BMW's relationship with the fast estate is a curious one. Even before there was a fully-fledged M division, dealers were taking on commissions for cars like the 3.0si Touring - and very cool they were, too. In just the second generation of M5, BMW saw fit to build a wagon, albeit in left-hand drive only. It then went away for a life cycle and came back, as if there was unfinished business in the arena of loopy-fast estates. And it's still possible to buy M Performance badged Tourings as well, cars like the current M340i xDrive.
So there are reasons to be cheerful in 2020. But the unpredictability and inconsistency, the way BMW has never fully committed to the M estate as a bodystyle - when it very slavishly has to the convertible - remains confusing. Not only because its closest rivals have done and continue to do so, but also because the will-they, won't-they stance denied us one of the greatest M cars there ever: the E46 M3 Touring.
Nowadays, the M division stance on estates is pretty clear. It's been more than a decade since there was an M5 Touring, and just about the same time since the first X5 M was introduced; the sad fact of it is that the M SUV has become a more commercially viable project than the concept of an M wagon. We're not refuting that, and if it keeps BMW in the black and able to make more 'CS' badged M cars then everyone can fill their boots, quite frankly.
But what might have been, eh? Throwbacks are the order of another lockdowned Thursday, and they don't get much more nostalgic, or any more emotive, than the E46 M3 Touring Concept. Back in 2000 there was no debate about whether the money went into the fast 4x4 or the fast estate: BMW had only launched the X5 in 1999, after all, and even the 4.6iS hadn't happened yet - an X5 M was unthinkable at the turn of the millennium, unconscionable even.
By contrast, the 1990s had been the fast estate's awakening. There was that magnificent E34 M5 Touring, of course, as well as AMG cramming V8s where they didn't really belong throughout the Mercedes range, the RS2 transforming expectations of stoic Audis (with Porsche's help) and Volvo's infamous exploits in the BTCC. Quick wagons had become valid performance cars in their own right; the combination of utility and performance a very desirable little niche on its own.
The E46 M3 Touring was perfectly poised to capitalise. In 2000 there was already an S202 Mercedes C43 AMG on sale and the B5 Audi RS4 had launched; two more perfectly placed rivals you couldn't imagine. The potential was there to create something sensational: not just the famed E46 M3 package in a body more practical than the coupe, but a genuinely handsome production model as well.
The concept seen here was last wheeled out for the BMW M3's 30th birthday bash back in 2016. Aside from the fact this car is so obscenely exciting to M fans, it's the cohesion of the end result that's so surprising. It just works. The Touring looks good, where sometimes estate conversions of iconic performance cars lack a bit of the original's design harmony.
The story gets better, too (or worse, depending on perspective), as the M3 Touring wasn't even that difficult to make. Jakob Polschak was in charge of building the M prototypes at the time; in 2016 he said of this car: "This prototype allowed us to show that, from a purely technical standpoint at least, it was possible to integrate an M3 Touring into the ongoing production of the standard BMW 3 Series Touring with very little difficulty". Sigh. Apparently, there was some concern initially over whether the standard doors could accommodate the butcher M3 rear track and arches, though that was overcome in creating this concept. Only "minimal manual follow-up work" was required to make a bonafide M3 Touring at the end of the line.
Think what this might have been like. That hallowed S54 straight-six, a six-speed manual, the E46's fine chassis and one of BMW's best Touring shapes. It really is a bitter pill to swallow, still to this day - what might have been for the future of the M Division if this car (and the E39 M5 Touring that was also made) had seen the light of day.
So why didn't it happen? Well, interestingly, BMW had done something similarly daft with an M3 before in creating the E36 M3 Compact of 1996, which they allowed a few journalists to have a go in. Unsurprisingly, they returned pretty favourable feedback, the Compact basically doing the M135i thing more than 15 years ahead of its time. That the E46 Touring never left the factory gates implies it was known early on that the project would go no further. You can imagine reviews of an E46 Touring being reasonably positive...
Maybe there was a concern that estates require torque to lug things around; sublime though the 3.2 straight-six was, torque wasn't its strong point: just 269lb ft at 4,900rpm. That old M5 Touring, with its 3.8, was comparable on power but it boasted more mid-range muscle. Which is some argument, sure, as the Touring would have been heavier than a Coupe, but don't forget there was the M3 cabrio. Its 1,655kg kerbweight was a chunk more than the coupe's 1,570, and how much heavier could the estate have really been that that? Don't forget, either, that even sensible old Audi went on to make two successive generations of 8,000rpm+ RS4 Avants, each making their peak torque at 4,000rpm and beyond. So, surely, BMW of all brands could have gotten away with a torque-light estate as well - the fact that the E61 M5 Touring turned up a few years later, warbling its way past 6,000 before unleashing peak twist, underlines that.
Might the M3 Touring have cannibalised sales from elsewhere? Hard to imagine, given there wasn't an E46 M3 saloon already there for more practical types - it was just coupe and convertible. The Touring could have easily slotted into the range above a 328i/330i and without posing any risk, presumably, to the larger 5 Tourings on the grounds of scale.
Perhaps it would have been too expensive to make, despite tooling apparently being fairly easy; the E34 might have put BMW off doing Tourings. Or indeed, there may not have been sufficient demand in 2000 for an M3 wagon, given that there'd never been one and the legend had been built around two-door cars. Without any previous data, BMW might have baulked at the lack of forecasting - or else thought the new family friendly model might tarnish its extensive motorsport legacy.
Alas, we'll never know, and the M3 Touring's so-near-but-yet-so-far status remains as irksome now as it was in 2000 - perhaps more so, in fact, given what followed. By the time of the E61 M5 just a few years later, the death knell had already been sounded for M Tourings. It just wasn't meant to be.
Some good should be taken from the demise of the M3 Touring concept, though, even two decades on. Not only was the idea sufficiently inspiring, and the handiwork sufficiently doable, that M fans have taken on their own projects (with spectacular results), but it showed that BMW was willing to entertain new and varied M possibilities. That's continued since; projects like the CRT and GTS didn't need to happen, really, with CFRP panels, bored-out V8s and water injection, yet there were enough people dedicated to the M3 and M4 cause in BMW to make it happen - and we're very glad that there was. Let's hope that same dedication and desire for the most exciting, most desirable M3s makes it through to the next generation, and we're still talking about those in 20 years' time, even if we all know that an M3 Touring will, sadly, never be one of them.
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