Like many good discussions, this one started in the bar on a new car launch. The cars had been safely put away for the evening and it was time to kick back and put the world to rights. Instead of homing in on the latest world events the conversation obviously revolved around cars and after a few sherbets had been consumed the burning question was: why would someone choose a soft-roader or an MPV over a decent estate car? The rose-tinted spectacles had been well and truly donned and we all recounted stories of our youth which inevitably contained slightly cringeworthy comments such as: ‘I remember my dad’s Mk2 Cortina’ or ‘we didn’t even have seat belts in those days’.
New car buyers these days really are spoilt for choice and those of us reared on a traditional diet of saloons or estates do struggle a little to get our heads around the idea that you might need, or want, something slightly different. Suffice to say we all eventually trotted off to bed muttering under our breath about the good old days and the conversation was promptly forgotten about until one of my colleagues in the office, a soon-to-be-father, enquired as to which was the best people carrier for him to buy now that additional space was needed for the baby. I was going to ask if he was expecting triplets but I managed to bite my tongue at the last minute and politely ran through some options with him. I ended up with pointing him in the direction of a selection of used estate cars that I thought would suit his needs and should be able to accommodate the contents of an entire branch of Mothercare.
It got me thinking though about the current BMW range and the plethora of machinery that’s available for family buyers with around £30k burning a hole in their back pockets. Let’s ignore saloons for the time being as there’s no getting away from the fact that they can be a little limiting but that still leaves you with the 3 Series Touring, 2 Series Active and Gran Tourers, 3 Series GT, 4 Series Gran Coupé, X1 and even the X3. Some start a little cheaper than others and the X3 might be pushing the budget a little and the two ‘hatchbacks’ (the 3 Series GT and 4 Series Gran Coupé) are slightly less practical but that’s still a bewildering array of machinery to choose between.
To answer the question of which offers the best compromise we decided to bring some of these contenders together for a head to head battle and having narrowed it down to the 20d engine we opted for a 320d EfficientDynamics Plus Touring, an X1 xDrive20d Sport and a 220d xDrive Gran Tourer. We’d have preferred the latter in a slightly lesser spec for there to be better price parity, but if you drop the xDrive it’s more or less bang on the same money as the other models here.
We’ll start with the 320d, though, as here we’re in familiar territory – a classic estate version of a threebox saloon. As this is the EfficientDynamics model it’s a tad down on power compared to our other two contenders here, but don’t let its headline figure of just 163hp fool you as it shares the same 295lb ft torque output as the other two machines. A 0-62mph time of 8.1 seconds is pretty impressive and more than adequate for a family wagon, especially when it has the capability, according to the official combined cycle stats, of returning a stunning 70.6mpg in the auto form we’ve tested here.
The F31 Touring has just gone through its mid-life face-lift and is all the better for it with subtly enhanced front and rear lights and a number of detail revisions under the skin. To my eyes it’s still a superbly proportioned and stylish piece of kit, even in this dowdy ED Plus spec, and if you’re willing to forego the promised economy and opt for the Sport or M Sport spec then it’s a very resolved shape that I would argue is even better-looking than the F30 Saloon. And personally I still think this is an important aspect of owning a car, especially one that’s cost you just over £30,000, and if I owned one I know that I’d be happy with my decision when you have that little furtive glance back at your car over your shoulder as you walk away from it.
That’s all very well, but what if the car doesn’t actually live up to its role as a family wagon? Despite having the longest wheelbase of the three models we have here it is true that the 3 Series Touring actually has the least amount of space for passengers – thank the longitudinal engine layout and rear-wheel drive packaging for that. Having said that, in isolation the F31 doesn’t feel small inside. Legroom could possibly be an issue for adults sitting behind tall front seat passengers on a long drive, but for kids there should be plenty of room – unless they’re at an age when they’re starting to resemble rugby players. Two children, no matter their size, should be comfy in the back. Three is a little bit more of a push unless they’re small. The Touring also can’t quite match the other two cars for oddments storage – it’s not bad in this respect, it’s just that the door bins are bigger in the other cars and thanks to their higher seating positions there’s more space under the seats, too.
