BMW, along with a rapidly diminishing handful of other automakers, continues to prove year after year that there is a niche in the United States for smaller, performance-oriented cargo haulers. Don't call them station wagons, even though that's what they are -- BMW calls them Sports Wagons.
Using the recently redesigned 3-Series sedan as a base, BMW has created an all-new 3-Series Sports Wagon. To cut down on options and configurations for what will almost certainly be a very low-volume machine, BMW is offering the wagon in just two forms: the turbo four-powered 328i, and the 328d, which utilizes a four-cylinder turbodiesel capable of 43 mpg (!) on the highway.
As one would expect, the wagon is a significantly more versatile cargo carrier than the sedan. It's capable of swallowing 17.3 cubic feet of gear, compared to the 13 cubic feet the sedan's trunk will hold. Fold down the rear seats - which feature 40/20/40 split folding capability to accommodate different mixtures of passengers and cargo - and space swells to 53 cubic inches. For extra room, there's a pair of under-floor storage wells - a larger forward unit, and a smaller rear unit suitable for holding the roll-up cargo cover.
To facilitate loading bulky items, the liftgate opening is slightly lower and several inches wider than that of the old model, and a new hands-free system allows the hatch to be opened by waving a foot under the rear bumper (if the proximity key is in your pocket).
Those looking for even more space should check out the slightly larger 3-Series Gran Turismo.
Other than its extended trunk area, the Sports Wagon is identical to the 3-Series sedan. The latest redesign brought a more streamlined look, with a somewhat controversial element being headlights that flow into BMW's signature kidney grille. Underneath the sheetmetal, the chassis is softer than before but still quite athletic, though a new electrically assisted power steering system sacrifices a good deal of the old car's steering feel in favor of increased fuel efficiency.
Another mileage-increasing measure was a switch from the previous 328i's naturally-aspirated 3.0-liter inline-six to a downsized 2.0-liter four-cylinder. With the help of a twin-scroll turbocharger, the motor produces 240 horsepower and 255 lb-ft of torque - increases of 10 ponies and 55 lb-ft over the six - while also achieving 22 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway.
Even more economical is the diesel-burning 328d, which utilizes a 2.0-liter turbodiesel four-cylinder with 180 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque. Mileage is rated at 31/43 mpg.
Both the 328i and 328d come standard with BMW's xDrive all-wheel-drive system and an eight-speed automatic transmission. Unlike the sedan, a six-speed manual is not available.
Inside, the cabin combines the simple, driver-focused instrumentation that buyers have come to expect from BMW with a slightly edgier and less conservative overall design theme. A tablet-style 6.5-inch display screen mounted atop the dashboard displays stereo and vehicle information. Shell out for the optional navigation system, and the screen is upgraded to a larger 8.8-inch unit.
All secondary systems are controlled through BMW's iDrive infotainment setup, which has evolved over the years from a bewildering complex unit to surprisingly simple and user-friendly system. Redundant controls on the steering wheel and dashboard provide alternate means of accessing the electronics.
The optional navigation system is available with Google point-of-interest search and real time traffic information, and it also features a touchpad mounted on the iDrive knob that lets users write out phone numbers, contact names and navigation destinations - and also zoom in or zoom out the map - with a finger.
Other extra-cost gadgetry includes active cruise control that uses radar and a camera to maintain a set distance from the car in front (even in stop-and-go traffic); a Side and Top view camera system that provides a comprehensive view of the environment around the car to aid parking maneuvers; and a high-resolution Head-Up system that displays vehicle speed along with speed limit and navigation info on the lower windshield.
New Packaging Strategy
Standard features include leatherette upholstery, a panoramic sunroof, dual-zone automatic climate control, an AM/FM/CD/HD Radio stereo with USB and AUX inputs, a 6.5-inch display screen, iDrive, Bluetooth connectivity, a leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel, eight-way power-adjustable front seats, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, memory functionality for the driver's seat and 17-inch alloy wheels.
BMW offers Sport, Luxury and M Sport "lines" with special exterior, interior and even performance extras. The Luxury Line includes unique leather upholstery choices, 18-inch multi-spoke alloy wheels, an M steering wheel, special interior trim choices, the premium package (described below) and pearl gloss trim finishers. The Sport Line includes sports seats, anthracite headliner, a choice of high-gloss black interior trim, brushed aluminum trim or anthracite wood trim, unique leather options, an M Sport steering wheel and black door mirror caps. To the Sport Line's features, the M Sport Package adds shadowline exterior trim, an aggressive body kit, an M Sport Suspension, adaptive dampers, and unique exterior colors and interior leathers.
Individual packages include the Premium Package, which adds leather upholstery a sunroof, a proximity key, lumbar support and satellite radio.
The Technology Package brings a navigation system with an iDrive touchpad, real-time traffic information, a head-up display, BMW Apps, and enhanced USB and Bluetooth smartphone integration.
The Cold Weather package features heated front and rear seats, a heated steering wheel and retractable headlight washers.
The Driving Assistance Package includes parking sensors and a rearview camera, while the Driver Assistance Package Plus builds on those features by adding Lane Departure Warning, Active Blind Spot Detection, Attention Assist, Side and Top View cameras and Speed limit Info.
The Dynamic Handling Package includes variable sport steering and adaptive dampers.
The Lighting Package brightens the way with adaptive xenon headlights.
Stand-alone options include a 16-speaker Harmon Kardon premium audio system, automatic high beams and a Parking Assistant system that autonomously parallel parks the 3-Series.
All 3-Series models come standard with dual front, front side, front knee and full-length side curtain airbags in addition to traction and stability control sytems.
Options include a Lane Departure Warning system that alerts the driver when the 3-Series begins to wander into an adjacent lane; an Active Blind Spot Detection system that provides a notification if a vehicle is in the driver's blind spot; and an Attention Assist system that analyzes driver behavior and displays a coffee cup icon encouraging a break if it detects signs of fatigue.
The only true station wagon rival to the 3-Series Sports Wagon is the Acura TSX Sport Wagon. Audi's allroad, essentially a jacked-up A4 Avant wagon with a few SUV-like styling cues, is also a possible alternative. Buyers looking for other options will need to consider compact crossovers like the Mercedes-Benz GLK-Class, the Volvo XC60 and BMW's own X3.