A 1,500-mile roadtrip in the new BMW M3 Touring | Top Gear
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A 1,500-mile roadtrip in the new BMW M3 Touring

At last, an M3 estate. We put its touring and dog carrying abilities to the test with a monster roadtrip... to see dogs

Published: 21 Mar 2023

Regular TopGear.com readers and semi-pro car nerds, talk amongst yourselves for a minute.

Excuse me while I welcome the sometime car appreciator. Perhaps you clicked onto this fine website to kill time while waiting for a train, or it’s now 2026 and you've somehow accidentally landed on this page. How are the self-driving cars and Mars-based timeshares working out for you? Ah. Thought not.

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For you, the Perfectly Normal Person non-fluent in engine codes and model year updates, the fact BMW’s sped up 3 Series is now available as an estate car is unlikely to register on your potential highlights of 2023-ometer. Volkswagen made a Golf R estate last year. You didn’t catch us taking that on a 1,500-mile European adventure.

Photography: Richard Pardon

What you must get your head around is the sense of destiny in waiting here. In the 37 years the BMW M3 has existed – steadily morphing from spartan homologation racer to deluxe tech-infested turbobrute – BMW has never offered it in a Touring body style. Two-door coupes, yes, and four-door saloons. Floppy, overweight cabrios were deemed a worthy extension of the brand, but the humble wagon? Nein. And in fairness to BMW, you can see why.

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The two previous occasions upon which M has ordained to give us a super-tourer: the early Nineties E34 M5 and 2007–2010’s V10 E61 M5 (sorry, keep your model codes glossary handy) flopped harder than Matt Hancock’s literary career. “If you want M Power mit a ginormous boot, we’ll sell you a tidy line in bolshy SUVs,” was the party line. Meanwhile, Audi and AMG gleefully vacuumed up the modest sales (but inestimable cool factor) of rocket-propelled estate cars.

There’s an irony in BMW finally offering nerds the car we’ve yearned for attached to a face that seems to satirise the worst stereotypes of BMW drivers. I don’t know about you but the Halloween beaver mask hasn’t grown on me. The rear works though: swollen haunches, a subtle 3D-printed roof spoiler, and the usual quad-tunnel exhausts which are (unusually, these days) genuine pipes rather than imitations.

Ironically the noise a turbocharged direct-injection emission controlled straight-six spits out is underwhelming, so the noise is faked inside, not all that convincingly. It’s a more barrel chested soundtrack than the new hybrid 4cyl AMG C63 at least.

BMW M3 Touring

Tuesday is the delivery job: get the M3 to Switzerland. Besides a minor detour to the ghostly Reims grandstands and more fuel stops than ideal (a 59-litre tank simply isn’t enough when average economy is sub-25 to the gallon), the M3’s progress is uninterrupted, come rain, snow or more rain. I suspect the winter tyres have added a dollop of extra plushness to the ride, and photographer Richard and I express amazement at the lack of backache from the skeletal fixed-back chairs.

But I’m unconvinced. Having to explain the carbon groin mound muscling its way between your legs to a Normal Non-Car Person is going to make friendly lifts awkward. The illuminated M3 legends in said ‘lightweight’ chairs are risibly gauche, and why exactly would you equip a utilitarian estate car with gloss carbon-fibre backrests? Hardly screams “load me up with a mountain bike/fresh lumber/rubbish for the tip”, does it?

Mind you, neither does an as-tested price of £103,000. An M3 Touring starts life as an £80,000 machine, but this car’s £22,500 of optional extras – including the carbon seats and £8k of ceramic brakes – take it into the realm of exotica.

We arrive in Martigny after dark, a typically tidy but architecturally anonymous Swiss city nestling in the Rhone valley. The M3’s matte paintwork is encrusted with salt. Stubborn icicles cling to the diffuser. I think it looks tremendous. Richard agrees once I reassure him we’re not going to clean it for each photo. Cars get dirty. Fast cars look cooler dirty. And 700 miles of grime covers the worst of BMW’s crimes against styling.

BMW M3 Touring

We’re up at dawn, and so are the snowploughs: when you get up to 400mm of snow a year, you need to invest in the equipment to keep life moving. This isn’t Heathrow airport, you know. Every other vehicle on the road at half past seven in the morning is a plough, scuttling about creating neat piles of roadside powder. Heading south toward Mont Vélan and the Italian border, we’ve finally arrived on roads where the M3 can show off more than its solid grand touring credentials.

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Sorry if this is an anticlimax, but you simply can’t tell it’s the Touring. On paper, there are sacrifices: this version weighs 85kg more than an M3 saloon with four-wheel drive: 25kg of that is invested in stiffening gussets to counteract the lengthy roof and gaping hole in the rear, plus there are the usual caveats of extra glass and a taller centre of gravity. No carbon roof here either, because BMW couldn’t find a supplier that’d stamp a big enough panel without it adding another zero to the price.