Inevitably families carry a lot of clobber, especially so these days now that those with small children seem to have buggies that are the size of the QE2. With 495 litres of luggage capacity with the seats up and 1500 litres with the seats folded flat the Touring is pretty commodious, but whether it’s enough for your needs will again depend on the age of your children. If you’re attempting to go away for the weekend with a buggy and a travel cot you might struggle but if you’re prepare to chuck your clothes into soft bags and pack carefully you might just manage. The bottom line is that the boot’s not a whopper but it is a good shape and the split-folding tailgate and standard 40:20:40 folding rear seats do give added flexibility.
Where the Touring does score most highly, though, is from the seat that I want to be occupying: the driver’s one. The current Three has always been a great place to spend wheel time. You sit low down and this endows you with a feeling that you’re going to be very much part of the action. All the controls fall perfectly to hand and everything, from the seat adjustability to the layout of the centre console, just feels right. Call me a Luddite but it’s lovely to drive a car with a proper handbrake, too! Straight from the off you know this is going to be a good drive. The steering’s nicely weighted and despite being an electric setup has enough feel to be comforting, while the engine’s power delivery has you rocking along at a fair old pace without too much effort. Push further and you have a perfectly balanced good-old fashioned rear-drive setup and you immediately feel confident pushing the car along an unfamiliar back road. And in this ED Plus spec with 16-inch wheels the ride’s absolutely sublime. No, it doesn’t look as sporty as a model with larger boots but by God it’s comfy. And surely that’s got to be a good thing for a family wagon? Happy passengers, happy driver.
But will the same be hold true for the Gran Tourer? I remember Tweeting some images of this car from the UK launch and my efforts at social media were shot down by irate followers who, for the most part, weren’t keen that this ‘monstrosity’ was even being mentioned in the same breath as the word BMW. A front-wheel drive people carrier? What were they thinking? Well, I can tell you what BMW’s top brass were thinking and it was this: people were leaving the brand when they’d had children as they wanted a people carrier and if BMW wanted to retain those customers it was going to have to build one. And the result was initially the 2 Series Active Tourer and then this, it’s bigger brother, the Gran Tourer, which in UK spec comes as standard with seven seats, the rearmost row folding away under the boot floor when they’re not needed.
As far as I’m concerned the elephant in the room with regards to the 2 Series Gran Tourer is its styling. The smaller Active Tourer with its lower roofline isn’t quite so gawky but for me the Gran version has a face and body that only a mother could love. One of my sharp-tongued colleagues in the office reckons it fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down! That’s probably being somewhat unkind but safe to say, this isn’t a car I’d be stealing a furtive glance at as I walked away from it. Beauty, though, is in the eye of the beholder and perhaps there are some folk out there who like it, or are ambivalent towards its looks and are prepared to sacrifice looks for some substance elsewhere. It must have some redeeming features, surely?
Take a closer look at what it offers and you might be surprised by the depth of its ability. Let’s start with the boot, as you could be forgiven for thinking that the third row of seats sunken into the boot floor will be stealing luggage space. Not a bit of it as there’s a large 560 litres of space with the middle row raised and a cavernous 1820 litres when all the seats are folded flat. And unlike the Active Tourer (and the X1) those 560 litres of space do not include less usable under the floor storage areas. Accessing the boot is easy enough, too, as the Gran Tourer comes as standard with an electrically operated tailgate.
For those with young families there’s plenty to like inside, as there is a plethora of nice touches, all designed to make life easier. The middle row of seats slides forward and back to increase legroom or luggage space, depending on your needs, and speaking of legroom, it quite simply knocks spots off the 3 Series Touring; we’re talking 7 Series levels of legroom here – very impressive for a machine that despite its bulky looks is still shorter than the Touring. Door pockets are huge and should accommodate plenty of detritus and there are useful under-seat stowage compartments, too.
