2014 BMW 3-Series Gran Turismo: First Drive

December 26, 2013
Recalibration. If you have preconceptions of what the 3-Series has been and should be, it's what you need to do when first getting behind the wheel of the new 3-Series Gran Turismo.

That's not simply because while the 2014 BMW 3-Series GT is a hatchback and the 3-Series sedan has a trunk; there's a lot more that's different between these two models. Although with the 3-Series Sports Wagon you might get essentially the same driving experience as the sedan, what we found in the Gran Turismo was quite different—a softer, more passenger-oriented experience, really.

But the more time we spent with the 3GT, the more we grew to appreciate it as its own model—rather than an odd niche variant of the 3-Series, as some might see it.

First off, the 3-Series GT lands in some new territory for BMW. At about four inches longer in wheelbase and eight inches longer overall than the 3-Series sedan, it has nearly the footprint of a U.S. mid-size sedan, and is just three inches shorter than the 5-Series sedan.

From the front doors forward, the 3-Series GT looks deceptively close to the sedan—only if you're a BMW aficionado or if you happen to be parked right next to a 3-Series sedan will you or others really be able to pick apart where the 3GT is different. The hoodline is definitely a bit higher; so is the beltline; and the sheetmetal's actually completely different, even in front.

Behind the front doors, of course everything's different. And the smooth, broad arc of the roofline, from the top of the windshield header to just a couple inches ahead of the rear lip spoiler, is one of the keys to how this design doesn't really have any awkward angles. It's very nicely penned, and ends up looking light and restrained—not heavy (and rear-heavy) and overwrought as the 5-Series Gran Turismo model that's been around for a few years.

A little higher, without the rugged pretense

An asterisk here is that BMW hasn't tried to pull a Subaru Outback recast (or Volvo XC) on the 3-Series to get to the GT. There are no rugged cues added on; and we find that refreshing.

You sit about two inches higher in the front seats of the 3GT than you do in the 3-Series sedan, yet the GT has essentially the same dash and door trim, part and parcel, as the sedan; and overall, the driving/seating position feels like a sort of middle ground between the 3-Series sedan and X3. In back, there's lots more legroom—more than in the 5-Series sedan, BMW likes to boast—although headroom might be tight for those over six feet tall.

Despite the slow-sloping hatch, which makes some of the cargo space quite unusable, BMW has made the most of it. The hatch opens high and wide, and it includes a power-opening mechanism in case your arms can’t quite reach it. And within, there's a two-piece parcel shelf, and storage areas alongside and underneath.

While the 3GT looks light, it's hefty on the scales, with a curb weight approaching 4,000 pounds in base 328i form. The 328i GT weighs about 450 pounds more than the 328i sedan and just 200 pounds less than the X3. And it's just three inches shorter and about 100 pounds heavier than the 528i.

Looks and drives lighter than it is

Yet much of how the 3GT is tuned seems to attempt to counter than feeling of heft. And it mostly succeeds. The light, quick-ratio steering feels way different than that used in the sedan, but that, along with the near-instantaneous torque delivery of the familiar 2.0-liter turbo four (240 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque) and quick-witted eight-speed automatic help make this big hatch feel responsive and quite nimble. That's a big departure from the 5GT, which offers more passenger space but really does drive more like an SUV.

Just as in other 3-Series models, you get a series of customizable settings ranging from Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport, and Sport+. Switching over to Sport produces a very noticeable powertrain difference, with the transmission holding upshifts—unnecessarily long on level ground—and firming up the steering.

Pushing the 3GT along one of our favorite, familiar mountain roads, which includes some tight ascending and descending hairpins, the 3GT reminded me quite a bit of the Audi Allroad we had for 30 days this past summer. It's clear that this is a car that doesn't feel as athletic as the 3-Series sedan; you're likely to nudge into understeer, and its boundaries are safe and controllable. Only if you spike the throttle at the right time do you get the car to the more neutral feel you have in the sedans quite easily. One pleasant surprise, perhaps because there isn't as much load on the steering, is that we actually did feel more of the road surface here, counterintuitively, than we remember from the 3er sedan.

Our test car had the new version of iDrive that, for 2014, includes both the larger, wide-screen (8.8-inch) system as well as a capacitive (swipe) controller on top of the familiar tactile-feedback controller. It adds a welcome touch of intuitiveness and redundancy. You can, for instance, Swipe your fingertip from left to right along that surface to adjust the volume up in a controlled fashion. It’ll also allow you to trace individual letters for destination entry, for instance (a feature we didn’t try). We also found BMW's great head-up display very useful, as you can customize the info that's displayed there.

In about 110 miles with the 3GT—including a lot of short trips—we saw about 24 miles per gallon according to the trip computer. We've seen highway figures in the upper 30s with this engine on the highway in the 328i sedan and 528i sedan, and more than 30 in the X3, so we feel quite confident that it will top 30 mpg on a long road trip. Official mileage figures stand at 22 mpg city, 33 highway.

After a brief drive of the 3-Series GT, what's our take? Like the 5-Series GT, the 3GT is missing the glamor, gravitas, and sensuality of the Audi A7. It's more practical than some other low-roofline models like the Mercedes-Benz CLA, yet a little more sedan-like even than crossovers like the BMW X3.

C'mon, you can't help but love it

In short, it's like those pesky pop songs that you might try to resist initially; then it grows on you, to the point you can't help but respect it. BMW has done a great job here, borrowing traits from crossovers without quite creating a crossover, and borrowing some of the more vivid driving feel of the 3-Series, all put to use in a good-looking vehicle that's more family oriented than a sport sedan.

This is not the 3-Series for drivers. It's the 3-Series for families—without forgetting entirely about this model's core identity.

Wagons almost seem like a lost cause. Will Americans be able to recalibrate their expectations, and be open-minded about a product like the 3-Series Gran Turismo? That's another question entirely, but we sure hope so.


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