Ah, the old issue-how can I carry people and things and still enjoy driving? For a lean, sporty ride with cargo hauling, the 3-Series wagons are the ticket.
With its fifth generation debuting as a 2006 model, the 3-Series is very well sorted out by now. This new version grew 1.4 inches in wheelbase, 2.2 inches in length, and a whopping 3 inches in width. So, though compact, the 3-Series is just a little roomier than before. You can still haul more than 16 cubic feet of your stuff with the rear seats up, and more than 60 cubic feet with them folded. Who needs an SUV?
The BMWs of the 21st century have worn some of the most talked-about styling in their history. Chris Bangle, head of styling, may be blamed for the undulating "flamed" side styling, sliced lights, and clever dimensional tricks with the interior surfaces. But notice how many much more modest vehicles are wearing the BMW styling cues these days. BMWs, whatever their style, still set the trend for a good part of the auto industry.
The new 3-Series offers two versions of its smooth-running 3.0-liter straight-6 engine. In the normally aspirated 328 models, you get a healthy 230 horsepower with 200 lb.-ft. of torque. The twin-turbocharged 335 models pull a lusty 300 horsepower out of the same 3 liters, and a matching 300 lb.-ft. of torque to go with it.
My 2007 Deep Green Metallic 328xi Sports Wagon tester had the first of these two versions, so I can report only on its personality. With the standard six-speed manual transmission, the little wagon pulls a zero-to-sixty run in just 7.1 seconds. Fuel mileage is 19 City, 28 Highway per the EPA. I averaged 21.0 mpg.
The EPA's Green Vehicle Guide gives the 328xi Sports Wagon a 7 for the Air Pollution score and a 5 for the Greenhouse Gas score. The automatic version gets a 6 for the latter score, putting it into the Smartway category.
My tester had BMW's xDrive all-wheel-drive system. That's just one more reason to forget the SUVs. Of course, with the two-wheel-drive 328i, you can run zero to 60 in just 6.5 seconds.
There's more to driving than point-to-point speed, of course. The 3-Series gets a double-pivot type front suspension and a five-link rear suspension. Without a long explanation, this is not the cheap, easy way to go, so you know that all those extra pieces are giving your 3-Series ride great stability as you power through your favorite turns on that secret test track of yours.
My tester had power steering with engine-speed-sensitive variable assist, and through the fat, grippy leather wheel, the feel was extremely accurate-almost like your hands were touching the road surface itself (don't try that, please).
Knowing that you are likely to push your 3-Series a bit, BMW installs dynamic stability control, which uses the car's computer to monitor the car's situation and activate the brakes, as needed, for course correction. There's dynamic traction control, too, to redistribute the torque instantly and automatically when you need it.
BMW interiors, always geared to drivers, are now as aesthetic a place to be as an upscale Danish furniture store. The dark burl walnut trim adds a hint of fine furniture to the mix.
BMW dashboards curve outwards from the doors in a carefully crafted arc. The side door sills start out horizontal and end up vertical in one graceful turn. The materials look and feel more expensive than they have in the past. The warning chime makes a melodic ring sound that impressed my wife.
3-Series wagons get a huge, two-panel sunroof standard. It opens partially or fully, and its two sections tip up for ventilation.
The 328xi comes with most of the things you'd want in a car. But-you can load on lots more. My tester contained nearly $10,000 worth of options! But who would want to do without the metallic paint? The cold weather package heats the seats. The Premium Package represents nearly one third of the total options, with power front seats covered in leather and lots of handy electronics, including a universal garage door opener and power-folding, auto-dimming mirrors. The Sport Package contributes larger (17-inch) wheels and tires and a sportier steering wheel. Park Distance control protects your loved ones (and your rear bumper) from harm. The navigation system talks to you and shows you how to get anywhere. The premium sound system makes sure you're smiling when you get there.
In recent years, BMW has given drivers the iDrive system. In tandem with a dash screen, the iDrive knob sits on the console right behind the shift lever and lets you make many of the normal car selections. By pushing or pulling the knob in a direction, you select the area you want to work with, say, Entertainment. Then, you can turn the knob to make selections and then press it down to enter your choice. It's a bit like using a computer mouse, and not everyone will be comfortable doing this in a car while trying to drive. I got used to it, but I still find a nice row of dash buttons to be more intuitive.
The entry point for a 3-Series wagon is the 328i, at $34,975. My 328xi started at $36,875, but with options, came to $46,670. That's a lot of money, but it's also a lot of car. And it's not an SUV.