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BMW produced the 3 Series GT hatchback to give the range another string to its bow, but the execution has led to too many compromises

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BMW’s experiment to find the perfect ‘one size fits all’ executive car didn’t get off to the best of starts, but it’s forging ahead regardless with the BMW 3 Series GT.

Munich’s first Gran Turismo model arrived in the UK at the turn of 2010. The jacked-up, seldom-seen 5 Series GT was intended as a prettier, comfier, more modern and less utility-flavoured alternative to a conventional 5 Series Touring.

Put simply, the BMW 3 Series GT is a hatchback version of the 3 Series saloon

It was supposed to find a brave new executive market niche, but it sold slowly, and to the wrong people. It sold badly enough across the pond, in fact, to make BMW North America rue the day it ever committed to dropping the normal and well-received 5 Series estate in favour of it.

Now, after the 5 Series Gran Turismo made us all stand back, squint and scratch our heads, there’s a second example of this saloon-cum-estate with which to get acquainted. It is the smaller 3 Series GT, and its mission is to combine the looks of the 3 Series saloon with the usability of the Touring.

Sounds familiar. And, perhaps, unrealistic. But it’s worth noting that it wasn’t the concept of the larger 5GT that let it down in our original test; mainly, it was a poorly resolved ride and unusually unflattering styling. Clearly, there is some mileage in the 3 Series GT as summer 2016 saw the coupé shaped car gain some minor exterior changes, the addition of new and upgraded engines, and redefined trim levels.

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DESIGN & STYLING

BMW 3 Series GT rear

BMW continues to believe that, by cross-breeding between niches, it can create the premium-brand car you never knew you wanted. 

The 3 Series GT mixes an extended wheelbase and body with a liftback boot, and adds a slightly raised ride height with a coupé-like roofline. As such, the GT is 200mm longer overall, has a 110mm longer wheelbase and is 81mm taller than an equivalent estate. But, thanks to its arcing silhouette and elongated tail, it’s designed to have the visual appeal of a liftback coupé rather than that of a utility car. 

The 3 Series GT could do with a little weight trimming off it

While the 5GT delivered those attributes with all of the style of a disposable plastic ‘spork’, the 3GT looks like a better effort. It shakes off the proportional awkwardness of the 5GT, passing instead for any other 3 Series – just. The 2016 facelift helps establish this look further with revised air ducts, LED headlights and redesigned lens graphics synonymous of the 3 Series range.

Though they’re newly expansive, the body surfaces look taut and the features are attractive. We’d argue with anyone who claimed the car had the elegance of a coupé, but we’d praise BMW for disguising the inherent contradiction here; this is a low-slung, dynamic saloon made more large and upright than you’d guess by looking at it.

However, we wouldn’t say it looked drastically more desirable than a 3 Series Touring, which is one of BMW’s key conceits. 

There are three turbocharged petrol engines and four turbodiesels to choose from: two petrol four-cylinders (320i and 330i) and a six (340i), as well as three turbodiesel fours (318d, 320d and a higher-output four-pot 330d) and the six-cylinder 335d. Four-wheel-drive 'xDrive' versions are also offered.

Under the skin, the 3 Series’ steel monocoque construction is adapted, and its light alloy MacPherson strut, multi-link suspension is applied – the latter tuned, says BMW, for greater touring stability than directional agility, in line with the car's badging.

We weighed a 318d Sport GT and it tipped our scales at 1675kg, some 140kg heavier than the 320d saloon we weighed. It also carries three percent more of its bulk over its rear axle than the 50 percent front/50 percent rear saloon.

INTERIOR

BMW 3 Series GT interior

An appreciation of what the 3GT’s unorthodox dimensions offer in terms of increased cabin space is crucial to the car’s appeal, but anyone expecting a drastic step change from either of its 3 Series stablemates will perhaps feel short-changed by the new addition. Instead, this is a reasonably subtle embellishment of the already excellent space on offer elsewhere. 

The feeling of familiarity won’t be lost on the driver, as the handsome dashboard changes not one jot. The only alteration is the ergonomic relationship; BMW has raised all of the GT’s seats by 59mm, making you an overseer of the controls rather than the embedded operator around which the saloon’s chassis pivots. 

Another car fitted with unnecessary and seemingly needless reclining rear seats

If you’re not too long of leg, the captain’s chair can be set low enough to recognise the extra headroom afforded by the loftier roofline, but the regular 3 Series is already generous here, so the advantage is negligible. 

