We finally drive the BMW M3 Touring that brings a new direct rival for the Audi RS 4 Avant.
Enzo Ferrari remarked that “the client is not always right”. And as usual, the man who effectively founded a religion wasn’t wrong.
For certain car makers, it pays to be visionary and forthright, come what may. Keep an eye on trends but pander to nobody; don’t relent to popular opinion. Integrity is everything. Yet sometimes the enthusiast tail must be allowed to wag the dog. And BMW, despite attaining true pariah status with its recent styling attempts, understood this explicitly when dreaming up what toys it might build to celebrate 50 years of M.
One of those toys was the new M4 CSL coupe – a hardcore, ‘lightweight’ special wearing a three-letter tag only ever seen twice before, most recently on the E46-generation M3 CSL of 2003 and before that on the homologation-special 3.0 CSL of 1972, now priced in the stratosphere.
When it comes to pandering to petrolheads, reprising the CSL was the lowest of the low-hanging fruit. An easy, juicy win. And yet the M4 CSL is a collectors’ trinket. Limited to just 1000 examples, with six-figure pricing to match, it can be had only in a very narrow range of colours, with decals and no back seats. Warmed garages await.
Priced on par with the Porsche 911, the second of M’s birthday presents to itself is no peoples’ champion but is at least intended to be used, and the idea itself is even more special that of the M4 CSL. An M3 Touring has been fermenting in the minds of Garching engineers (and, not to get too weepy, in the hearts of the rest of us) for 20 years. Now, it’s finally – finally – here.
But before the smiles, we should vent. You have to wonder what the hell took BMW so long to make this car real and what the justifications were. It’s not as if the notion never occurred to M. In the early 2000s, it went so far as to engineer a fully functional M3 Touring on the platform of the E46, yet the thing never reached production, and BMW was so cagey about this one-off that its mere existence wasn’t publicised until 2016. Guilty conscience, much? It would have sold well.
Instead, the Audi RS4 Avant and Mercedes-AMG C63 Estate became the go-to options for anybody craving the usability and specialness of the great super-saloons but needing even more practicality and, perhaps, a touch of the exotic and unexpected. (And let’s be clear: any wagon-bodied car with 375kW, carbonfibre bucket seats and quad-exhaust tips that look as if borrowed from Lamborghini is both exotic and very unexpected.)
Some might also claim that Alpina had BMW’s back covered in the fast-estate department, but that would have depended on two things: the B3 being an M3 substitute in dynamic terms and most people having even heard of Alpina in the first place. The first of those isn’t true and the second is debatable.
So there’s no acceptable excuse for the long-standing absence of an M3 Touring, although at least reparations are now being made with interest. From anywhere but dead on, the new car looks superb, doesn’t it? Perhaps Touring-bespoke rear doors that properly flowed into the bulging rear wheel arches would have made the M3 Touring even more arresting at the kerbside, but even so, I’m not sure anything else in the sub-$180,000 camp looks so purposeful. There’s an understated, pregnant aggression going on here that suits the concept of an ultra-quick, all-wheel-drive wagon to perfection.
Our test car additionally wears the carbonfibre exterior pack, the most detailed forged wheels BMW offers (20-inch at the back and 19-inch up front) and carbon-ceramic brakes, among other quite serious optional extras.
Regardless, you want something that balances a sense of occasion with unambiguous utility not just well but sensationally so. On the whole, the M3 Touring manages to do just that. In practical terms, it has all the capability of the regular 3 Series wagon, down to the independently opening rear windscreen hatch and rubber strips in the boot floor that rise up when you’re on the move to prevent anything sliding around the substantial load bay. The second-row seats fold flat, and so arranged the car amounts to three parts: monstrous turbo engine, bucket seats and an endless boot in your rear-view mirror. For those wanting to live out their wildest Rickard Rydell fantasies, look no further.
It also feels well sorted. At 1865kg, the M3 Touring is 85kg heavier than the M3 sedan, the extra weight coming in the form of extra metal at the back and some additional bracing to keep the body rigid, but it contains this mass. By raising the rear spring rates and tweaking the damping rates all round, BMW has aimed to replicate the handling characteristics of the saloon and, except for what seems like ever-so-slightly sharper breakaway when the car reaches the limits of grip and traction, it has done just that. In a back-to-back test, you might detect just a touch of lethargy compared with the saloon, but honestly it would be an academic degree. Fact is, the most practical car in the M3 lineup is one that still devours cross-country driving, remaining amazingly assured and precise on ducking, weaving, wet B-roads.
The M3 Touring also allows you to have some real fun with the chassis in a manner alien to the RS4 Avant – which, just for the record, it outclasses with ease. Select M Dynamic Mode for the stability control and you can throw this 280km/h wagon around freely, and even with all the systems off, it’s benign and predictable. (On a near-freezing day and with summer tyres, we didn’t explore the car’s RWD driveline setting, but past experience suggests that it will give proceedings another dimension of entertainment value). Okay, the brake pedal remains oddly soft and refinement is perhaps a touch worse than in the sedan (because the rear bulkhead is missing), but these are small blemishes.
As for performance, you couldn’t want for more. From a standstill, the M3 Touring takes roughly the same time to reach 100km/h as does the 997 generation of Porsche’s 911 GT2 RS. Yes, a mid-size wagon punching just as hard as a bona fide – and unhinged – supercar barely a decade old. Roll-on acceleration and low-rev grunt are no less savage, although in the sportier engine modes, the car’s synthesised growl becomes wearing. The S58 is mighty, but it’s no atmo S54, studio tweaks or not.
If there was ever going to be a ‘but’, it was going to concern the ride quality. And yet actually, beyond the prickly low-speed gait also experienced in the saloon (and which is acceptable given the performance potential we’re dealing with here), the M3 Touring acquits itself well. Its motorway manners are surprisingly refined, the sophisticated dampers allowing the springs to move freely in Comfort mode.
The cabin itself possesses a 5 Series-esque maturity, leather-trimmed dashboard and all. Head room in the back seats is also improved over the saloon, and there’s good leg room available even behind those chunky carbon seats. In fact, the only uncomfortable thing about this special car is getting over the lip of those seats on your way out, and if you don’t like the sound of that, you needn’t add them. There are very few drawbacks here, which is the whole point.
So, after an interminable delay, the first (and perhaps the last) M3 Touring really is all we wanted it to be. But let’s be honest: nine times out of ten, the M340i Touring scratches the same itch. M’s 50th birthday present to itself might be practical, but it isn’t especially rational, and even at this price point it lacks the breadth of the other supersonic 3 Series wagon, Alpina’s 305km/h B3 Touring.
Of course, none of this will matter to those who quite reasonably have always wanted their M3 to come in wagon form. It’s the kind of car that you want because you just want it. All it ever needed to do was exist.