BMW 330d Touring (2014) long-term test review

Published: 01 July 2014

Month nine running a BMW 3-series Touring - the end of CAR's 330d Touring long-term test review

Every one of the long-term test cars I’ve run over the last nine years at CAR has fallen into one of two camps. One comprises cars that made you feel good, that were great fun to sit in or drive, but you wouldn’t choose to buy because they made you wish you were deaf (MX-5) or less intimately acquainted with the engine warning light (Range Sport), while the other is home to those that were less entertaining but such great company, so useful and so dependable that you could easily rationalise spending your own money on (two Audi Allroads and a VW Touareg). Finally, in the BMW 330d Touring, I’ve met a car that bridges the gap.

Given the choice, we’d probably have gone for the M sport kit rather than our Luxury trim, and avoided black, which makes most wagons look like hearses and hides some of the BMW’s more interesting creases and curves. But with the addition of sports seats, adaptive M suspension and variable ratio steering, our Luxury model gave nothing away dynamically to its M Sport cousin, and the looks improved dramatically once the correct 18in wheels had replaced our 17in winter rubber. Those winter shoes were a godsend in the first four months of the year though, banishing any fears that rear-drive can’t cope in the ice and snow.

What life with the 3-series has taught me is that, while cars grow bigger with each generation, a family of four is still better suited to a 5-series than its baby brother. When a camping trip loomed, Iain Sheridan at Peterborough-based A2B Roofbox hire provided the perfect solution. The various-sized boxes were so similarly priced I opted for the biggest of the lot which, at 580 litres, outpoints the BMW’s own boot by 85 litres and cost £45 for nine days. We still managed to fill both spaces, making the separate flip-up rear screen invaluable, allowing me to reach down and cram the boot like I was stuffing a Christmas turkey. Inevitably fuel economy suffered with the boot and box both full, dropping to around 35mpg from the usual 40mpg, the latter spectacular for a car capable of reaching 62mph in only 5.5sec.

You could have written the things we didn’t like about the 330d on a postage stamp with a billposter’s brush, but a trip in, of all things, a new Toyota Auris, provided just one lesson in how much road noise the BMW passes into the cabin. The need to grab the front door handle before the keyless entry system will let you open the rear is a pain when you’ve got a handful of pre-schooler, too.

And while I loved the huge hi-resolution iDrive screen that comes with the ‘professional’ nav system, came to value its jam-highlighting abilities (thanks to F11 owners for setting me straight), and found the £400 BMW Business hi-fi superb value, it wasn’t so good when it came to streaming audio from my phone. Half-way through a track the speed would invariably drop, giving late ’70s punk the urgency of Lee Scratch Perry, and even the squeakiest voices the bassy tone of James Earl Jones.

I could live happily knowing there was no manual option so good is the mandatory ZF seven-speed auto, but can I live without the 330d? The BMW has gone and we're missing it already.

By Chris Chilton

Month eight running a BMW 3-series Touring - a brilliant driving position

Jumping in and out of other, humbler cars this month, I was suddenly reminded how good the BMW’s driving position is. I like to sit on the floor with the wheel pulled tight to my chest, but my girlfriend is the exact opposite, preferring to sit high with the wheel pushed towards the dash. Most new cars are more likely to please her posture than mine, but the 3-series manages to keep both of us happy – and the chairs’ optional memory function means we’re not cursing each other when we swap seats.

Instead we can aim our ire at the road noise (which has started to bother me lately) or better yet, the lady who tried to take a chunk out of the back bumper while Ben Barry’s wife was using it on the school run. Fortunately, the perpetrator was at least gracious enough to own up, and the damage looks like it’ll be remedied by a skim of filler rather than a new bumper, but with the 330d’s return date looming we might not have to time to see the repair through.

Or sample the delights of our local dealer, Sycamore, at service time. The BMW is on a variable servicing schedule and the on-board computer reckons there’s just enough life left in the current oil to handle next month’s camping trip. Previous trips have been made in bigger cars (Range Rover Sport, Touareg, A6 Allroad) and I have a suspicion that we’ll struggle to fit everything in. Anyone got a roof box?

By Chris Chilton

Month 7 running a BMW 330d Touring: is the 330d a Q supercar?

