PRODUCT EYE: Now entering new niche - BMW's 3 GT
3 GT shares 110mm longer wheelbase with LWB saloon built in China; main gain is 75mm more legroom compared with the Touring
There's lots of talk these days from auto industry executives about entering new segments or niches. Especially at BMW - and arch-rival Audi - there's less talk and more action; we've seen a vast expansion of both luxury brands' offerings over the last three decades and, from BMW, there is more to come after this latest: the 3 Series GT.
BMW UK executives illustrated this perfectly at the recent launch of the 3 GT and the lightly updated Z4 coupe/convertible. Their 3 Series generation one ('76-'83) came with two or four doors. Full stop.
Gen two added a wagon (aka Touring) and a convertible (initially the coachbuilt Baur Targa roof version; later the in-house-built full soft top).
Gen three added a nice two-door coupe and gen four kept that option and changed the cabrio from soft to folding metal hardtop.
Gen five, still evolving, began, as usual with the four-door sedan and the Touring but the 'old' coupe (soon to be replaced by the first of a new '4' Series) and convertible carried over.
Now there's a new five door variant, the 3 GT.
There have been 3 Series hatchbacks before - the two generations of three door, 3 Series Compact models offered between 1994 and 2005 - but these, surprisngly, weren't mentioned in BMW UK's 3 GT launch event history lesson.
The 3 Series as a whole accounts for 34% of overall BMW brand volume and that currently splits further into 19% saloon/sedan, 6% Touring/wagon and 9% coupe/convertible.
BMW UK's medium cars (3, X3 and Z4) product chief Natasha Newman points to other recent niche models - VW's Passat-based CC, Range Rover Evoque (a Freelander spin-off), Nissan Qashqai (which replaced both the C-segment Almera and D-segment Primera in Europe), Mercedes-Benz CLS and her own company's X6 crossover, 6 Gran Coupe and 5 GT (and its Audi A5 rival).
Wary of giving out a numbers petard with which the media could hoist her a few years hence, Newman talked 3 GT volume expectations only in general UK model lifetime terms: 23,000 units compared with 145,000 saloons and 47,000 Tourings.
The saloon, in BMW eyes, is the ultimate sports saloon with 'dynamic' drive and handling and claimed class-leading efficiency; the Touring adds more space and functionality and the new GT offers more space (thanks to the 2,920mm wheelbase [+110mm] nicked from BMW-Brilliance's Chinese-made long-wheelbase 3 saloon), more comfort and 'sport coupe-like design'.
Newman said BMW had a proven record as an innovator in the segments in which it competes and that, in recent years, had identified "greater demand for more variety"; hence models like the 5GT, X6 and the new 3 GT which offers 5 GT "practicality and style at a more accessible price point".
Though it shares underpinnings with the Chinese LWB saloon and mechancials with the rest of the 3 Series range, most of what you can see outside and inside the GT is unique though with a strong family resemblance to other 3 Series variants.
Headlights are unique, front air intakes are larger and there's a stylish (and functional) air vent aft of each front wheelarch which helps smooth frontal airflow and cool the brakes.
The roofline is 81mm taller than the Touring wagon's, seat cushion height front and rear is up 59mm which makes entry and exit easier, front headroom is up 22mm and rear kneeroom a useful 75mm - three inches more in the old money and comparable to the larger 5GT - thanks to that 110mm wheelbase boost. Overall length is up 200mm and the GT is also 17mm wider. Luggage space rises 25-100 litres (520-1,600) compared with the Touring (495-1,500) and the compartment itself is deep and well shaped with no intrusions.
The rear seat comfortably accommodates three adults and is split 40-20-40 while adjustable backrest angle allows various compromises to be made between luggage space and passenger comfort. Mazda 6 wagon-like release handles accessible from the tailgate area drop the backrests onto the rear seat cushions in one movement to increase load capacity. An electric tailgate is standard.
Newman also highlighted the GT-unique chrome finishers on the interior door trims and "coupe-like" frameless side windows.
