HIDE AND SEEK: The cargo area easily accommodates a week’s worth of grocery shopping and hides it from view with built-in panels. Drop the rear seats and there’s abundant  space.
HIDE AND SEEK: The cargo area easily accommodates a week’s worth of grocery shopping and hides it from view with built-in panels. Drop the rear seats and there’s abundant space.
BILL GRIFFITH

This week’s test car is a most interesting addition to BMW’s 3 Series lineup, the Gran Turismo.

It’s an elongated hatchback version of the 3 Series, joining the sedan and wagon versions. It takes some investigation when you first look at it to make sure it’s not a 5 Series vehicle.

A snide reaction would be to dismiss the Gran Turismo as another take on a duo of dimly received similar configurations, the Honda Crosstour and Acura ZDX, a pair of four-door sedans turned into hatchbacks with all-wheel-drive. Critics have called them “the answer to a question no one asked.”

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My reaction is that BMW has expended considerable corporate design and research efforts into making this vehicle. Perhaps it will drive through the door that the Honda family has cracked open; perhaps it won’t. In either case, those who do buy one will find this a useful vehicle with BMW driving DNA coupled with a European take on creating useful carrying capacity.

The obvious positives: increased load-carrying, especially with the 40-20-40 folding rear seat, extra rear legroom, higher (by 2.3 inches) front and rear seating positions, hidden side and under-floor storage compartments, high-opening hatch, multiple driving modes, and greater ride comfort on long trips.

Drawbacks: no standard rear view camera (a needed option) and a slight trade-off on the 3 Series sedan’s traditional sport suspension. Also the auto stop/start economy function gets tiresome in heavy city traffic.

Our test vehicle was the 335i xDrive with a 3.0-liter in-line turbocharged six-cylinder engine and eight-speed automatic transmission. The xDrive denotes all-wheel-drive. As such, this is a strong entry in the near-luxury category for the New England Motor Press Association’s Winter Car of the Year competition.

MSRP (including destination) is $47,775. The $3,000 M Sport Package, $3,085 Technology Package, and $950 Cold Weather Package brought the bottom line to $54,525.

The M Sport package adds 18-inch light alloy wheels, Estoril Blue trim, an aerodynamic kit, and sports seats with black leatherette upholstery. The package’s signs are discreet lest they suggest that the car is an M Series performance vehicle. It isn’t though it is quite capable.

For those accustomed to BMW interior controls, this model follows suit with BMW and other German vehicles. If you like the cars, you learn their idiosyncrasies.

The diagonal styling of the center console is one of the cleverest and most attractive approaches I’ve seen to this normally pedestrian portion of the interior. That’s an example of the German engineering touches throughout the vehicle that sometimes amaze you and sometimes confound you.

One that confounds is the shift lever. It’s electronic and requires you to push a release button to simply move the level from Park to Drive or Reverse.

The in-line six-cylinder engine’s 300 horsepower (and 300 lb.-ft. of torque) performed effortlessly in tandem with a quick-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission. The package is so smooth and powerful that you wonder how much more the internal combustion engine can be refined.

Normal, Eco, and Sport modes provide distinctly different driving characteristics. We played with all of them and averaged 24.6 miles per gallon (premium fuel required) and know we could have done better. The Gran Turismo is rated at 20 mpg in city driving and 30 on the highway.

Another example of the German engineering is in the cargo area. It’s lit by an overhead light in the hatch, but also illuminated by twin strips on the floor, where there are sliding tie-downs. There’s also a good-size hidden compartment below the storage area, an elasticized net on one side and hidden side compartments, and a power outlet.

The storage area also is hidden from the outside by two panels, one that’s so cleverly affixed to the bottom of the liftgate that most owners will forget it’s there. A second (easily removable) completes the visual security barrier.

For access, at least in Gran Turismo models sent to America, two handle releases allow the rear seats to fall flat for loading.

Why so much attention to the 18.3 cubic feet of cargo space? Because of the Gran Turismo’s European heritage. Travel in Europe and you won’t see the same prevalence of roof racks as in the United States. I’ve learned from my Milan-based, mountain-biking family members that it’s preferable to travel with equipment hidden from prying eyes.

It’s something the Gran Turismo can do. With one rear-seat section folded, it should be able to take four passengers and their ski equipment to the mountains in grand style, including heated rear seats.

Such trips should be a driving pleasure, aided by the longer wheelbase (4.3 inches more than the 3 Series Sport Wagon) and revamped rear suspension needed to create the flat-bottomed cargo compartment. Despite the sloping coupe-like roofline, rear seat access and headroom is fine. (More examples of the work that went into this model).

Options we’d have liked to have tested:

• Anti-dazzle high beam assistant. Turn on your high beams and the car automatically switches to low beams when it detects oncoming traffic.

• Active cruise control with Stop & Go function and Speed Limit with No Passing Zone info. See how much closer the autonomous car is coming.

• The optional rear view camera with Surround View, Side View, Top View, and BMW parking assistant.

We found the Gran Turismo to be an engineering marvel and a pleasure to drive. Whether it becomes a marketing success remains to be seen, but those who opt for one won’t be disappointed.

2014 BMW 3 Series Gran Turismo

THE BASICS

Price, base/as tested (with destination): $47,775/$54,525. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 20 mpg city/30 mpg highway. Fuel economy, Globe observed: 24.6. Drivetrain: 3.0-liter Inline 6- cylinder, 8-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel-drive. Body: 5-door, 5-passenger hatchback.

THE SPECIFICS

Horsepower: 300. Torque: 300 lb.-ft. Overall length: 189.9 in. Wheelbase: 115 in. Height: 58.6 in. Width: 72 in. Curb weight: 3,915 pounds.

THE GOOD

Drivetrain, styling, hidden cargo capability.

THE BAD

You give up the true 3 Series sedan handling; auto stop/start gets annoying in heavy

THE BOTTOM LINE

A terrific vehicle in a configuration that the public has yet to adopt.

ALSO CONSIDER

Honda Crosstour, Acura ZDX.