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Can a six-pot diesel engine and bigger boot make the 3 Series even more appealing?

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Contemplating the BMW 330d’s place in the motoring world as we move into a brand-new decade is a fascinating undertaking.

Just over 20 years have now elapsed since the first 30d-badged BMW 3 Series rolled off the production line in Munich, Leipzig and Regensburg, kick-starting a phenomenon in the process. Those particular E46- generation models were by no means the first Threes to use oil-burning six-cylinder engines, but their arrival marked the birth of what could be one of the most multi-talented vehicle genres to date: the performance diesel compact executive car.

I’ve no idea how much longer cars in this class will be available with six-pot diesel motors, but it’ll be a sad day indeed when this one is gone. What a magnificent machine.

A sub-8.0sec 0-62mph time was a headline-grabbing statistic at the time. But of even greater significance was the 330d’s ability to merge that performance so coherently with competitive long-range economy, upmarket quality and BMW’s dynamic driver appeal. For the next two decades, successive iterations continued to build on and improve these highly appealing themes.

Fast forward to early 2020 and the automotive landscape has changed out of sight. Electrification is on the rise, mainstream cars are downsizing and shedding cylinders, and increasingly strict, environmentally driven means of taxation coupled with general consumer uncertainty have eroded the appeal of diesel cars – with the grander, pricier and more performance-oriented models suffering worse than most.

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Simultaneously, the smaller capacity variants that might once have been considered the ‘lesser’ offering in the line-up are reaching new heights of competency and appeal, with greater performance, refinement and economy than ever. BMW’s own 320d is a case in point, having won our five-star recommendation last year.

Bearing all this in mind, the 330d needs to stand out as a truly well-rounded, alluring diesel flagship more plainly than ever. Can it? We allowed it to answer that question with the time-honoured joker of an added-practicality, extended-roofline Touring body thrown in.

The BMW 3 Series Touring range at a glance

A fairly expansive line-up, this, and it’s likely to grow further over the next few months. For now, though, the 3 Series Touring range starts at the 320i and progresses right up to the M340i xDrive.

Interestingly, it’s the more powerful 320d – as opposed to the 318d – that represents the entry point for diesel cars, as this is the only model that comes with a manual ’box as standard instead of the pricier eight-speed auto. Trim hierarchy is familiar BMW territory, starting at SE before moving up through Sport, M Sport, M Sport Plus and M Performance.

Price £48,035 Power 262bhp Torque 428lb ft 0-60mph 5.5sec 30-70mph in fourth 5.8sec Fuel economy 42.0mpg CO2 emissions 142g/km 70-0mph 54.3m

DESIGN & STYLING

BMW 3 Series Touring 2020 road test review - hero rear

Dimensionally speaking, the switch from saloon to estate has little impact on the BMW 3 Series Touring’s overall footprint. The car still measures 4709mm in overall length and width (without mirrors) remains at 1827mm, although the height of our particular model has increased by 3mm to 1445mm.

The more noticeable difference identifies itself when you examine claimed kerb weights. Next to a like-for-like, rear-wheel-drive BMW 3 Series 320d M Sport saloon, BMW’s equivalent estate is some 115kg heavier, tipping the scales at 1640kg. Swap the four-cylinder diesel out of the BMW wagon for our test car’s straight six, then add BMW’s rear-biased xDrive four-wheel-drive system and an eight-speed automatic gearbox, and that mass figure leaps to a claimed 1760kg.

The independently opening rear window makes accessing a fully loaded boot a simple undertaking. Should be a staple of all estate cars, really.

However, with its 59-litre fuel tank brimmed, our 330d test car weighed an even more portly 1922kg on our test scales, with that heft being distributed 47% to the front and 53% rear. Not quite the 50:50 split, although not too far wide of the mark – but hardly the sporting kerb weight many might have expected.

Despite the added bulk the practical estate shape brings, our testers largely agreed that the Touring is the more handsome proposition of the two bodystyles. Whereas the saloon bears a not insignificant resemblance to the sort of car you might expect to spot in a Lexus brochure, particularly from the rear, the 3 Series Touring seems to wear BMW’s slightly pernickety new design language a degree more coherently.

