however naturally defaults to rear-wheel-drive in most instances and can be chosen with either the 320i, 320d or 335d versions.

ZF’s emissions-saving eight-speed automatic gearbox comes as standard our 330d, as does Servotronic variable-assistance power steering (choose a less powerful engine and you have to pay extra for both). But it wouldn’t be like BMW to give everything away for free. The Adaptive M Sport suspension of our test car, which allows you to tailor the damping control to suit your mood, is an extra, as is the car’s non-speed-dependent variable-ratio steering.


BMW 3 Series Touring rear seats

Most of the rules that applied to the 3 Series saloon continue to apply in the Touring.

You’re paying here for performance and cachet, not space. Fittingly, then, the rear screen opens without having to lift the whole tailgate, electric opening is standard and our car came with a £470 ‘comfort access’ option, which allows the boot to open by way of a foot waved beneath the rear bumper.

The surface finishes in this M Sport trim 3 Series are much more pleasing to our eyes than the gaudier options in Sport-trimmed Threes

Speccing your BMW 3 Series Touring is no mean feat, as the wealth of configurable options means you could spend next to forever tweaking the car how you want. However, if you want a car with a certain level of equipment BMW has six trim levels for you to choose from - SE, Efficient Dynamics Plus, Sport, M Sport, M340i and M Sport Shadow Edition.

The entry-level SE models come with 17in alloys, automatic lights and wipers, LED head, fog and rear lights on the outside, cruise control, a dual chrome exhaust and heated and electrically adjustable mirrors, while inside occupants get dual-zone climate control, cupholders, and BMW's iDrive infotainment system, including sat nav, DAB radio, Bluetooth and online services.  

The two Sport models also add sportier details including lots of red interior and gloss black trim and sports seats, while opting for an ED Plus or ED Sport models and you get energy saving tyres, active air flaps, a leather upholstery and heated front seats. 

The popular M Sport trim provides luxuries such as 18in M Performance alloys, sports suspension, interior and exterior details, and ambient interior LED lighting, while the 340i gets a sports automatic 'box and predictive gearshifts based on data from the sat nav. The new range-topping M Sport Shadow Edition adds 19in alloy wheels, tinted head and rear lights, a gloss black front grille, an M Sport braking system and a Harman and Kardon audio system.


BMW 3 Series Touring side profile

We know that cars are, broadly, becoming quicker, but think on this: if you could find a Ferrari 348tb still in factory condition, and an owner willing to let you rag the crackers off it, it would go precisely no faster than this diesel-engined estate car.

At the MIRA test track, the BMW 3 Series Touring 330d – full of fuel and with two people aboard – hit 60mph from rest in just 5.5sec and covered a standing quarter mile in a mere 14.2sec. It is no exaggeration to say that, 20 years ago, that was junior supercar pace.

The diesel estate car is as fast as the old Ferrari 348tb

You might argue that there’s no need for a family estate to be as quick as a high-end sports car, but it’s the sort of reassuring urge that one gets used to rather quickly. Nipping from 50-70mph in 2.7sec in fourth gear is useful slip-road pace, as is 5.1sec through the gears from 30-70mph.

Thrown in with the extraordinary straight-line grunt is a throttle response that’s second to none among modern six-pot diesels, and an eight-speed automatic gearbox that is as intelligent as it is responsive – and which has a willingness to do as it is told that far outweighs a Mercedes unit if operated in paddle-shift mode.

Finally, of course, there’s the economy. Drive flat out in a 330d Touring, as we do for our performance tests, and you’ll return 17.5mpg, or about the same as the aforementioned Ferrari in daily driving. Drive briskly and sensibly and the 330d will return more than the impressive 42.6mpg we averaged. Our prolonged legal-limit motorway cruise gave us 53.6mpg; tread extremely carefully and you could reasonably expect more on some journeys even than that.

There’s no real fly in the ointment, but there is a spec of dust in that the 3 Series Touring’s 57-litre fuel tank gives it a range of just 530 miles or so. That’s not bad, but in rivals we’ve become accustomed to seeing a number that starts with a ‘7’, or at least a ‘6’.


BMW 3 Series Touring cornering

Let’s get the extras dealt with first. Our BMW 3 series Touring 330d came with the Adaptive M Sport suspension option – whose damper firmness parameters can be adjusted via a switch on the dash – and Variable Sport Steering, that means the steering is quicker on lock than it is around the straight-ahead.

The adaptive damping comes in place of standard steel springs (whose firmness depends on the trim level you’ve specified), and leaves the ride perfectly acceptable even on the runflat tyres that are standard on a 330d. Select Comfort mode (Sport and Sport+ are the other options) and while the BMW is not, say, Jaguar XE supple, against its more obvious German rivals the Touring lacks some of the refinement when it comes to ride quality.

Oversteer in the 330d is both progressive and adjustable

Similarly, while our noise meter is out of action and awaiting calibration, to our ears the 330d offers a level of hush and refinement that is as good as anything at the price.

Elsewhere, the 330d seems largely unaffected by the addition of taller rear bodywork. It rides, steers and handles with the same panache as the regular BMW 3 Series saloon, which means that it drives rather well indeed. Its steering is slick, and although there is little road feel to discern, it is accurate, responsive and free from stiction.

The handling, meanwhile, is as agile and sure-footed as we’ve come to expect from the latest-generation 3 Series. It displays a fine balance and has just the right amount of roll, pitch and dive to remind you that you are testing the chassis.

Braking is good in both wet and dry conditions – particularly so in the wet, where the 330d stopped in less than 50m from 70mph. An excellent result.


BMW 3 Series Touring

No voodoo has been employed in delivering BMW’s remarkable sales success in the UK, which has been brought about largely via the fleet sector. The company offers its models – crucially, its diesels – at competitive list prices (which translate into equally competitive P11D values), and fits them with some of the lowest-emitting engines on the market.

For all its power and performance, the BMW 3 Series Touring 330dis very much sprung from the same mould. It’s taxable some three bands lower than its next lowest-rated rival, which puts about £450 a year back into your pocket if you run one as a company car, relative to an equivalent Mercedes-Benz C-Class Estate or Audi A4 Avant.

On a long motorway cruise we saw 53.6mpg, though you'll see more than that if you're careful

Residuals are strong, too, boosting the car’s credentials for both retail and fleet. The only bugbear is the cost of options and the number of them you’ll be prevailed upon to take up. It’s very easy to add 25 percent to the cost of the 3 Series before you’ve exhausted the options catalogue, and it will be hard to escape the showroom if you haven’t parted with at least £3000 for items without which, the salesman will tell you, your car will be next to unsaleable secondhand. Just don’t be afraid to expect money off a well stocked car.


BMW 3 Series Touring rear quarter

The keen-eyed among you might realise that the BMW 3 Series Touring scores less than the BMW 3 Series saloon we road tested. It was tempting to dish out another full-mark ranking, it’s true, but we couldn’t quite shift the nagging feeling that with its excellence comes a penalty that should cost it just half a star.

That penalty is what seems like the necessity to increase the list price from a not-unreasonable £37,200 to a figure well above £40,000 in order to get the optimum driving experience. That should not, however, detract from the rare brilliance of this car’s powertrain, whose performance and economy are of the highest order.

This car's powertrain really is worth the extra outlay over the 320d

But overall the BMW Touring is starting to show its age amongst youthful rivals and hence another reason for not amassing the full complement of stars. Both the Audi A4 Avant and Mercedes-Benz C-Class Estate lack the driving allure that the BMW gives but counters with larger loading space, better refinement and ride, but also excel on the luxury and safety equipment fronts.

BMW 3 Series Touring 2012-2019 First drives