I've lavished praise on the 330d’s handling regularly in these reports, but giving it the chase car gig on our Gallardo Squadra Corse shoot was a big ask. Fortunately, the traits that make a great photography wagon (practical estate rear with separate pop-up window, smooth ride, modest roll, loads of torque) also make it such a great real-world car.

The Lambo shoot came just days after I’d tried my car’s coupe cousin, the new 4-series. BMW has really tried hard to differentiate the coupe dynamically, as well as aesthetically, fitting extra bracing to tie the front subframe to the body and repositioning the pivot points for the suspension arms. The results are subtle, but stepping out of my car at one airport and into the 435i at the other, I noticed the improvement in steering precision.

Author Chris Chilton driving CAR magazine's BMW 330d Touring

Around the same time, BMW announced its M Performance accessories for the 4-series range, which include a raft of carbon spoilers, tasty big wheels and even a mechanical limited-slip differential, to give the car some of the flavour of the new M3. Or should I say, the M4.

Among those options are three tuning packs, which boost the 435i by 34bhp, the 420d by 16bhp, and the 430d by 27bhp. There are currently no plans to make them available on the 3-series saloon or Touring, although there is no physical reason why it couldn’t happen. It’s not even as if I’ve ever been anything less than impressed by the 330d’s pace. But an extra 30bhp might make keeping up with 500bhp supercars a little easier.

By Chris Chilton

Month 6 running a BMW 330d Touring: 330d vs 320d

We can't get enough of the 330d’s 40mpg, 5.6sec to 62mph twin talents, yet when it comes to sales, the big diesel registers barely a hiccup. Of 27,676 Threes sold last year, 584 had the 30d engine, compared with 11,151 20ds.

In fact there are six diesel models in the current 3-series line-up, our 255bhp 330d being top of the tree until the inevitable 335d turns up. Further down the ladder lies the new 215bhp four-cylinder 325d, the stalwart 320d with 181bhp, the miserly 320d Efficient Dynamics (10% less power; 10% lower consumption), and the 141bhp 318d. There’s even a 316d, though you’d have to really pee off your fleet manager to end up with that. With so much power on offer from just four cylinders, is there any point shelling out £3800 – or more likely, an extra £60 per month in company car tax – for the 330d?

Hell yes! Contributing editor Steve Moody’s 320d is a brisk machine: 7.7sec to 62mph was hot-hatch shove not so long ago, and it feels far quicker than that when you flatten the right pedal from a rolling start. So that’s what we did at Rockingham, Steve in the 320d, me in the 330. And the way the 330d strolled away, I thought maybe he’d stalled, or fluffed a gear in the four-pot. The 320d has a 115kg weight advantage, but gives away 74bhp and a colossal 133lb ft of torque. Plant your foot in the 320d and you get a pleasant push in the back. Do the same in the 330d and you sink into your seat like you’re being sucked out of a 747 toilet at 35,000ft.

Then consider the manner of this performance. The 330d doesn’t employ the clever exhaust sound actuators that made my previous Allroad TDI sound so mean, but it’s an awful lot more cultured than the raucous 320d. Both are fitted with start/stop systems, but while the big fella restarts unobtrusively, the 20d shakes like road-mender’s drill. Only for a split second, mind, but the difference is clear. As it is with fuel consumption. Steve has been averaging over 50mpg, the 330d nearer 40mpg, making me £54 per month poorer. Never has destitution seemed so appealing.

By Chris Chilton

Month 5 running a BMW 330d Touring: binning winter tyres transforms our BMW's handling

Incredibly, it’s taken until the middle of the year before we’ve felt confident enough in the British weather to warrant swapping our winter wheels for summer versions. One key benefit was obvious before I’d even driven a single yard: the car looks infinitely better. I’d always thought one the 330d’s few faults was that it looked a bit boring. Ours wasn’t helped by three factors: it was black, wasn’t an M Sport model and it was fitted with winter tyres, which meant wearing weedy 17in wheels. It looked like a rep’s 318d. Watching the car roll back onto my drive wearing its new 18in wheels was like one of those scenes in a teen rom-com where the geeky girl from school removes her glasses and lets her hair down in slo-mo.

There’s even better news behind the wheel. I’d always suspected the Pirelli Sottozero winter tyres made the car wander slightly at high speed. Our trip to Rockingham a few months ago magnified the steering precision you sacrifice in return for excellent cold weather traction, but the transformation wrought by the new Pirelli P7s is eye-popping. Steering response is sharpened, turn in improved and the whole chassis has a more up-for-it feel. Ride, mpg and noise comparisons will have to wait a few miles.