In terms of its engine, the 330d is both the entry-level six-cylinder 3 Series (sitting below the petrol-powered M340i) and the range-topping diesel. The 3.0-litre B57 engine makes use of the same single, twin-scroll turbocharger configuration you’ll find in all other 30d-badged BMWs, and here it produces 262bhp at 4000rpm and 428lb ft between 1750rpm and 2750rpm. An eight-speed ZF automatic transmission marshals this punch to the road, while an electronically controlled, full-locking M Sport rear differential (standard fit on our M Sport Plus Edition test car) pitches in to help sharpen handling and traction.

Like its saloon sibling, the 3 Series Touring continues to employ a suspension configuration consisting of MacPherson struts at the front and a multi-link arrangement at the rear. The estate’s anti-roll bars have been stiffened up and the front springs softened a touch to help it cope with its additional mass at the rear, but in other respects the two models are identical.

A passively damped steel coil suspension system comes as standard on Sport versions of the Touring, while M Sport models make use of a separate lowered and stiffened passively damped set-up. Our range-topping M Sport Plus Edition, meanwhile, introduces adaptive M Sport suspension as standard. It also gains uprated M Sport brakes and a variable-ratio M Sport steering system.

INTERIOR

BMW 3 Series Touring 2020 road test review - front seats

Forward of the luggage compartment, the 3 Series Touring’s cabin is identical to that of the BMW 3 Series saloon.

That means you get the same easily identifiable architecture throughout, with its evolution of BMW’s cascading dashboard design and the same impressively high standards of material fit and finish. It’s not the most opulent or ostentatious cabin in the world, but it’s hard not to be taken in by the effortless premium feel. For perceived quality, it blows the cabin of the Alfa Romeo Giulia out of the water, and likewise that of a Jaguar XE – but then so it should, given that prices for top-spec versions of the 330d start north of £45,000.

Boot space is up there with the best in class and accessibility is excellent thanks to the absence of any notable sill. All models get an automatic tailgate as standard.

Still, and in typical BMW fashion, function doesn’t take a back seat to form. The scope for adjustability in both the seating position and steering column is truly excellent, although our test car’s optional £1900 Premium package, which introduces electronic adjustability for the standard-fit sport seats, is a key player in this regard. The sports seats themselves didn’t draw the ire of any of our testers for any perceived lack of comfort or support, while BMW’s commitment to retaining a rotary dial for control of the infotainment system improves ease of use greatly when on the move.

Although it would be stretching the truth somewhat to describe the spaciousness of the 3 Series’ second row as a particular selling point, rear passenger space is nonetheless competitive. With the front seats positioned for a taller driver, those in the back won’t find their knees come into too close proximity to the seatbacks. Head room is good, too, although adults will want to do their best to avoid having to sit in the less accommodating middle chair.

With a seats-up luggage capacity of 500 litres, boot space is strong if not quite class leading. The Volvo V60 outdoes the BMW by 29 litres, but both outgun the Mercedes-Benz C-Class Estate and Audi S4 Avant (460 litres and 420 litres respectively) by an even greater margin. As before, the 3 Series Touring has a particular selling point: the rear window can be opened independently of the tailgate for quick access. With the rear bench collapsed, which can be done with a touch of a button in the boot wall, the cargo hold increases to 1510 litres – larger, even, than that of the Volvo.

BMW 3 Series Touring infotainment and sat nav

BMW’s latest 10.25in Live Cockpit Professional infotainment system comes as standard on M Sport models and above, with the lower-grade Sport cars featuring an 8.8in display. For the sophistication of its graphics and the slick manner in which it operates, this is easily one of the best systems out there.

Standard features include satellite navigation, DAB radio and Bluetooth connectivity. BMW’s Connected Package Plus also includes Apple CarPlay, although strangely we couldn’t get this feature to work on our test car. The optional Technology package introduces an excellent head-up display and wireless smartphone charger, among other features, and is well worth its £1900 asking price.

