It would be easy to dismiss the BMW 3 Series Gran Turismo as a pointless addition to the 3 Series range. After all, buyers can already choose between the superb-driving saloon and the more practical-minded Touring (estate) versions.
However, scratch the surface and the new Gran Turismo (GT) starts to make some sense. It's 20cm longer and 8cm taller than the Touring, for example, which means it's roomier inside. The cabin is also packed full of clever touches to make the most of that extra space.
BMW is offering the GT with a trimmed-down range of the engines in the 3 Series saloon. Diesel buyers can choose between 141bhp and 181bhp 2.0-litre engines, while the petrol line-up consists of 181bhp and 242bhp 2.0-litre turbos, plus a 302bhp 3.0-litre twin-turbo.
What’s the 2013 BMW 3 Series Gran Turismo like inside?
Those increased proportions have done wonders for space and practicality. For starters, the GT has around 8cm more rear legroom than the 3 Series Touring, meaning there's roughly the same amount of space as in the back of a 5 Series.
Better still, you can adjust the backrest angles on the two outermost rear seats, while the large side windows give rear passengers the impression of even more space than there actually is.
The only downside is that the rear quarter glass juts into the door opening; you have to be careful not to bash your head on it when getting into the back.
The GT has a bigger boot than the Touring model – offering an extra 25 litres of space with the rear seats in place. That advantage grows to 100 litres when you drop the seats, which is done simply by pulling levers in the boot. Each of the three rear seats can be folded independently of one another and lie virtually flat.
That swooping tailgate means the boot isn't particularly tall, but there's some handy underfloor storage, which can also be used to stow the two-piece parcel shelf when it isn't required.
All models get a powered tailgate as standard, too, which can be opened remotely by sweeping your foot beneath the rear bumper.
Up front, you'll find exactly the same dashboard as in a 3 Series saloon or Touring, which means the materials are reasonably classy and everything is logically laid out.
The iDrive infotainment system – fitted as standard to all versions – is brilliantly simple to operate; you twist a large rotary dial on the centre console to scroll through the various on-screen menus, then press the dial to select your desired function.
Visibility is better than in any other version of the 3 Series, partly because of the larger surface areas of glass, but also because of the GT's elevated driving position. You sit at roughly the same height as you do in BMW’s X1 SUV, so have a great view of the road ahead.
Over-the-shoulder vision isn't quite so brilliant, but all models get rear parking sensors as standard to help with reversing.
Despite the raised seating position, there's plenty of headroom and lots of adjustment in the seat and steering wheel, meaning even unusually tall drivers will be able to get comfortable.
The 3 Series GT is also well equipped; even entry-level SE versions get 18-inch alloys, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth, a USB socket and rear parking sensors.
What’s the 2013 BMW 3 Series Gran Turismo like to drive?
It might be more practical than a 3 Series Touring, but the Gran Turismo isn't as sharp to drive.
All of our test cars were equipped with adaptive M Sport suspension (a £750 option), which allows you to vary the stiffness of the shock absorbers. However, even in 'Sport' mode, body movements aren't especially well controlled, which isn’t all that surprising considering the GT's relatively high centre of gravity.
This isn't a car that relishes quick changes of direction, then, but once settled in a corner there is at least plenty of grip.
You're better off leaving the suspension in 'Comfort' mode, because although this means body control is even sloppier, you do benefit from a smoother ride. Sharp-edged bumps still tend to send jolts through the cabin at lower speeds, but high-speed comfort is impressive.
It's just a shame you can't combine the more reassuring weight you get from the steering in 'Sport' mode with the more forgiving 'Comfort' suspension setting.
Whichever mode you choose, there's also a considerable amount of road noise over coarse surfaces, and the wind can be heard whistling past the door mirrors at motorway speeds.
The entry-level 141bhp 318d makes the most sense for company car drivers due to its 119g/km CO2 output. It provides decent performance for most types of driving, although can feel a touch underpowered at high motorway speeds.
If sprightly acceleration is something you value, the 181bhp version of the same engine (badged 320d) is a better bet. It’s a bit noisy, but it combines good performance with fairly low CO2 emissions of 129g/km (the equivalent 3 Series Touring emits 125g/km).
We also tried the range-topping 335i model. Its 302bhp six-cylinder engine delivers seriously strong acceleration and an equally impressive soundtrack. Unsurprisingly, though, fuel economy is nowhere near as impressive.
The optional eight-speed automatic gearbox is certainly worth considering; it shifts smoothly and lets you accelerate gently from low revs without changing down unnecessarily, whereas the manual ’box is rather stiff and notchy.
Should I buy one?
There’s no doubt the GT has some practicality advantages over the 3 Series Touring, not to mention rival models from other manufacturers, such as the Audi A5 Sportback.
However, the Touring has advantages of its own – chiefly its squarer boot – and while it doesn’t come quite as well equipped as the GT, it’s better to drive and cheaper.
BMW’s pricing structure also means the 320d GT (predicted to be the biggest seller) costs just £1645 less than an equivalent 520d Touring, which has just as much interior space and a much bigger boot. The 5 Series is just as economical as the GT, too, and has a classier cabin.
Nevertheless, if you fancy something a little more distinct from a traditional estate, the new 3 Series Gran Turismo has plenty going for it.
What Car? says…
Audi A5 Sportback
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