By Chris Chilton

Month 4 running a BMW 330d Touring: comparison with CAR's other German estate long-termer

According to Chris Chilton, the 330d he’s just loaned me is the ‘best car in the real world’. That’s a pretty bold statement, especially as I’m already running what I believe to be the best-looking fast estate car in either the real world or whatever world Chris lives in. I’ve got all the vanity battles locked down. Next to my Audi, on its 19in alloys, the BMW’s 17in winter wheels could have been sourced from Maclaren (the child’s buggy outfit, not the F1 team), and the muted black paintjob looks more cooking-model drab than Ant-Hill-Mob-sinister.

Jump inside, and the Audi wins again, its clipped cockpit exuding quality and style from every surface, while the BM seems to be upholstered in the untreated hide of a cow fed only on Caramac. Audis are techy and cool – you can imagine astronaut Chris Hadfield humming Space Oddity in here on his way to the launchpad. If he’d sat in Chilton’s car he’d have been too queasy to fly the mission.

Pop-up tailgate in the BMW 3-series Touring estate: very handy

Sadly, however, vanity isn’t the whole story, and I hadn’t even got out of the car park before I started cursing Chilton and dreading what he’s bound to be writing on the page opposite. His car is just so perfectly balanced, you see. While the RS4 is a raw, spitting, bucking bronco, the 330d is consummate and strangely muscular. Like Wladimir Klitschko in a dinner jacket.

The BMW’s variable-geared steering – not universally popular – rather knocks the Audi’s flyweight helm into the middle of next week, and the throttle response is so fluid it allows balletic exploitation of the six-cylinder diesel’s 413lb ft of torque (a full 96lb ft more than the RS4, and enough to close the performance gap in the mid-range). The eight-speed auto ’box is also a thing of geeky pleasure, dealing the cogs with the assurance of a casino croupier. It all makes the Audi seem fraught, as if trying too hard.

And then we get to the ride. I’ve been a defender of the RS4’s flaws in this area, referring naysayers to the Drive Select system and canvassing on behalf of Comfort mode. But Chris’s car rides in a way the RS4 can only dream of – it’s superbly refined, yet taut at the grip edges, forgiving through the ruts, chatty where you need feedback. Damn you, BMW.
In the end it’s about dynamics vs desire. Because I make no pretence at being a driving god I still remain faithful to the Audi’s beauty-cool ethic. Which is bad news for my fillings, but good for Chris: he gets his car back.

By Greg Fountain

Month 3 running a BMW 330d Touring: great engine, great chassis, even a great tailgate!

An electric tailgate is a standard feature on every 3-series Touring, but our car has the smart-opener, which comes with the £470 comfort access option. The theory is that you can arrive at the car, hands full of shopping, and open the boot with just a wave of a foot beneath the rear bumper. Sounds simple, but with nothing in the handbook to explain the correct technique, I’d been standing there on one leg for ages like Ian Anderson, mad frontman of ageing rock outfit Jethro Tull. Minus the flute, of course, although I felt like a pink oboe every time I realised I’d been smearing grime all over my shoe and trouser leg while overextending my limb. I usually gave up, put the shopping down and pressed the boring old button.

A quick check on revealed that the best technique is to kick the foot towards the centre of the bumper, not to the side. Now I’ve nailed it, I’m a regular user when I’ve got too much gear to pop through the separate (manually-) opening rear screen. I’m not normally a fan of auto tailgates – too slow. But this one can be easily overridden if you’re in a hurry.

By Chris Chilton

Month 2 running a BMW 330d Touring: what's the 330d like as a driver's car?

Rear-wheel drive, 413lb ft of torque, and a winter boot at each corner. Bliss. After 18 months spent in four-wheel-drive long-termers, I’m rediscovering my inner hooligan. In a diesel estate car. Any doubts I may have had about picking the 330d when I could have been running our new Audi RS4 have well and truly evaporated. The BMW steers and rides better, feels very nearly as rapid in ‘see-a-gap, punch-it’ situations and has been a blast in the current greasy winter weather.
The Pirelli Sottozeros are brilliant. In warm weather they’re actually not that grippy, so perfect for exploring the limits of the chassis, but come the snow and they take on a magically sticky property. While my girlfriend’s front-drive A4 on brand new Continental summer tyres was struggling to get out of the drive and stop at the end of the street, the 330d strolled on as if the road was bone dry.