BMW’s new digital instrument binnacle is clear and easy to read, although none of our testers was a huge fan of the hexagonally shaped dials. A very basic level of configurability was a bit of a let-down, too.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

BMW 3 Series Touring 2020 road test review - engine

In the 330d, BMW’s B57 engine straddles the fine line between sporting performance and real-world usability with such impressive poise that it’s easy to lament the tax-motivated move away from powerful diesel engines in cars such as these.

Its performance on a cold, wet day on Millbrook’s mile straight helped prove its effectiveness. With BMW’s xDrive four-wheel drive system all but rendering wheelspin off the line non-existent, the BMW 3 Series Touring hit 60mph from rest in just 5.5sec before reaching 100mph in 14.5sec. Bearing in mind the conditions, as well as the fact that our test car was fully fuelled, BMW’s claimed 0-62mph time of 5.5sec seems entirely believable.

Compared with the saloon, the Touring’s marginally softer front end takes the edge off the steering’s incisiveness, but it’s otherwise a well-balanced, responsive package.

In-gear performance and flexibility are equally mighty, with proceedings becoming faintly strained only once the engine spins past 4000rpm. The manner in which the bulk of torque comes on tap is easily manageable, too. The BMW might not surge forward with quite the level of explosiveness of an Audi S4 TDI, but its slightly more laid-back swell of force serves to make it seem more drivable. That said, a marginally more responsive accelerator pedal, particularly when stepping off the mark, would be welcomed.

The engine’s muscular, bassy growl is by no means a match for the six- or eight-cylinder petrol engines you find elsewhere in BMW’s own four-door line-up or the wider class in general, but the noise it emits under load has an appeal all of its own. In addition to sounding better, those aforementioned petrol saloons will also go a little faster than the 330d, but how many could get close to matching its 42mpg fuel economy test average, or its 52.6mpg touring economy result? The plug-in hybrid Volvo S60 T8 Polestar Engineered option would get closer than most, but even that car couldn’t better 40mpg on our touring economy test.

For all the praise, however, the report card for the 330d’s powertrain isn’t completely blemish free. The eight-speed gearbox can demonstrate a mildly frustrating hesitance when asked to kick down in Comfort mode, although generally it executes shifts in a slick enough fashion. It can also feel a touch too eager to engage when moving away from a standstill, resulting in a slightly more forceful step-off than is entirely comfortable if you’re hasty with your right foot.

RIDE & HANDLING

BMW 3 Series Touring 2020 road test review - cornering front

This BMW 3 Series Touring’s slightly heftier kerb weight does affect the state of play here a little compared with the high dynamic standard set by the BMW 3 Series 320d saloon last year, but the consequences that arise from the car’s additional mass are minor.

The most notable difference is born out of Munich’s decision to soften off the car’s front suspension to account for the extra mass at the rear. This results in the 3 Series Touring not feeling quite as immediately fleet-footed or incisive as its saloon counterpart when tipped in to a bend, although our testers all agreed that its position at the top of the class’s food chain for handling prowess easily remains unchallenged. Next to the likes of the Audi S4 Avant or Volvo V60 T8 Twin Engine, the BMW still stands out as the keen driver’s choice.

Fast directional changes can lead to a momentary loss of grip in slippery conditions, but BMW’s stability systems and four-wheel drive quickly right your line.

That said, its variable-ratio sports steering isn’t particularly feelsome. But the predictable manner in which its weight and responsiveness increase as you wind on lock is quick to impart a rock-solid sense of intuitive confidence in the car’s impressively balanced chassis as you flow it down a fast B-road. Body control, meanwhile, is very good, although the fact that there’s simply more mass to contain does remain on the fringes of your perception.

Grip and traction levels are also excellent, and even though our test car made use of BMW’s xDrive system, it remained distinctly rear biased in the manner in which it behaved in bends. With the M Sport differential, you can feel the rear axle helping rotate the chassis through bends under power, and although that xDrive chassis might not be quite as willing to waggle its tail as its purely rear-driven counterparts, the additional security proffered by the driven front axle is welcome in inclement conditions. Make no mistake: the balance struck here between dynamic poise, driver engagement and inherent handling security is exceptional.

