BMW still boasts that its vehicles are "The Ultimate Driving Machine" four decades later, but the brand is very different today. It offered just a few model lines in the mid-1970s, and only a handful of vehicles within. In 2014, the automaker offers an exhaustive range comprised of nearly a dozen lines with almost 50 different models. To survive and thrive, BMW has decided it must massively broaden its appeal.
One of the latest arrivals to BMW's ever-growing stable is the 2014 3 Series Gran Turismo. The five-door hatchback is best thought of as a smaller version of the company's 5 Series Gran Turismo built on stretched 3 Series platform that, in the case of this test car, shares the running gear of the 328i xDrive sedan. On paper, the five-passenger vehicle checks all the proper boxes with regards to performance, utility and economy. But does this family-focused 3 Series still deliver driving dynamics that qualify it for the title of Ultimate Driving Machine?
I imagine there is no sportier color on a 328i GT than Melbourne Red Metallic, which makes perfect sense considering the test vehicle in my driveway arrived configured as an enthusiast would choose. While the base vehicle starts at $41,450 (excluding $925 destination), this particular car came upgraded with the M Sport package ($3,750) that includes an aerodynamic kit, M Sport steering wheel, 18-inch aluminum M Sport wheels, sport seats, premium Dakota leather and unique cosmetic appointments inside the cabin (including odd anodized blue trim). Its other sport-tuned equipment included the Dynamic Handling Package ($1,000) and M Sport brakes ($650). The cosmetic and functional upgrades included Black Dakota leather ($1,450), Cold Weather Package ($950) and a Harmon-Kardon audio system ($875), bringing the grand total to $54,570.
While the Sedan and Sport Wagon are quite pleasing to the eye, the 3 Series Gran Turismo is comparatively ungainly.
On one hand, its hefty $55,000 sticker buys a lot of car – but on the other, quite a bit of content is missing. Standard halogen headlights are a disappointment, with the optional Xenon headlights ($900) a wise upgrade. Furthermore, the Driver Assistance Package ($950), which adds Park Distance Control and a Rear View camera, should be considered mandatory, as the GT bodystyle's sightlines makes reversing a real challenge.
Physically speaking, the 328i GT is marginally larger than a 3 Series sedan. By the tape, it is 0.67 inches wider, 3.1 inches taller and it rides on a wheelbase that has been stretched 4.3 inches to make its overall length eight inches longer – it all adds up to proportions that are a bit awkward. While the 3 Series Sedan and Sport Wagon are quite pleasing to the eye, the 3 Series Gran Turismo is comparatively ungainly, though admittedly a bit more attractive than its larger 5 Series GT relative.
Thankfully, there's beauty within the passenger cabin, and it's precisely where the GT shines. Dropping into the driver's seat, the driver is faced with a cockpit virtually identical to that of other 3 Series models. The primary instrument panel offers a nice mix of analog dials and color digital displays, the switchgear is well positioned and the compact gear selector on the center console frees up plenty of space for two cupholders and small item storage. Kudos to BMW for sticking with physical dial controls for audio volume and dual-zone temperature adjustment, and the mechanical hand-operated parking brake is a welcome sight, as well.
The rear compartment is where the magic really happens, as the GT's stretched chassis (borrowed from the Chinese-market, long-wheelbase model) creates a passenger space that offers 2.8 inches more legroom than the standard 3 Series sedan. That may not sound like much, but the resulting rear seats offer more foot and knee room than the 5 Series sedan (families with rear-facing child seats, take note). The seatbacks very usefully split 40/20/40 and fold to reveal a cavernous trunk (one cubic foot larger than that on the 3 Series Sport Wagon) that's accessible through the passenger compartment or through the power-operated hatchback. Remote releases, well positioned on the inside walls of the trunk, make one-handed seating configuration changes a cinch, and adjustable tie-downs (sliding on twin aluminum floor rails) allow cargo to easily be secured. There are grocery bag hooks on the walls, a 12-volt outlet and even hidden storage below the deck floor – I'd argue there's more utility in a 3 Series GT than all the other 3 Series models combined.
I'd argue there's more utility in a 3 Series GT than all the other 3 Series models combined.
Four passengers will find the 3GT very comfortable (all outboard positions are available with heated seats), but the fifth – relegated to the flat cushion on the second row – will suffer, as the large boxy tunnel on the floor limits foot room and shoulder space is compromised by the passengers on either side. A pop-up center head restraint is provided for the times when five are on board. Backseat accommodations include a climate-control vent, adjustable for temperature, and a 12-volt socket, too.
BMW offers the 3 Series GT with a choice of two powerplants. The standard engine, dropped under the hood of 328i models, is the company's familiar turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four (N20) rated at 240 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque. All US models arrive with an eight-speed automatic transmission (8HP45) and BMW's permanent xDrive all-wheel drive. Those seeking a bit more power should opt for the 335i models, as they arrive with a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six that shaves a full second off the 0-60 sprint at the expense of fuel economy, which decreases by about 10 percent.