Compared with something like an M3, hooning around in the 330d requires a different technique. Second gear runs out of revs just as the slide’s getting interesting and, even with 413lb ft, there’s not normally enough torque to get it going from third gear. So you need to start in second and get ready to hook third mid-action. The paddles are upside down by this point so it’s best to grab the stick. It’s in the proper racer pattern, so tug it back to hook the next cog up.

None of this applies in the snow however. Any gear will do. But when you start to get so addicted you’re seamlessly sequencing a left-right combo through the kink in your street you know it’s time to grow up. That’s what the voice from the passenger seat said anyway, having been alerted by the dirty great ‘DSC-off’ message on the centre screen. Over the years I’ve become adept at discreetly disengaging traction control, but the 3-series dobs you in with a graphic of the car featuring a glowing orange rear axle and a giant warning that you’re driving with ‘restricted stability.’
Back in the real world where sane drivers live, the only downsides to the winter tyres are a little loss of steering precision and strangely poor straight-line stability on the motorway. I can live with that.

By Chris Chilton

Month 1 running a BMW 330d Touring: time to discover if the new 330d is 'all the car you'll ever need'

Having declared the latest 3-series Touring the best car in the real world after our first drive last year, we knew we needed to add one to the CAR fleet. For a £1400 premium you enjoy all the brilliance of the class-leading 3-series saloon, but with the added practicality of an opening rear hatch and separate opening rear glass window. But which one to get? You can slide behind the wheel of a 3-series saloon with a lowly 316i badge on the rump for £23,180, but, for now at least, BMW is sprinkling engines less liberally under Touring bonnets, so the cheapest wagon is the £26,510 316d.

Diesel is still king in this fleet-driven market; it’s hard to argue against the 60mpg, 7.6sec 0-62mph genius of the 320d. But we like a good barney, so asked: please herr, can we have some more? Top of the current diesel 3-series tree, the latest 330d puts out 254bhp and 413lb ft, compared with 181bhp and 280lb ft for the 320d. That reduces the sprint to 62mph by 2sec at the expense of 5mpg and 10g/km of CO2, and adds £3660 to the bill. For that kind of performance advantage I’d personally reforest the Amazon in my holidays to make amends.

Smaller-engined Threes are available in ES, SE, Modern, Luxury, Sport and M Sport guises, but stuff a six under the bonnet and both ES and Sport become off-limits. Our car arrived in Luxury trim, a £2500 step-up from the basic SE version, which brings an upgrade from 17in to 18in wheels, leather seats, some surprisingly bearable strips of dashboard lumber, plus various bits of interior and exterior brightwork. Key options added to our car include head-up display (£800), adaptive M Sport suspension (£750), the Visibility Pack (adaptive xenons with high-beam assistant for £925), and a £1995 Media package comprising of Bluetooth phone prep, widescreen sat-nav and access to BMW’s Assist services.

On its temporary 17in winter wheels and tyres, our £48k 330d looks very much like a feeble four-pot hack from the outside; only the twin exhaust pipes giving the game away. Considering that price, this is a seriously dull-looking car. Fortunately, it’s proving anything but dull to drive or live with. The mandatory eight-speed ZF auto mates brilliantly with the punchy 3.0-litre diesel and is backed up by a set of conventional right-up, left-down paddles mounted on the steering wheel, rather than the less intuitive push-pull set-up BMW’s non-M cars used to come with.

It doesn’t sound as exciting as our TDI Allroad’s twin-turbo V6, and subjectively, the acceleration isn’t quite as savage, even if the on-paper stats put them neck and neck. But it’s so fast and so refined, only we true car geeks would ever guess the motor is compression and not spark ignited, and all that torque means more opportunities to steer from the rear than you get in the 320d.
The adaptive suspension seems well-judged, and I’m starting to get used to the variable-geared steering, a £250 option. The cabin is great, too. Not sure about the plant-pot-coloured trim, but the sports seats (ostensibly a £410 option, but pumped up to nearly £2k with electric control, heating and lumbar support) are superb, the driving position spot-on and the dash layout clean and classy. Best car in the real world? Ask us again in six month’s time.

by Chris Chilton

By CAR's road test team

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