Luxury car owners in India are largely chauffeured around—the practical buyers far outweigh the enthusiasts, and luxury itself is defined by the backseat experience for us. So, it’s inevitable that luxury carmakers focus on the backseat, rather than the driving experience, for the Indian market.
Cars like the Skoda Superb, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the BMW 7 series and the Audi A8 are all in the long wheelbase (LWB) category that’s associated with more leg room and comfort. The Mercedes Benz E-class, which also comes in the long wheelbase version now, however, dominates the segment, speaking volumes about what the Indian buyer wants.
For BMW in India, its popular 3 Series, a driver-focussed car, was also outsold by the more stylish and spacious 3 GT (Gran Turismo) when it arrived, prompting the company to realise that it made good business sense to introduce an LWB version of 3 Series. Does this make the new 3 Series the perfect blend of comfort and driving pleasure?
The obvious place to start looking for the answer is in the backseat of the BMW 3 series Gran Limousine. Riding on Mumbai’s roads, which could currently be equated with the surface of the moon, the effect of the longer wheelbase and softer suspension is immediately apparent. It just glides over the potholes, soaks up the bumps and dismisses the odd broken paver block keeping me really comfortable. The way it isolates the passenger from the road is impressive. In fact, it isolates you to the world outside in more ways than one—the calm in the cabin makes you feel like you’ve muted everything that’s outside. Then there is the 43mm of additional leg room that lends itself to the Limousine in the name.
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The seats are comfy, visibility is good. With the long rear doors, getting in and out is easy too. The large panoramic sunroof gives it the feeling of a lounge and at night the strips of mood lighting on the seat and doors add ambience. I do wish that BMW offered recline for the rear seats for extra comfort, and blinds because without those, in our searing heat, I had to turn the AC up to high to really get cool. The central tunnel is quite high, so the passenger in the middle is not going to be comfortable. However, the backseat is plusher than before and the serene cabin and smooth ride did make the daily drudge through Mumbai’s chaotic roads less irritating.
While the backseat is really the place to be, you can’t keep an enthusiast pinned there for long and as we hit the highway, I just had to take the wheel. The 3 Series Gran Limousine is not only longer but a little higher off the ground too, so despite its longer wheelbase it cleared the largest of speed breakers with ease.
As the traffic eased and the road opened up, it allowed me to let the horses under the hood gallop. The 2.0 litre engine built up speed in such a refined manner, I had to remind myself it is a diesel. Using two sequential turbos, the galloping horses settle into a canter fast enough and the 100 comes up in a very quick 7 seconds. The quick shifting 8-speed gearbox ensures that the engine never sounds like it is working hard. The build-up of speed is so seamless that I have to hit the cruise control to ensure I don’t break any speed limits on the highway.
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Steadily streaming down the highway, overtaking comes effortlessly. But hey, this is a BMW and a certain amount of spirited driving is the order of the day, so I turn off into winding country roads and dial it into Sport mode. Quick dabs on the paddles as I snake around a series of corners and I am impressed with how it handles. It is clearly not as agile as the regular 3, but it is better than the 3 GT and lets you enjoy a spirited drive.
As the sun dips behind the hills, I stop to take in some fresh air and a closer look at the car, inside and out. The interiors look smart in the cognac and black combo. The dash has open pore wood that makes it look richer and generous splashes of chrome that Indian consumers love. Extendable thigh support and powered front seats ensure you can settle in to a comfortable position. There is a great sounding 16-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, wireless charging, a 10.25-inch touchscreen, digital dials, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. You can also opt for an iPad Air for your rear-seat entertainment with the Comfort package. It doesn’t get ventilated seats, which I think are a great addition for Indian conditions. On the safety front, there are six airbags, electronic stability control (ESC), cornering brake control and the parking assist, a super handy feature to get the longer car into tighter spots.
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Viewed head on, it has a smart nose with the trademark kidney-shaped grille and adequate chrome to bring the bling, but it’s hard to distinguish it from the regular variant of the 3 series. When you view it from the side, telling the difference is easier because of the longer rear doors, but it still looks well proportioned. What gives it away is the Ld badge at the rear and the rectangular exhausts in place of round ones. Lift the boot lid and you find just enough space with 430 litres. The rear seats don’t spilt or fold to open up more room when needed, so you are stuck with just that much space.
So, is the 3 Series Gran Limousine the best of both worlds? Good behind the wheel and in the backseat? I would certainly say so. It is a car that is comfortable for the passenger and still spirited enough if you’re behind the wheel. At ₹52.50 lakh for this diesel variant, the 3 Gran Limousine is notably pricier than its rivals, but its luxurious backseat certainly has the potential to create the same magic as the LWB E-Class did, and its clear focus on comfort is sure to make it a segment favourite.
The writer is Editor, Autocar Show