But on the road – specifically the glassy smooth E27 that snakes its way up through the Alps towards the Great St Bernard pass – this just feels like an M3. Mighty. Limitless torque, outrageous pace, and the occasional fumble from the eight-speed gearbox, which never quite delivers the urgency and impact of the old twin-clutch, but is admittedly more polite when merely mooching. The steering’s weighty and has an oily, reassuring sturdiness – this isn’t super light, super fast modern car steering with the associated video game connotations. Metal and rubber are being manhandled, and it feels good. Steering wheel’s still too thick – why does M insist its drivers yearn to grip something girthy? One wonders.

If you’re The Stig, or you’re driving without any sense of self-preservation back-to-back with an M3 saloon, you might detect where the wagon loses a percent or two. But in isolation, in the real world, nope. This is a monstrously capable wagon. And therein lies a trait it absolutely shares with the two- and four-door versions of the current M3: that even once you’ve locked down your ideal engine, gearbox, steering, exhaust, brake and traction control settings, you only really unlock the depths of reserve in this chassis once you’re way beyond socially acceptable speeds.

Today’s M3 is a phenomenal piece of automotive engineering, but requires massive restraint on the driver’s part. Somehow that seems more appropriate in an estate. This is an unselfish car. The mega-wagon’s image is less thrusting than an M4’s. It says you may have other priorities. Further interests beyond powaahhh. If an M4 CSL is one of those ludicrous trussed-up show poodles, the Touring is a police-issue German shepherd. Obedient and useful, but disrespect it and it’ll dislocate your shoulder. Or put you in prison.

The Great St Bernard pass is shut. To spare you the false jeopardy, we knew it would be: it’s routinely closed until April, despite a record-breakingly mild Alpine winter, with several Swiss ski resorts hastily rebranding themselves as mountain bike trails. This corner of Switzerland got its first meaningful white stuff 48 hours before the M3 deposited us here.

Only the first quarter of a mile is cleared, and provides a handy dead-end playground for testing the M3’s rear-wheel-drive wild side. Frankly, the rear-biased default setting is so well balanced, I’d question the need to ever pension off 50 per cent of your traction. It gives the handling depth, if that’s not too hopelessly pretentious: there are levels to explore. And you’d never say that of an Audi RS4. BMW took its damn time giving us the car to end all cars, but waiting for this generation – with a world class AWD system and freakish duality of character – is probably the optimum time to green-light a Touring. Especially as it’ll have to be electric within a decade, and the C63’s already amid a hybrid identity crisis.

The light’s beautiful now but the photographer whinges something about needing to feel his fingers or he’s contacting the union, so we drop back down towards Martigny. Half an hour north, right at Aigne and you’re onto the Col du Pillon, which doesn’t close for winter. It’s no well kept secret – there are trucks, tourists and demonically committed locals defending the honour of quattro-drive Audis at every switchback.

BMW M3 Touring

In the tighter, meltwater-drenched hairpins the M3 could’ve felt cumbersome. Instead, it churns through technical stuff with a staunch refusal to understeer, and the ceramic brakes offer sensational feel even when your toes have gone black with frostbite. I should note too that this whole time, the 505-litre boot is teeming with camera cases, squashy overnight bags and snacks. Most photoshoots you’ve ever seen in Top Gear – whether you’re a veteran reader or a newbie – have required a support car to cart around the kit. The Touring swallows the lot with a shrug.

For the first time with the current M3, I’m experiencing a strange and disarming pang: desirability. Despite the hideous bodywork, the needlessly complex new touchscreen interface, the naff digital instruments, and that eye-watering price that makes a £60k M340i Touring (secretly the best car BMW makes) look a total steal, the combination of right car, right shape in the right place has the M3 gelling at last. It’s not all the car you could ever want. It’s more car than you’d ever need.

We descend towards base camp one more time. The M3 is fast, comfortable, entertaining, commodious, technologically overqualified and feels solidly built from improved materials. But we couldn’t bring it all this way and not subject it to trial by dog. There’s this strange fetishisation of fast estate cars as hellbound mutt wagons, even though you’d never countenance driving even remotely swiftly with a four-legged pal in the boot. Or anything back there, frankly. Except someone else’s cameras. 

BMW M3 Touring

So our final stop is Barryland. The official breeding facility, visitor centre and museum of the St Bernard dog. The underwhelming name comes courtesy of the most celebrated mountain rescue pooch of them all, a male named Barry credited with tens – perhaps hundreds – of rescues in the 19th century. St Bernards were originally kept for this noble purpose by the monks in an eponymous hospice atop the St Bernard pass, ready to aid stranded travellers attempting to cross the border.

The dogs haven’t done any rescuing since the Fifties – a helicopter is more versatile these days it turns out – and like me you’ll be dismayed to learn they never in fact carried a barrel of brandy around their collar on duty. That factoid comes from an 1820 painting.

But since these gentle giants are as Swiss as Toblerone, holey cheese and secretive banking, the descendants of the rescuers get their own petting zoo, museum and gift shop. Tearing ourselves away from the puppies getting their first literal taste of snow, I invite seven-year-olds Barry (obviously) and Janga to board. The quantity of hair and slobber deposited means this particular M3 is no longer worth a hundred grand, but two of the world’s largest dogs in one M car is an important parameter to benchmark this four-wheel Swiss army knife. Casual reader, thanks for sticking around. Only Top Gear brings you tests this thorough.

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