The genius of BMW is getting the basics right and then tweaking them in three or four million ways, creating model after model with just a little extra investment, each representing a nice piece of incremental business.
This is a brilliant formula and every car company tries to mimic it – few with anything approaching BMW’s success. Now you’re saying, “Three or four million?”
Take the BMW 3-Series, the Bavarians’ bread-and-butter model. These variants all sit on the same architecture, the “basics”: 320, 328, 328 Gran Turismo, 328d, 335, 335 Gran Turismo, ActiveHybrid 3, M3. Throw in all-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, coupe (4-Series), sedan, wagon… Yes, BMW offers at least three million takes on the 3.
And there’s money in that. But my advice to anyone shopping for a 3-Series is to get the least expensive one and enjoy it for 10 years. That would be the $35,990 320 rear-drive sedan – which had a $1,600 factory rebate available, so a sub-$35,000 3.
Thirty-four and change is a long way from the $64,340 tag on the as-tested 335i Gran Turismo hatchback I just drove. Despite the $30,000 difference, both cars share an architecture. That means the key engineering work is identical and if you drive them back-to-back, you’ll find them remarkably similar. Not identical, but the braking, the steering, the cornering (flat) – all the dynamic responses from top to bottom are much the same.
One 3-Series looks like the next, too. Even the 335 hatch, from the middle of the back door to the twin-kidney grille up front, is the spitting image of the 320 sedan. BMW admits this: “The clever use of proportions, surfaces and lines ensures that the 3-Series Gran Turismo is immediately recognizable as a BMW 3-Series.”
There are differences, however. The Gran Turismo’s “active” rear spoiler – it goes up and down – looks cool, and if you’re on the autobahn doing 200 km/h, you get some welcome downforce on the rear wheels. And yes, the Gran Turismo 3 is bigger, 200 millimetres longer than the new 3 Series Touring station wagon. It is also 110 mm longer at the wheelbase and stands 81 mm taller, too.
The extra size is welcome in the cabin, which is not exactly roomy in the base 3. I can sit in the rear, but at six-feet, 200 pounds, I'd rather not spend more than an hour there. I do like the higher seating position of the T (59 mm) – better outward visibility and less effort is required to climb in and out, though folding your feet into and then under the front seat is not a joy. Back-to-back with the sedan or wagon and you’ll notice the modest 70 mm of additional legroom.
The Gran T has about 5 per cent more cargo space (divided by a two-piece parcel shelf), and it’s easier to access thanks to that rear hatch, which also protects your head from the rain or snow. BMW wisely has included a 40:20:40 split/folding rear seat and even the rear backrests tilt and adjust. (Note: In the 320 sedan, the rear bench is fixed, not flexible, but even the starter 3 sedan has tie-downs and underfloor storage like the Gran Turismo.)
Power? This where the Gran T has a massive edge over the bare-bones 3. The T has a 300-horsepower turbocharged straight six-cylinder that is as smooth and pleasing as any engine you’ve ever experienced. It never wants for power and it arrives effortlessly.
For the record, the 320 has a 2.0-litre turbo four (181 hp). The good news about the latter is that you work it through a delightful six-speed manual gearbox. The Gran T has an eight-speed automatic and it’s terrific, but still an automatic. Love those BMW manual shifters, folks.
BMW’s designers will go on about the overall design of the T, the “coupe-like” profile, the “double swage line” of the car’s flanks, the “air breathers” oft of the front wheels, the L-shape of the rear lights… The design is handsome and the proportions are more than right. The 3 makes for a nice hatchback.
As for the cabin, the emphasis – as always with BMW – is on functional over fashionable. If you’ve been inside any 3-Series, you’ll be at home in the T’s cockpit. The instruments are crystal clear and while any non-BMW person will spend 30 minutes learning the ins and outs of the controls, eventually the thinking of BMW’s engineers and designers comes through – right down to iDrive and its controller.
The 335 Gran T has durable upholstery, so-called Dakota Leather in my tester. The seats are superb for long-distance travel, too. Yet BMW does offer extras on even the 335 T ($56,990 base) – to the tune of $7,350 on my tester. If you’re buying, be careful which boxes you tick in the finance office.
BMW detractors huff and puff about service costs, but that’s not the point here. You get a four-year warranty – the exact same one on the 320.
2014 BMW 335i Gran Turismo
Type: premium hatchback
Base price: $56,990 ($985 freight); as tested: $65,340.
Engine: 3.0-litre inline six, turbocharged
Horsepower/torque: 300/300 lb-ft
Transmissions: eight-speed automatic
Drive: all-wheel drive
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.5 city/6.7 highway, using premium.
Alternatives: Audi A4 allroad, Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon
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Clarification: In the Tech Specs box above, an earlier version of this story stated that this car's engine is a V-6, when in fact it is an inline six.