BMW's Touring estates have always been among its more elegant models, and the new 3 Series Touring is no exception. It's a strong foil to the likes of the Audi A4 Avant and Mercedes-Benz C-Class Estate.
In the metal
The current BMW 3 Series has taken quite a bit of flak for its styling, with many accusing it of ripping off the Lexus IS 300h at the rear, and in general being a bit heavy-handed and with too much clunky detailing around the rest of the bodywork. The new Touring estate solves a lot of those issues, as Touring models have often done for BMW, simply by being much, much more handsome. Certainly, at the rear, the lines are far cleaner than those of the saloon (although you could accuse that kick-up line in the rear pillar of looking a little too much like a Volvo V60 tribute act) and the extra glass and metal of the estate body really helps to balance things out. The front end remains a touch messy, in some specs, but a little care taken with your colour and trim options will work wonders here.
Inside, the cabin at the front is basically unchanged from that of the 3 Series Saloon, which basically means it's excellent. The big digital instrument pack isn't quite as good as some rival offerings, but it is clear and versatile, while the newest iDrive infotainment system remains a paragon of ease-of-use, especially as BMW has been wise enough to retain a physical click-wheel controller, which makes it much simpler to use on the road.
The system now includes a new BMW Drive Recorder, which is basically a dash-cam setup, that constantly records the most recent 40 seconds of footage from the surround-view cameras that provide the parking surround view. That's on top of the usual connected online services and Apple Car Play connectivity (for which BMW may well soon start asking you to pay an extra fee).
Out the back, the 3 Series Touring is usefully practical. With the rear seats in place, and the luggage cover drawn across, there's 500 litres of boot space. That's decent - perhaps not exceptional - but it's only an extra five litres compared to the old model. Better is the seats-folded space, which is a very useful 1,510 litres. There are some helpful, practical touches though. The tailgate is electrically powered, as standard, right across the range, while there's a slot under the boot floor in which to stash the luggage cover when it's not needed. Most important of all, and in keeping with 3 Series Touring tradition, the rear tailgate glass (which is 20mm wider than it used to be) opens separately from the tailgate, which is handy when you have only small items to throw in, and don't want to wait for the electric tailgate to open and close.
The Touring might be the more practical 3 Series, but from the driver's seat, there's essentially no difference between this and the four-door saloon. The suspension, chassis, steering etc are all the same, and that's a good thing - the current 3 Series is one of the best-to-drive cars on the road, of any category, so no change here is to be welcomed.
The steering retains the sharpness of feedback that we've found in the saloon, which makes it one of the very best power steering setups you can currently buy. Our test car was a 330d xDrive model with four-wheel drive, so it had poise and traction to burn, in roughly equal amounts. Would a rear-drive version be slightly sweeter to drive? Probably, but you'd have to trade that off against the xDrive's foul-weather capability.
Through long, sweeping corners the 330d is imperiously sure-footed, but with the sort of entertainment and engagement that we thought had vanished from all but the most potent performance machinery. The only dynamic flaw is the ride quality, which even on smooth, glassine German tarmac felt a touch too fidgety. On Irish roads, it's doubly so, so spec your wheels and tyres very, very carefully indeed, and consider abandoning the default stiffly-sprung M Sport spec in favour of SE or Sport versions.
The '30d' diesel engine remains a paragon of both performance and economy. Where else could you find mid-range punch verging on M-car levels, combined with 50mpg fuel economy and turbine-like refinement? I know, I know - diesel is hardly fashionable, big diesels even less so, and they're shortly to be all-but legislated out of existence. Still, if you have the wherewithal, this big inline-six engine is a wonderful reminder of just how good the engine makers' art can be. We will most certainly miss engines such as this when they are gone.
What you get for your money
No 3 Series is cheap, and no Touring is cheap, and this 330d xDrive is downright expensive. Still, standard specs have improved out of all recognition with the bad old days of endless German options lists, and one has to consider just what good value the Touring offers relative to the mechanically similar BMW X3 SUV, a car that can cost you as much as €10,000 more, model for model.
Actually, the 3 Series Touring rather bucks the trend for estate sales in Ireland - generally we don't care for them, but the Touring has previously accounted for around 25 per cent of Irish 3 Series sales, about the same level it achieves in the estate-friendly UK. That's good news for a car that's good enough to deserve a wide audience.
It's often been suggested that the BMW 3 Series Touring, of whatever generation, is the perfect car - that bewitchingly correct blend of sportiness, practicality, style and dynamism. To be honest, on the basis of this new model, we just can't argue with that. OK, so the styling is not BMW's best work, but the chassis sure is, the quality levels are excellent and it's not even over-priced. A class act, and a tough one to beat.