UK order books opened at dealers in March - following the model's Geneva show public debut - and the GT reaches showrooms on 15 June with the launch engine range of 320i, 328i and 335i petrol and 318d and 320d diesel expected to account for 80% of the model line's sales. A 320i xDrive (four wheel drive), 325d and MSport variants start arriving in July.
All are built in Leipzig (subscribers: see our PLDB entry for the model here).
In a few decades, BMW UK has come a long way from offering 'base' cars in which even the radio was extra - most 2013 Series sedans have 17” alloy wheels, one or two-zone automatic air-conditioning, auto dimming rear-view mirror, Bluetooth telephone preparation, 'Professional Radio' with 6.5" colour screen & iDrive controller, keyless start, cruise control with brake function, DAB digital radio (which we couldn't try as there's no service in Tuscany where the model launch was held), drive performance control (with ECO pro mode), parking aid, automatic headlights and wipers, run-flat tyres and a USB audio interface.
For GBP1,300 more, you step up to the Touring and get an automatic tailgate and the split fold rear seats and thence to the GT (another GBP1,300-1,600) which also has 18" alloys and adjustable rear seat backrest angle with folding headrests.
For additional icing on the cake, a recent change is to bundle what the Americans call 'preferred options' into keenly priced packages so the 3 GT is offered with entry level SE, Sport (+GBP1,000), Modern (also +GBP1,000) and Luxury (+GBP2,000) trim/equipment combinations. The M Sport package, available from July, will cost an extra GBP2,250.
All up, there's 12 petrol variants and 10 diesel and UK base prices range from GBP28,835 to GBP39,735. A buyer can quickly add thousands by choosing from a vast options list for things like widescreen satnav, varying degrees of internet access and connectivity, full length glass sunroof, cooled front seats and so on.
The GT is a great compromise car for the buyer who likes a sporty drive but needs the four doors, tailgate and generous luggage/passenger capacity required by family duties. We sampled the 328i (actually a 1,998cc, 245hp I4 rather than the 2.8-litre I6 this badging would have once indicated) Luxury automatic with its standard heated leather seats and optional eight-speed automatic gearbox and found a fine mix of fluid handling comfortable ride and more than adequate power over the Tuscany launch venue's mix of motorway and twisting hill routes.
The 318d (a 143hp, 1,995cc I4 turbodiesel) with six-speed manual was criticised by some colleagues for a lack of torque but we found it very lively if kept in the right rev range - the usual knife-through-butter BMW manual shift makes this easy and fun - and the handling is a little crisper, and the ride firmer, but not uncomfortable due to different suspension settings.
BMW also took the opportunity to show off the Z4 coupe cabriolet's mid-life update though you'll have to look hard to spot the exterior styling changes. There's new headlights with the brand's signature 'corona ring' park and day runner lights, a new chrome side gill with LED indicator repeater in each front guard, new paint colours and wheels and a new metallic orange 'Pure Traction' colour and interior trim package option which includes orange lower dash panel and door trim inserts and contrasting orange stitching on seats and door panels.
The key 2013 model line selling point is a new entry level sDrive18i variant that costs GBP27,615, GBP2,100 lower than the previous sDrive20i starting point.
It has the same four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine as the 184hp sDrive20i/28i but power drops to 156hp. The 18i comes with SE or M Sport trim with standard six-speed manual or optional eight-speed automatic.
Included equipment is mostly the same as the 2013 sDrive20i but minus that version's standard leather upholstery, two-zone air-con and rain sensor - all available, along with much else, as options. DAB digital radio is now standard on all Z4 models while the automatic 20i and 28i versions have had some tuning tweaks to reduce their 0-62mph acceleration times by a fraction.
Although the six-speed manual sDrive35i M Sport was as impressive to drive and as fast as you'd expect with a 306hp I6 in a compact two-seater - a modern day Austin-Healey 3000, I'd suggest (BMW owns the rights to the brand, I understand), the new 18i version showed that 115 horses controlled by a six speed manual are more than enough with which to have fun and the car actually turns in more crisply as there's less weight over the front wheels than with the six. Anyone who can just scrape up the money for the starter model is hardly likely to feel short-changed though winter and city use might make the extra GBP455 for air conditioning worthwhile.