Up front there’s also plenty of space and the semicommand driving position affords the driver a great view of the road ahead. I am less keen on some aspects of the cabin, though, particularly the Head-Up display panel. Unlike every other BMW model, the 2 Series Active and Gran Tourers use the MINI system with a small vertical screen that sits on top of the instrument binnacle which just looks a little odd when compared to the much more refined projector system used by every other model in the range. Then there’s the centre console which is split with a storage cubby sitting in between the radio and the heating and ventilation controls. This latter control panel is sited too far down to my mind and you do need to take your eyes off the road to operate them effectively. Also, due to their location, the cup holders are smaller and sit behind the gear lever – which itself looks rather odd and un-BMW-like.
It certainly drives well enough, though, and even feels quite rapid, offering up a 0-62mph time of 7.6 seconds, half a second up on the 320d ED. It feels very surefooted thanks to the xDrive system and despite its size it’s actually quite light so is happy to play the hot hatch should that be your thing. I’ve not driven a Gran Tourer in front-wheel drive spec but having sampled the Active Tourer in this guise one does get a certain amount of wheel spin from the front wheels when it’s pushed. And while the handling is set up for benign understeer once the limit’s been reached it does feel like a front-wheel drive machine with some torque steer felt, particularly in damp conditions. The ride isn’t as composed as the Touring, though, and that can, in part, be blamed on the 18-inch alloys on this M Sport example. Overall, though, looks aside, there’s no getting away from the Gran Tourer’s credentials as a family prospect, albeit one that does sacrifice something in the way of driving dynamics for significantly more practicality.
So, onto our third contender, the X1. Can it provide some of the driving satisfaction of the 3 Series with the practicality of the Gran Tourer? I must admit that I’m a fan of the way it looks – not quite as svelte and stylish as the Touring, but light years away from the dumpy Gran Tourer. Without going too far into the design it’s probably fair to say that it looks like a typical mid-sized 4×4 – chunky enough not to be mistaken for something else but not so chunky as to look utilitarian. Like the Gran Tourer, it’s also based on the new UKL front-wheel drive platform and as a result we have the same transverse engine layout which frees up plenty of interior space. The X1 is considerably shorter than the Touring – nearly 20 centimetres and about 12 centimetres shorter than the Gran Tourer but its styling is a bit of an optical illusion as it really doesn’t look that small.
Despite its length deficit it has a larger boot than the Touring – 505 litres with the seats in their normal position and 1560 litres with the seats folded flat. As an option you can spec sliding rear seats, too, which can further increase boot space if your rear seat passengers have shorter legs. However, while the X1’s stats might say it has a larger boot than the Touring, in reality it’s not quite so practical as a fair chunk of those 505 litres are actually located in a compartment under the boot floor. That’s all very well if what you’ve packed in there doesn’t need to come out in a hurry, but sod’s law dictates that as soon as you’ve filled the boot up someone will want something from one of those bags buried under the floor! A split folding rear seat does increase the practicality, though, as does the electric tailgate – surprisingly useful when approaching the car with arms full of clobber.
Despite having the shortest wheelbase the X1 comes second in terms of rear seat accommodation with a fair amount more legroom than the Touring can offer but without the space offered by the limo-like Gran Tourer. There’s plenty of stowage space, too, with large door pockets and the tray tables attached to the back of the front seats (also found in the Gran Tourer) which could prove to be a hit with kids. These do eat into legroom a little for older passengers so thankfully they’re removable.
Up front it’s a little bit of a mixture of the other two cars but to my mind it’s a little better resolved than in the Gran Tourer, which is a little odd given they both use the same underbody architecture. For starters, the X1 has a different arrangement for the centre console so the heater controls are much better positioned directly below the radio. The X1 also has a more traditional Drive Performance Control switch; it’s in the same place as the rest of the BMW range whereas the Gran Tourer has a toggle type switch directly in front of the gear lever. Siting the heater controls directly below the radio with a storage area underneath also allows the X1 to have a couple of cup holders in front of the gear lever with a neat roller cover for when they’re not in use.
The 20d version of the X1 develops 190hp and in this guise the automatic version can sprint from rest to 62mph in 7.6 seconds and it certainly feels very sprightly on the road. As you’d expect it grips very well thanks to the xDrive setup and it’s really pretty entertaining to punt along the back roads, ultimately only held back from feeling as enjoyable as the Touring due to its raised ride height and higher centre of gravity. As a compromise it feels pretty good. It’s raised driving position does afford you a good view of the road, too, something that is quite comforting on motorways as there are now so many MPVs and 4x4s on the road that seeing traffic conditions ahead in a ‘normal’ car is becoming increasingly difficult.
So what have we discovered? Is there a clear winner? I guess we can’t really go too much further without looking at the costs involved and for the models we’re looking at here, they have on-the-road prices of £33,835 (320d), £34,420 (220d) and £32,180 (X1), and while the 3 Series Touring and 220d both start at around £26k for lesser engined models, the X1 undercuts them both at just under £25k. If you’re not desperately interested in outright speed and driving dynamics I’d probably say that you could drop down an engine size on each of these machines, which would free up a little bit of cash to spend on a couple of options. All three of these cars were loaded to the gunwales with extras and they do make a difference to the overall ambiance of the cars.
If you were considering leasing any of these machines we’d recommend having a little look around at some of the current deals on offer for these exact machines. The cheapest we could find seemed to be the 320d ED Plus at around £330 a month rising to £340 for the 220d and around £360 for the X1. These figures were calculated for a three-year lease with a 10k mile-per-year allowance. Give it a few months and once the initial launch hype has died down the X1 will probably be on a par with the other two machines.
Fuel economy is a big consideration these days and the clear winner in this area is the 320d. We’ll use BMW’s official figures here as while we don’t expect you to get them they do at least give us a level playing field. At a smidgen over 70mpg the 320d ED really is the economy champion and the other two cars are obviously somewhat hampered by having four-wheel drive which saps economy. Opt for the two-wheel drive 220d and the figure would rise to 60mpg. Road tax is another consideration and here the 320d wins again, with an annual fee of just £20 compared to £100 for the 220d and £130 for the X1. Overall, though, one’s running costs aren’t going to be massively different whichever of these machines you choose, but if you’re planning on doing a lot of miles the 320d’s economy might just swing the balance in its favour.
In terms of equipment there isn’t a huge amount to choose between them – they’re all pretty similarly spec’d and have such niceties as Business Navigation, two-zone air-con and DAB radios. In the spec we have here the 320d and the 220d both come with leather as standard while the X1 in Sport trim would need that adding to its spec, which would negate any price advantage it has.
Ultimately, though, it all depends on what exactly you’re looking for in a car. For me personally I’d find it very hard to walk away from the 320d Touring if I had a young family. But then I’m more than prepared to ensure that we don’t have an oversized buggy taking up half the boot and would be prepared to sacrifice some of the extra interior accommodation offered by the 220d and X1. The 320d just feels like so much more of a BMW from the driver’s seat. It’s livelier and has more feel to its controls and ultimately offers more feedback and reward to the keen driver, despite actually being slower than the other two cars.
If, however, I had slightly bigger children I could be swayed by one of the other two. The rear legroom in a 3 Series just doesn’t cut it when they get older and there’s nothing worse than hearing complaints from the back seat every five minutes or, worse still, arguments breaking out over who’s taking up most space. Trust me, been there, got the T-shirt. If that were the case I’d see if the X1 would fit the bill as I think it’s a decent compromise. I just couldn’t get on with the styling of a Gran Tourer despite it actually being the best family car here when judged on interior space and accommodation.
|BMW F31 320d ED Plus Touring||BMW F48 X1 xDrive20d Sport||BMW F46 220d xDrive M Sport|
Four-cylinder, turbodiesel, 16-valve
163hp @ 4000rpm
295lb ft @ 1750rpm
8.2 seconds (8.1)
Four-cylinder, turbodiesel, 16-valve
190hp @ 4000rpm
295lb ft @ 1750rpm
7.6 seconds (7.6)
Four-cylinder, turbodiesel, 16-valve
190hp @ 4000rpm
295lb ft @ 1750rpm
|Figures in brackets refer to automatic version / No manual available – all figures for auto model|