Off-roaders and people carriers are all the rage for those who want a practical vehicle these days. But it is easy to forget that when it comes to carrying loads, a traditional estate is hard to beat.
Take BMW's 3-Series Touring as an example. The compact executive wagon has a loyal following, thanks to an upmarket reputation. However, previous models were never the biggest in class and lacked innovation - so how does the new one shape up?
Taking its inspiration from the larger 5-Series Touring, the 3 has a high roofline, short overhangs and a wheelbase that's 35mm longer than before. It is an elegant shape that certainly looks more exciting than the previous incarnation. But what about load space? As with its saloon brother, the Touring is longer, wider and taller than its predecessor, which means more room for passengers and luggage.
With the rear seats in place, there is 460 litres of stowage space, up 25 litres from before. Folding flat the standard-fit 60:40 bench creates a maximum capacity of 1,385 litres - up 40 litres. Only the Jaguar X-Type can beat the Touring's all-out lugging ability, topping the BMW's maximum stowage by 30 litres. It is clear that a lot of thought has gone into making the Touring as usable and as accessible as possible.
The tailgate now has an opening rear window, complete with a plastic luggage bay cover that automatically rolls back when the glass flips up. Inside, a standard cargo net and lots of lashing points mean the boot can even be partitioned up to the roof, while a low bumper line helps loading. What's more, there are plenty of hooks for bags, as well as holders for an umbrella and a two-litre water bottle.
But the Touring's cleverest feature is its hidden luggage compartment. As the 3-Series is designed to use run-flat rubber, there is no spare wheel, so this £160 option makes use of the space that would otherwise be filled by a tyre. It incorporates a partitioned well and a watertight fold-out box, big enough for a pair of muddy boots. There is also a plastic sheet which protects the bumper from scratches while loading.
A less practical optional extra - but one that's a bit more stylish - is the Panoramic roof. Essentially a sunroof that extends over the passenger seats, it will cost around £800. Potential buyers will be reassured to find the Touring drives just as well as the saloon, and our 320d test car displayed the same excellent handling, superb refinement and gutsy acceleration.
Also carried over is BMW's new braking system - which, among other features, keeps moisture off the discs in the wet to improve stopping distances. We have few complaints, the main one focusing on the iDrive control centre, which, despite being simplified for the 3-Series, still remains confusing.
Together with the 325i, the 320d will go on sale in September, while the 320i, 330i and 330d variants arrive the following month. The 318i and 318d models are scheduled to appear in 2006 at the earliest. Priced at £25,570, the 320d SE is around £900 more expensive than the machine it replaces.
But you can see where the money has been spent; not only is the BMW more spacious and practical, it is also safer and better equipped. Together with residual values that are likely to be class leading, the new 3-Series Touring is one of the best all-rounders on the market.