I've got nothing but praise for the powerplant and its smooth eight-speed gearbox under most conditions.
A standard 328i sedan tips the scales at just 3,406 pounds, but the additional size of the GT platform (with a standard automatic transmission and all-wheel drive) adds quite a bit of weight – 509 pounds, to be more precise. It's a good thing that the N20 is a mighty little powerhouse, as the 328i GT will still sprint to the 60-mile-per-hour benchmark in just over six seconds, which is decently quick, considering the heft. Aside from a slightly rough idle, which sounds a bit like a diesel as it clanks away at stoplights, I've got nothing but praise for the powerplant and its smooth eight-speed gearbox under most conditions. For best results around town and on the highway, don't touch the gimmicky paddles on the steering wheel and let the vehicle's own computers do the shifting – they do a fine job. I'm indifferent on the fuel-saving stop/start technology, which is often jerky when the N20 fires back to life. Thankfully, it may be defeated at the touch of a button.
The 328i GT also excels on the open road, where its proven 3 Series underpinnings carry it down the highway with poise. The front suspension is a double-pivot design with spring struts and anti-roll bar, while the rear is a five-link setup. The automaker has used aluminum torque struts, wishbones and swivel bearings to reduce unsprung mass, all of which improve the ride. On the open road, the 500-pound weight penalty and long wheelbase takes some of the skittishness out of the standard 3 Series models, delivering a dampened, limo-like ride. Indeed, the 3GT rides better than its sedan and wagon siblings.
Aerodynamics deserve a special mention, as this model is fitted with BMW's first-ever active rear spoiler. Tucked cleanly away on the decklid at low speeds, it raises automatically to improve airflow over the vehicle while traveling above 68 mph. Those strange black boomerangs just aft of each front wheel are functional Air Breathers that work with the Air Curtains in the front fascia to move air around the wheel wells. As a result of the aerodynamic fine-tuning, the 3GT boasts a very low drag coefficient of 0.29. This not only improves fuel consumption, it lowers interior noise levels.
The 3GT rides better than its sedan and wagon siblings.
BMW's 328i xDrive Gran Turismo earns solid "A" marks in passenger comfort and utility, and equally as impressive grades in city and highway driving dynamics, yet none of these measurements substantiate the title of the "Ultimate Driving Machine." That test requires a spectacular canyon road.
Decker, Mulholland and Stunt are three names that raise the pulse of automotive enthusiasts in Southern California, as each represents a two-lane stretch of asphalt that twists and winds across the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu. The 328i GT, a BMW equipped with M Sport and Dynamic Handling Packages, would appear to be right at home in such venues, but in the end, that just isn't the case.
Even though all settings were set to Sport mode (including the stability control), the 3,915-pound Gran Turismo drove with uncharacteristic heaviness in the canyons, with a high center of gravity that had it rolling into the corners and protesting with excessive understeer when quick turn-in was demanded. The output from the turbocharged engine, which seemed more than ample around town, suddenly felt underpowered and the smooth-shifting gearbox was frequently caught in an incorrect tall ratio.
The five-door felt out of place in the canyons. It didn't feel like a well-sorted 3 Series.
The all-wheel-drive system didn't perform any miracles, either, as its open differentials seemed confused by the rapid weight shifts and uneven tire loadings – its engineering objective appears to be all-weather capability, not augmenting dry performance or enjoyment. Only making matters worse, the narrow all-season tires (Continental ContiProContact SSR tires sized 225/50VR18) squirmed and protested in every corner. The five-door felt out of place in the canyons. It didn't feel like a well-sorted 3 Series. To be more direct, the Gran Turismo didn't feel like a proper BMW.
All of BMW's models continue to bask under its "Ultimate" spotlight, but there will be a day in the near future when the automaker stops engineering all of its vehicles to be "first and foremost, a driver's car," and begins building vehicles designed to satisfy the needs of everyone else to expand its market share. Most drivers aren't enthusiasts, after all. The new arrivals will dictate that isolative interiors are more important that communicative controls, fuel-saving aerodynamics are more essential than aggressive sticky tires and ride comfort takes precedence over handling. With new products like the aforementioned 5GT, along with the new 2 Series Active Tourer and i3, some would argue that that day has already arrived.
I would argue that it's among BMW's first proactive steps towards building cars that don't earn its legendary tagline.
The 2014 328i xDrive Gran Turismo is a very competent vehicle – one well-suited for a family content with getting from Point A to Point B comfortably, safely, efficiently and luxuriously. And that true mission is impossible to disguise despite my test vehicle's inordinate amount of look-faster M Sport goodies and a distinguished Roundel adhered to its nose. After a full week of driving – but not particularly enjoying – the 3 Series GT, I would argue that it's among BMW's first proactive steps towards building cars that don't earn its legendary tagline.