In the back, the difference is more tangible. BMW says, thanks to the higher hip point and elongated wheelbase, there’s an additional 70mm of legroom behind the front seats. Our objective tape measure and subjective knees didn’t quite concur with that, although only a mean tester would argue that the space is insufficient for a genuinely superior sense of comfort. Being further from the ground inevitably makes getting in and out that little bit easier, too. 

But the real boon of the GT concept is further aft. Furnished with an electrically operated tailgate (solving the problem of lifting a huge, heavy panel), the new car’s larger dimensions endow it with a seats-up boot capacity of 520 litres; that’s 25 litres more than a Volvo XC60.

This measurement will have involved some judicious fiddling with the rear seats’ backrests (which adjust from 19deg to bolt upright), but fold the 40/20/40 pews very nearly flat and the GT’s flush-floor party trick trumps the Touring’s total capacity by 100 litres.

As for equipment that comes with the 3 Series GT, there are four trim levels to choose from - SE, Sport, Luxury and M Sport. The entry-level SE models get 18in alloys, an active spoiler, cruise control, LED headlights, rear parking sensors, and automatic headlights and wipers. Inside you get dual-zone climate control and BMW's iDrive infotainment complete with sat nav, Bluetooth integration, DAB radio and USB connectivity.

Upgrade to the Sport trim and the BMW 3 Series GT gets front sports seats, chrome and gloss black detailings, ambient interior lighting and sporty attire, while the Luxury models intensifies the use of chrome, 18in alloy wheels, and a Dakota leather upholstery. Opt for the larier 330i or 330d models and you'll also get an eight-speed sports auto 'box and front parking sensors. 

The range-topping M Sport models get numerous performance tweaks such as the bodykit, suspension, 18in alloy wheels and mixed tyres, while those who opt for a 340i will get a metallic paint job, a twin chrome exhaust system and an eight-speed sports auto 'box as standard.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

BMW 3 Series GT side profile

Truth be told, none of the available engine options could be considered a poor choice by any means. The diesel engines are relatively quiet, flexible and economical, while the six-cylinder 340i is a powerful, responsive and gratifying option.

It's only the four-cylinder petrols that will potentially leave you wanting. Unless you're a low mileage user, and despite being moderately powerful and quiet, there's little justification in opting for one over one of the four-cylinder diesels. The diesel GTs hold their value better, use less fuel and offer more low-down torque.

Sat-nav data is used to operate the car's ancillaries as efficiency as possible

Consequently its the diesel options, in particular the 318d and the 320d, that will be most appealing to customers - even more so if they're business users.

There was a time – and it wasn’t that long ago – when a diesel that took less than 10 seconds to sprint from 0-60mph would have been considered perky. Diesels aren’t renowned for their standing-start acceleration, after all.

But that was before the arrival of cars like the BMW 335d, which, even with an automatic gearbox, can do the same thing in 5.5sec. So the fact that the 318d GT wants 9.5sec to get to 60mph is bordering on a disappointment these days.

There are, of course, reasons for it. Neither relates to the 318d GT’s delivery, which is just about smooth and muted enough to meet the prevailing class standard. Instead, the issues are twofold and very obvious. 

First, the 318d GT is 40bhp down on even the 320d saloon that we road tested in 2012, and which could hit 60mph in 7.7sec and, more tellingly, accelerate from 30-70mph through its gears in 7.4sec (the 318d GT takes, again, 9.5sec).

Not that there’s a great deal of point in extending it that far, because acceleration has slowly tailed off before then in the inverse fashion to how power slowly builds at the bottom of the rev range. The best work is done from 2000-4000rpm, where it’s easy to stay thanks to the widely spaced throws of a heavily sprung manual gearshift or BMW's rapid-shifting eight-speed automatic.

Is there a bonus to the leisurely gait? There is. The 318d GT proved parsimoniously frugal in our hands. In a week of driving that was fairly typical, the GT returned 50.4mpg. In a five-seat, 1675kg hatchback, that’s remarkable.

BMW's 320d GT is much the same, albeit with more torque and brisker acceleration. It's also notably faster from 0-62mph, so those who frequently drive across country or in stop-start traffic may find it more agreeable. The 330d is the same again, with approximately another second knocked of the 0-62mph time and swifter in-gear performance.