Few cars in this class deal with Millbrook’s Hill Route as impressively as the 3 Series Touring. With its dampers firmed up, the 330d Touring exhibits exceptional body control and poise, while the direct, accurate steering makes the process of nosing in to an apex at speed a predictable and enjoyable undertaking.

Traction levels are generally good courtesy of the xDrive four-wheel drive system, although with the stability systems reduced, the BMW will happily adopt a fair amount of attitude through sharper bends. Such moments of oversteer arrive in a predictable, readable fashion, however, and its front axle gracefully steps in to pull you out of a corner’s exit before things become too lairy.

Meanwhile, the course’s more gruelling ascents are dispatched with ease owing to the engine’s effortless torque, and manual gearshifts are executed in a snappy fashion.

Comfort and Isolation

Nevertheless, a trade-off has been made in order to imbue the 3 Series Touring with its heightened level of agility. With its adaptive dampers set to Comfort, it immediately feels more compliant and forgiving than its passively damped M Sport siblings. However, next to the likes of a Mercedes-Benz C-Class, the BMW’s rolling refinement leaves something to be desired.

This, of course, will be the result of a conscious decision to engineer a more sprightly character into the 3 Series than any lack of tuning ability at BMW. It’s a question of the sporting priorities that the car represents – and many owners will therefore embrace it. But the fact remains that the 3 Series Touring’s low-speed ride is characterised by a mild restlessness and punctuated by relatively frequent thumps and bumps from many surface imperfections. The car’s dampers smartly round off the sharper edges of such impacts, so that while they remain relatively constant around town, they never become coarse or wearing.

Move to open-road speeds and things settle down nicely. The primary ride on undulating surfaces is fluid yet purposefully assertive and controlled, while cabin isolation is improved. At a sustained 70mph cruise, our microphone produced a reading of just 65dB. Next to the 70dB effort of the S4 we road tested late last year, the BMW is comparatively church-like. Still, that’s not to say the 3 Series is totally immune from road roar or wind noise, but its ability to mitigate these sources of fatigue is impressive enough to ensure it’s a competent and comfortable long-distance tourer.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

BMW 3 Series Touring 2020 road test review - hero front

The BMW 3 Series Touring 330d isn’t cheap. The least expensive, rear-drive Sport starts at £41,565 (nearly £5000 more than a 320d Sport) and the 330d range moves up to £48,035 for our xDrive M Sport Plus Edition. Even then, options make it easy to push that price up even further. With all of its extras, our car came in at £56,305.

Not long ago, that sort of sum would have bought you an M3. Even so, the BMW is cheaper than a Volvo V60 T8 Twin Engine R-Design Plus (£50,905) and an Audi S4 Avant (£49,400).

The BMW’s residuals are just outperformed by the six-cylinder diesel Audi S4, while plug-in hybrid Volvo V60 trails a little behind

An individual who falls into the 40% income tax bracket will part with £6938 in tax annually to run the BMW as a company car, versus just £3254 for the plug-in hybrid V60. A 320d M Sport Plus Edition Touring, meanwhile, will cost that same person £5463, assuming neither car is run in ‘opt-out’ company-car-by-proxy circumstances.

VERDICT

BMW 3 Series Touring 2020 road test review - static

The temptation to award the BMW 3 Series Touring 330d five stars was difficult to resist. The refinement and performance of its six-cylinder powertrain make it a worthy diesel flagship; it handles very nearly as well and enjoyably as any BMW 3 Series saloon; and it’s one of the more practical estates in its segment. That it can also average 42mpg without really trying and has a materially appealing, ergonomically sound cabin only amplify just how desirable and well rounded a machine it is.

However, there is a hefty price to pay for such excellence these days. Stricter emissions-based company car taxation means the car is now nearly twice as dear to tax as its predecessor was in 2012. And given the exceptional competence of the current 320d Touring models, that greater premium now seems harder to justify.

Powerful, classy and great to drive – but with a price to match

For those who can afford it, the 330d remains an open and shut case. After all, you’ll be buying what is probably the most multi-talented 3 Series – and therefore the most multi-talented compact exec – currently on sale. But it’s a lamentable shame that current tax rules have come down so hard on such an undeserving target.

BMW 3 Series Touring First drives