Though Audi, Honda and Rover all tried to emulate the original Touring's profitable success, none managed to create quite the same blend of speed and style. Arguably, their alternatives were too practical in contrast to the original BMW's very limited loadspace.
Hence the Bavarians' elaborate care when they designed the E36 series Touring. Though the 370-litre luggage bay is 12% larger and 13.5 inches wider than that of the original Touring model, this 3 series variant still remains not so much an estate as a hatchback with a backpack.
That said, those with active lifestyles should find the car a more useful tool than before. BMW's argument was that you shouldn't judge a boot merely by its dimensions but by the kind of leisure equipment that can be shoehorned into it.
Consider the car with this criterion in mind and it actually scores quite well. The importers boasted that its velour-carpeted boot could easily swallow either a full-sized bicycle or four sets of golf clubs. Skis meanwhile, can be poked through a hatch in the split rear seat. Loading is easy, though the taillights do still encroach a little for wider items.
Otherwise of course, the recipe is pure BMW 3 series - indeed, it's only by looking in the rear view mirror that you can tell you're not driving the saloon. Of course, you paid a little extra for the Touring's versatility - a premium of around £900 over the equivalent 4-door models - though BMW does point out that in return for that, you also got a slightly higher level of specification. These days the price differential is much reduced and Tourings are reasonably plentiful.
The E36 series 3 series has established an impressive reputation in the trade - and not only because its digital odometer is nearly impossible to clock. High demand has meant that second and third-year depreciation levels are still considerably lower than more 'ordinary' models from mainstream makers. In other words, when resale time comes, you should get a lot more for your part exchange than you might expect.
Watch for loose or ill-fitting interior trim and cold starting problems on earlier models and there have also been reports of water leaks through window seals, and coolant seepage from radiators. Watch for cars which have had many owners (this could be a sign of ongoing problems). Insist on a full service history, ideally with BMW dealer stamps. If you really want piece of mind, buy from a franchised dealer - but be prepared to pay a premium.
(approx based on a 318i Touring) A clutch assembly is around £130. Front brakepads are around £38, a full exhaust about £360, an alternator just under £225 and a tyre around £40. A starter motor is about £120. A headlamp is about £165.
Settle behind the wheel and it will feel good to be at the helm of a Three series thanks to the solid, quality feel of the controls and the silky-smooth performance. One of the advantages of buying a well cared for example is that the engine should be nicely run-in, so you can enjoy all the performance right from the start. In the six-cylinder petrol-powered 328i Touring for example, there's plenty on offer. Rest to 60 takes just 7.1 seconds on the way to a maximum of over 143mph. Add a set of personalised plates and even the most eagle-eyed enthusiast would struggle to recognise the car from new. Handling is summed up in two words: predictably enthusiastic. BMW seem once again to have exercised their knack of providing taut, responsive handling without sacrificing the kind of comfortable ride that most executive buyers will expect.
If you place a higher priority on style and performance than payload you'll be hard pushed to find a more satisfying option in this price bracket. Should you need a diesel the 325tds is the best option but this is a car that begs for a spirited petrol engine and it's hard to put a foot wrong. As with all BMWs, the six-cylinder engines are the definitive articles so why not save for a 328i? You know you want to.