David Motton
Tow Car Editor

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The BMW 3 Series continues to be the benchmark by which other compact executive cars are judged. David Motton examines the updated Touring version.

The latest generation of the BMW 3 Series has the makings of a very capable tow car. The Touring version (BMW-speak for the estate) promises to combine the performance and driver appeal of the saloon with greater practicality.

Growing in size

Longer, wider and taller than its predecessor, the new 3 Series Touring offers more space for passengers and their luggage. Despite growing a few millimetres in every direction, the Touring is lighter than the old model - good for driving dynamics, says BMW - not so good for matching ratios, we say.

You notice the extra space most if travelling in the back, where there's a definite increase in legroom. Adults will be more comfortable over long distances.

The increase in boot space is slight but welcome, with a 500-litre capacity with the rear seats upright. That's well beaten by the likes of the Škoda Superb Estate and Volkswagen Passat, but just five litres less than the Audi A4 Avant offers. A wider tailgate opening makes loading and unloading easier.

Although not the biggest of estates, some thought has clearly gone into the Touring's design. Anti-slip rails in the floor to stop bags sliding around are a neat optional extra, and the rear window can be opened separately to the main tailgate for quickly loading small items. For mixing and matching passenger and luggage space, the rear bench splits and folds 40/20/40 rather than the more normal 60/40 arrangement.

Despite the strength of anti-diesel sentiment in some quarters, BMW expects 80% of 3 Series Touring drivers to choose the fuel efficiency, long range, and low carbon-dioxide emissions of diesel power. We've driven the 320d and 330d.

The best seller

The 320d has long been the best-selling 3 Series model, and BMW expects that to continue with the new range. There's every reason to expect them to be right. On paper, it looks like the sweet spot of price, performance and efficiency. And on the road, it drives superbly.

There's plenty of pace thanks to the 2.0-litre engine's 190hp and 295lb ft of torque. That should be more than enough to comfortably pull any sensibly matched caravan. It's a smooth and refined engine, too - you hear this engine less than the more powerful six-cylinder diesel in the 330d.

BMW is well known for its faith in rear-wheel drive, but the xDrive four-wheel-drive models weigh that bit more and the extra traction achieved by sending power to all four wheels will be especially welcome while towing. The kerbweight of the 320d xDrive auto is 1790kg, whereas the two-wheel-drive model weighs 1735kg. That gives the 4x4 an 85% match figure of 1522kg.

Driving the 320d xDrive Touring solo gives us confidence it will prove a very capable tow car. The standard suspension felt rather firm around town, but comfortable and controlled at speed.

However, the optional adaptive dampers - as fitted to the 330d xDrive Touring we also drove - make the car even better to drive. Choose 'comfort' mode and the car is much more adept at smoothing off the sharp edges of rough roads. In 'sport' mode the car is less tolerant of poor surfaces, but the trade off is excellent control and composed cornering. It's available as part of the M Sport Plus package, which adds £2200 to the car's price.

Power and performance

Choose the 330d, and performance jumps up a couple of notches. It really is a very quick car indeed, reaching 62mph in just 5.4 seconds, according to BMW's figures. However, the WLTP combined figure is 42.8-43.5mpg, compared with 49.6-51.4mpg for the 320d Touring.

Is the 330d too much of a good thing? Well, if you own a heavy enough caravan to make use of the colossal pulling power (428lb ft), perhaps not. And the 1835kg kerbweight gives the 330d xDrive more favourable matching ratios than the 320d xDrive. But for most caravanners, the 320d is more than powerful enough.

Touring costs

Prices for the 3 Series Touring start from £35,505. That buys the 320i petrol in SE spec. This trim level comes with 17- or 18-inch alloys (depending on the engine), a leather steering wheel, LED headlights, a DAB radio, an 8.8-inch infotainment display, climate control, and front and rear parking sensors.

Upgrades to Sport models include aluminium door sill finishes, roof rails, sports seats, and leather upholstery. M Sport cars add sports suspension and interior and exterior styling changes to give the car a more aggressive look. The M Sport Plus is a special edition with even more toys, including adaptive suspension damping.

The 320d xDrive Touring costs from £38,425, undercutting the 330d X Drive Touring by £4640. As addictive as the more powerful car's performance is, it's the 320d we'd spend our money on.