The BMW 3 Series Touring (which is how BMW names its estates) has been around for just under 30 years now, and while the current car differs somewhat from the original 1980s design, the principle remains the same: take the excellent BMW 3 Series saloon, add a bigger and more versatile boot, but keep the involving driving experience.
It seems obvious now, with the Audi A4 Avant, Volkswagen Passat Estate and Mercedes C-Class Estate all sacrificing little in the way of driver enjoyment while improving practicality, but BMW was one of the first manufacturers to demonstrate that you didn’t have put up with an uninspiring driving experience when choosing an estate car.
The 3 Series Touring is offered with five diesel and four petrol engines, which allow you to prioritise efficiency, performance or a combination of the two. The 2.0-litre diesel of the 320d ED (EfficientDynamics) is the most economical, returning 65.7mpg (67.3mpg when fitted with an automatic gearbox) and costing just £20 a year in road tax. The latter is thanks to its low CO2 emissions of 104g/km, which also place it in the 20% Benefit-in-Kind tax bracket for company-car drivers. Despite these impressive figures, the 161bhp 320d ED is still reasonably swift, taking just 8.2 seconds to go from 0-62mph.
At the other end of the scale, while there isn’t a performance-orientated version of the 3 Series Touring (as with the M3 saloon), the petrol-engined 322bhp 340i sprints from 0-62mph in just 5.5 seconds. It's the least efficient engine offered with the Touring, with fuel economy of 40.4mpg and CO2 emissions of 158g/km (making road tax £185 a year), but considering the performance on offer, these figures are reasonable.
We recommend you investigate the middle of the engine range, as while the 340i is thrilling, it's also about £15,000 more expensive than an entry-level 3 Series Touring. The 320d ED is also slightly compromised because, in the name of efficiency, alloy wheel and trim options are limited with this model.
The standard 320d is our pick. It uses the same 2.0-litre engine as the EfficientDynamics car, but produces an extra 26bhp, so the 0-62mph time is reduced to 7.6 seconds. With fuel economy of 62.8mpg and CO2 emissions of 109g/km, the standard 320d is hardly any more expensive to run, even if company-car drivers will pay an extra 1% Benefit-in-Kind tax over the ED model.
On the road, the 3 Series Touring is just as good to drive as the saloon – and that's some compliment. The steering is accurate and gives plenty of feedback (so you know how much grip the front wheels have) while there's minimal body lean in corners. Potholes, cat's eyes and other road imperfections are nicely smoothed out – although this becomes less true if you choose bigger alloy wheels.
The six-speed manual gearbox is slick and smooth to use, but the eight-speed automatic is an excellent option than many buyers choose. The 3 Series Touring can also be specified with BMW's xDrive four-wheel-drive system if you need extra grip, although this adds about £1,500 to the list price, while economy and emissions drop by about 10%, too.
Inside, the picture is slightly less rosy, but still impressive. The 3 Series Touring has a luxurious and well-built interior, made using premium materials – although it's pipped in this area by the Audi A4 Avant, which feels more modern and has a particularly pleasing dashboard design. Space in the front is excellent, but the rear seats are a little tight for adults, with the middle one compromised by a pronounced hump in the floor.
If the 3 Series Touring has an Achilles heel, it's the boot. At 495 litres, it's just 15 litres larger than the saloon's, and while the rear seats can be folded and the load area is far more practical than that of the four-door BMW, the Audi A4 Avant and Volkswagen Passat Estate both have bigger boots (at 505 and 650 litres, respectively). Neither of these cars can match the 3 Series Touring when it comes to driver involvement, though – and nor can the Mercedes C-Class Estate, which has a fractionally smaller boot than the 3 Series Touring.
Aside from the EfficientDynamics model, BMW offers the 3 Series Touring in four trim levels, starting with SE and rising through Sport, with Luxury and M Sport sitting at the top of the range. The SE comes with 17-inch alloy wheels, sat nav, DAB radio and Bluetooth connectivity; moving up to Sport costs about £1,200 and adds ambient lighting plus sport seats and dials, as well as gloss-black and chrome exterior trim detailing.
Luxury and M Sport cars are about £2,000 more expensive than the Sport model, though these do include leather seats, 18-inch alloy wheels and an upgraded interior. If you choose Sport or M Sport trim, you also get BMW's Driver Performance Control, which allows you to switch between driving modes depending on whether you want the car to prioritise economy, comfort or sharp handling.
While BMWs are desirable cars that continue to hold a certain cachet, the 3 Series has an average reputation for reliability. The 3 Series saloon (which is mechanically identical to the Touring) came 68th out of 150 cars in our 2016 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey, with a disappointing 91st-place finish for reliability. Although this result may partly be down to the high expectations people have for BMWs, do bear in mind that if anything goes wrong outside of BMW's three-year/unlimited-mileage warranty, repairs tend to be expensive. There are no such qualms concerning safety: the 3 Series scored five out of five in its Euro NCAP crash tests, with excellent ratings in all four individual categories.