If there’s one thing we can learn from the plight of Saab Automobiles in this country, it’s that American buyers have fallen out of love with pricey hatchbacks. While the Swedish brand gained a loyal following in the 1980s and '90s among yuppies, the proliferation of SUVs and crossovers basically killed demand for its signature car, the 900/9-3 hatchback, with the company ultimately filing for bankruptcy in 2011. And no one has really been clamoring for the 5-door body style to return, at least with a luxury brand badge on the tailgate.
So what to make of BMW trying to resurrect the luxury hatchback segment with its all-new 3-Series Gran Turismo hatchback. Either the Bavarians see an unmet need, or the GT arrives as part of an all-out drive for sales by spackling any gap in BMW's lineup — in this case, between the 3-Series sedan/sport wagon and the taller X1 and X3 crossovers.
The 3-Series GT starts as a 3-Series sedan that has been stretched 4.3 inches between the axles, with 3.2 inches more height and about eight inches of added length. About half of that length is added behind the rear wheels in the interest of cargo space. As a result, style takes a hit: The tall roof drops all the way back to the upkicked tail in a nice, clean arc, but despite BMW’s best efforts to balance the visual weight of the big rump up front with a taller hood and blunt nose, as well as a stretched window line and sculpted doors, the GT’s proportions come off awkward. Even the large available 19-inch wheels can appear dwarfed by the thick body. This Bimmer’s got “back.”
That said, BMW did capture some interesting design “moments” on the 3-Series GT, including the extra-wide, three-dimensional grille, frameless windows and, for the first time on a BMW, an active rear spoiler. The 3-Series GT also features functional “air breathers” behind the front wheel wells, like those found on the 4-Series coupe and the new X5.
The 3-Series GT range sports two models: the 328i xDrive Gran Turismo ($42,375), powered by a 240-hp turbocharged four-cylinder engine with 255 lb-ft of torque, and the 335i xDrive Gran Turismo ($47,775), with BMW’s vaunted turbocharged inline-6 engine that produces 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque. Both come standard with all-wheel drive (hence the “xDrive” in their names) as well as BMW’s excellent eight-speed automatic transmission. All models also feature BMW’s nifty Driving Experience Control system that tailors throttle and transmission characteristics, with Comfort, Sport, Sport+ and ECO-PRO driving settings.
Each model line further divides into several trim levels, including a dressy Luxury line, a sharpened Sport line and, above that, an M-sport line. Sport and M-Sport lines feature sport-tuned transmissions and paddle shifters, among other bits, and the latter rides on a lowered suspension and looks more aggressive with an aero-optimized body kit.
On the road, the 3-Series GT feels like a 3-Series that’s gone soft. If the 4-Series coupe feels like a younger, leaner 3-Series, this one feels like a 3 that’s hit middle age and let its gym membership lapse. The 328i model weighs a whopping 454 pounds more than the 328i sedan, and the 335i model tips the scales 416 pounds heavier than the 335i sedan. The 328i in particular needs real cajoling to get moving, especially with the standard Driving Experience Control switched to ECO-PRO, which prioritizes low-rpm driving. The 335i performs better, but whereas the turbocharged inline-6 has near-faultless power, the engine can't enliven the GT unless left in Sport mode. While you’ll enjoy sharpened throttle response and quicker shifts (especially when shifting manually), fuel economy drops in exchange.
Perhaps wisely, BMW brought only M-Sport models to the preview drive (we can only imagine how soft the other models will feel). Even with their larger brakes, the pedal did not bite with the same vigor as those in other 3-Series models. Handling, too, suffers from the weight gain; hustling down a twisty road spawns less fun and confidence than, say, the 328i Sport Wagon. On the upside, the BMW keeps its composure at high speeds, the steering never feels less than responsive and the softer suspension promises more comfort.
Which could explain BMW's strategy: Not every potential BMW driver wants a tight-fitting sports car. The easy-breezy GT user experience starts with sitting down; the seats ride 2.3 inches higher than the sedan and wagon models. The interior design and materials come right out of the sedan, with some minor tailoring to fit the larger dimensions.
The big news — literally — lies in back. Rear legroom grows 2.8 inches more generous than the sedan, and outdoes BMW’s 5-Series sedan. The GT’s taller body and longer wheelbase render the rear wheels back and lower with respect to the rear seat, allowing for a wide bench seat that can seat three in relative comfort, which the sedan can't. Practical features include a wide-opening power tailgate, a 40/20/40 split folding rear seat with adjustable backrest angle, as well as tie-downs and concealed under-floor cubbies in the cargo area. However, the hatch compromises rear vision, making the car’s many available safety-related electronics (blind spot monitor, rear cross-path detection and rearview camera) that much more worth the money.
By claiming into new territory, the 3-Series GT lacks natural predators. Tire-kickers might cross-shop some wagons, such as the Audi Allroad wagon, Volvo XC60 and upcoming V70, Acura TSX wagon, and, of course, BMW’s own 328i wagon. But it could also stare down some small crossovers like the Acura RDX and BMW’s X1 and X3 crossovers. We would be remiss not to bring up the Honda Crosstour/Acura ZDX, the only similarly-styled five-doors out there, but the GT towers over them.
Finally, if customers are looking at the 3-Series GT with fuel economy in mind, they should consider that the 328i GT’s 22 mpg city / 33 mpg highway rating falls right on top of that for the X1 xDrive28i crossover. In 335i form, however, the 20 mpg city / 30 mpg highway rating soundly beats the 18 mpg city / 27 mpg highway rating of the X1 xDrive35i
Saab learned the hard way that there wasn’t much of a market for premium hatchbacks, even in wagon-happy Europe and especially in crossover-crazed America. If any company can succeed where no competitor has, it's BMW.