Seven models of perennially popular form take on market for crossovers

There's no doubt that the crossover is the flavour finding favour with family buyers these days - but wagons are still hanging on in there, and many prefer their car-like handling to that of the generally taller SUVs.

BMW's freshly launched 3 Series Touring (that's wagon to you and me) brings the popular form back to one of the company's most popular vehicles, giving another option to those shopping for a medium-sized car, and offering it for the first time with four-wheel drive. It has been available for some time in left-hooker markets, but has only recently been released for cars with correctly placed steering wheels.

The xDrive system, which is usually the domain of BMW's own crossover range, has found its way into the new Touring and gives the company some ammo to fire back at traditional rival Audi and its perennial Quattro 4WD system.

BMW New Zealand has launched seven models on to the Kiwi market - four with 2WD and three with xDrive. The flagship versions are the 335i (2WD) with the three-litre six cylinder engine making a solid 225kW and 400Nm, and the diesel-powered 330d with the six-pot, three-litre engine that impressed us last year with its almost unbelievable economy. Both are priced at $112,500.


Further down the pecking order from those two high-spec versions are the 320i and 320d xDrive models, a 320i and 328i, and the $77,800 318d which, confusingly, all shared the same sized two-litre engine which offers radically different power and torque outputs in each.

The xDrive 328i proved a popular choice on the recent launch, and after spending quite some time at the wheel on country roads between Auckland and the Bay of Islands it showed that the all-wheel drive system had adapted well to its escape from crossover confines.

Four-wheel drives can have a tendency to understeer - something that BMW's traditionally rear-wheel vehicles haven't suffered from. But the engineers have done their homework and it's worked exceptionally well. With the 180kW version of the two-litre four, there was no shortage of motivation, and the exits out of corners could be pushed far harder than the two-wheeled variety, without the back end snapping out.

The wagon is very similarly balanced to the 3 Series sedan, although it does have a slightly wider track - the rear-drive versions handle almost identically to the car, with four-pawed versions maintaining the same sort of poise while reaping the benefits of extra grip. As our uncannily sunny weather over the summer now turns - and New Zealand likely to get the flipside over winter - the xDrive Touring will probably be a solid seller when it goes on sale in May.

Of course, the main reason most people consider a station wagon is space (or something a bit less bulky than an SUV) and the Touring is 97mm longer with a 50mm wheelbase increase over the sedan; and there's a 35-litre luggage capacity increase to 495 litres with three-way slip rear seats to extend that even further.

Automatic start/stop (which turns the engine off when stopping and starts it instantly when you touch the accelerator) is fitted to all models, as is brake energy regeneration - both part of the company's collection of economy extras, and effective fuel savers. The most economical machine of the seven Tourings is the 318d, returning a claimed 4.5L/100km, which landed around 5.8L/100km in a real world test combining town and country driving.

Interestingly, the 320d has the lightest carbon footprint, at 117g of CO2 per 100km, with the 318d at 119g - not surprisingly the least tree-friendly model is the 335i, at 178g.

Driving dynamics can be adjusted on all models via a switch on the centre console, allowing the choice of ECO PRO, Comfort and Sport, and an electronic diff lock is also stock.

With the importance of safety goodies and crash test results to buyers - especially of family-focused vehicles like wagons and crossovers - the whole range gets the same treatment. Pre-crash systems sensing an imminent incident will close the sunroof, wind up windows and add belt tension, there's a full suite of airbags (including head protection front and rear) and the safety body shell has side-impact protection and deformation zones designed to be easily replaced in the event of a low-speed prang.

Traction control, DSC, ABS and cornering brake control all contribute to keeping the vehicles on the black stuff.

Parking distance control, a rear view camera, auto-braking cruise control and automatic tailgate opening are all standard through the range, as well as keyless start/stop.

The only real complaint about the 3 Series Touring is that the rear headrest gets in the way - a small grizzle, and one that's easily remedied. But will the Touring be enough to get BMW into the hard-fought 4WD wagon market, or to take the fight to those lusting after very trendy crossovers?