Transmission options include a smooth six-speed manual gearbox or the exceptional eight-speed automatic. If you're not that fussed about a manual transmission, or want to use the GT regularly, it's worth going for the eight-speed automatic as it chooses its gears well and suits the car's character.

RIDE & HANDLING

BMW 3 Series GT cornering

Here’s something that doesn’t happen often: after driving BMW's GT for the first time, a couple of our testers said they got out to check that the car was on runflat tyres (it is), so normal is the ride. Not pampering, not cosseting, not a major comfort breakthrough. Just completely acceptable. Pliant.

To drive, then, the GT is pretty pleasing. It rides with suppleness and general quietness from its suspension, despite that vast rear hatch, which means there’s no solid bulkhead as there is in a 3 Series saloon.

Switch off the DSC in the wet and you'll have an entertaining driving experience

The hatch brings with it something else, especially given that it’s electrically operated: the motors add so much weight that 53 per cent of the car’s mass sits over the back wheels. 

Does that matter? On the road, not at all. We suspect it’s the reason why the GT comes with wider tyres on the rear than the front (255-section versus 225), to maintain a neutral handling balance. The 320d saloon and 330d Touring we’ve previously tested wore the same boots front and rear. 

So, the 3 Series GT just steers and handles with much the same feel as other 3 Series. There’s a touch less agility, perhaps, but with a fine smoothness to the rack, decent body control and well judged roll and pitch movements. It’s not quite as balanced as a 3 Series saloon, but it’s close.

Opting for the M Sport adaptive dampers could be a worthwhile move if you want the best from your GT, as they give a real suppleness to the ride and help partly mask the GT’s greater heft over the saloon, especially when confronted with more potted surfaces.

But this good work can be undone if you put it in Sport mode; here the bumps can intrude into the cabin, so it’s best to enjoy the ride in its standard mode for most of the time.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

BMW 3 Series GT

The first psychological hurdle for buyers to overcome is the presence of two obvious elephants elsewhere in the showroom. 

BMW's 3 Series Saloon and Touring can be had slightly cheaper than the GT and are both consummate class leaders. But BMW’s latest addition must be segregated from its rangemates and considered alongside the other stylised hatchbacks currently posing as saloons. 

Go for the eight-speed automatic gearbox, as it suits the car

Foremost among these is the Audi A5 Sportback, an arguably better-looking prospect with equally strong performance, hardier residuals and similarly augmented practicality.

Opting for BMW’s desirable eight-speed automatic transmission further bumps up the price compared to its rival. While the standard kit list is respectably long, it doesn't take BMW too many ticks of the option boxes to push the liftback’s sticker price outside of comfortable realms.

The M Sport package is well worth having too, because it significantly improves the GT's look, and it's well worth specifying the adaptive dampers. The 3 Series GT won't necessarily be a hugely popular model, so picking the right options to boost its residual values in the long term is worth doing.

On the plus side, BMW's running costs should be acceptable, particularly in 318d or 320d forms, thanks to sensible CO2 emissions and decent fuel economy. Reliability should be good too, and BMW dealerships are usually attentive and quick to resolve any issues.

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VERDICT

BMW 3 Series GT rear quarter

BMW’s attempt to plot a third way between established body styles meets more success with the 3 Series than it did with the 5 Series. The GT is considerably more agreeable almost across the board, and certainly with regard to the shortfalls that made the 5GT so ungainly

However, the GT attributes haven’t been absorbed into the 3 Series template without a trade-off: the car has had to grow into its new badge, and its distinctiveness won’t appeal to all of the existing 3 Series customer base. That’s to be expected, however; the GT is intended to broaden the model’s appeal, not narrow it. 

The GT's just marginally better to drive than the A5

Certainly for us, the shorter and pointier but less usable saloon is the quintessential 3 Series. The GT is a bigger, floppier and more mellow compromise – less compact exec hot rod and more easygoing retiree. To more than a few potential BMW customers, that might just sound ideal.

If you really ‘get’ the 3 Series GT’s concept, then you won’t worry about the compromises in the way it drives compared to the sublime saloon. If you do get it, then you’ll have to work out whether you really need it and are prepared to pay for it.

The main thing the GT adds over the saloon and Touring models is space, but, with its moderate premium, you’re really going to have to need that extra space to justify doing away with a touch of dynamic polish in the process.

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Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes.