I do not like SUVs. I know that I am in the minority and that SUVs are steadily taking over the world, but between you and me, a station wagon is much better. As SUVs become more popular (and interestingly more car like), I cannot help but think what most people really need, and should be buying, is a station wagon.
Of course, I am not talking about off-roading here. And if you really need a pig carrier or to tow a mobile Taj Mahal, then there really is no choice. But on bitumen and for most families, a station wagon has all the room and carrying capacity required. Not only are they more economical to run, a station wagon has a lower centre of gravity, which means they are much better to drive. I know a lot of people like the visibility and imperious feel of a high driving position, but I would rather swap that for manoeuvrability and the ability to weave through traffic.
One thing I have to admit is that the term station wagon is pretty dorky. That’s why the carmakers have come up with much cooler names like sports wagon, avant and estate. BMW calls its cars 'Touring', which tries to sound more sophisticated and luxurious than station wagon.
When my family needed more room, I bought a BMW 318d Touring as a near-new demo in 2012, and it has provided nearly 90,000km of faultless service. For me, a 3 Series Sports Wagon is about the perfect balance of being big enough for a family of four, without being too cumbersome in the cut and thrust of the shopping centre car park motorkhana and daily traffic grind.
The 3 Series wagon is actually on a longer wheelbase than the sedan, freeing up a little more leg room in the back, and being German it’s built for big people with lots of head room in the front. The sloping design of the back means the capacity of the wagon is not huge, but it is handy. My wife loves the power tailgate and could not live without one now. I think the back of the car looks great – really squat and purposeful.
When I first saw the car with an optional Sports Pack including 18-inch wheels and Sports interior, I was a little worried that it would be 'all shout and no trousers', but I was pleasantly surprised. It’s certainly no rocket ship, but the 318d is a lot more lively than the performance figures would suggest.
The combination of 320Nm of torque and the excellent eight-speed automatic gearbox means that in Sports mode especially, the 318d feels surprisingly spritely and will more than keep up with traffic. And for a diesel there is even a pleasant little growl as it revs freely above 5000rpm.
It feels every bit as responsive as my previous-model E90 320d sedan, even though on paper the 320d had significantly more power and torque. I put this down to the much improved eight-speed gearbox over the previous six-speed. It’s amazing how often people look at the power and torque figures of an engine, but forget that the gearbox is just as important.
Diesel has become much maligned of late, but in this application it is brilliant with loads of low-down torque to waft you around effortlessly. This car reminds me why diesels became so popular in the first place with their drivability and amazing economy. Fully loaded with four adults and luggage, this car will cruise on the highway at 4.2L/100km, which means Melbourne to Sydney easily on a tank of fuel.
The rear-wheel-drive chassis is relatively flat and stable with good turn-in, and the car does not feel front-heavy like a lot of diesels. The ride has that BMW firmness and control, but is still comfortable despite the dreaded run-flat tyres. For better or worse, BMW has totally committed to run-flat tyres in recent years. If you don’t know about these, what they do is allow you to drive at up to 80km/h for 200–300km on a punctured tyre with no air.
Now, like most blokes, when I first heard about this I thought, 'That’s not for me. Of course I can change a tyre'. But just think how useful this is if you get a puncture when driving on a road where it is not safe to stop, especially at night, or in the rain or both. Personally, I once had two punctures at the same time when driving to the airport on the way to a holiday with the whole family in the car. Without run-flats it would have been holiday ruined. And if you have changed a tyre on the side of the road, do you remember how filthy you got? I hope you weren’t on your way to anywhere important.
The problem with run-flats is that the sidewalls of the tyres have to be much thicker to support the weight of the car when the tyre is deflated. This means the tyres are much stiffer and do not have the soft 'bounce' of regular tyres. The result is you can feel more of the little bumps and jars normally absorbed by the tyres and this can ruin a car’s ride. This used to be much more noticeable when run-flats first came into the market, but to their credit the car engineers are now much better at adjusting the suspension components to allow for this and the run-flat tyres themselves have improved a lot.
The cabin of the 318d is comfortable and well put together with good-quality luxurious materials as expected of a premium product. I think the cabin is starting to show its age in terms of style and innovation, but that is not unexpected in a car more than five years old. However, the cabin in a new BMW 3 Series is not that much different, and I feel this is one area where BMW has fallen a little behind the competition. A 3 Series update must be due soon.
Reliability has been excellent and the car has never let me down. Unfortunately, being a European prestige car, service costs can be ridiculously expensive. The engine only needs to have the oil changed every two years with an 'inspection' every 12 months. You would think an inspection without needing to change any parts would be pocket change, but I never did manage to walk away from a dealer service for less than several hundred dollars.
European cars also seem to have a habit of chewing through brake discs at an alarming rate. I was told by the service department that apparently brake discs are viewed as a disposable item, just like brake pads. Luckily, now that the car is out of warranty, services by a local mechanic are much more reasonable. Brake discs, for example, are less than half the cost and look and perform just the same.
All in all, the BMW 318d has been an excellent workhorse for all of the regular family duties, as well as an enjoyable drive with a touch of luxury as the cherry on the cake.