By Jim Bray
In an era where SUV's and crossovers dominate the utility market, there's still a classification of vehicle that offers most - if not all - of that utility while still imparting the driving experience of a sports sedan. Unfortunately, this small niche seems to get ignored in the North American market, with only a few entries still available.
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I'm talking about "station wagons," also known as "touring," "estates" or "shooting brakes" in other parts of the world. Today's wagons are a far cry from those 1960's land barges with their rear-facing bench seats and stuck on fake wood accents. Today's wagons, at least as far as those from the German Big Three are concerned, are just as great to drive as their more "trunk-ated" versions and, in fact, thanks to a bit of extra metal and other stuff at the back, may even offer slightly better weight distribution than their sedan counterparts - though with the penalty of higher overall weight as well.
I love wagons, and - full disclosure - I own one of these German models, though mine is called an "Avant," rather than wagon, estate or shooting brake. It's still a wagon, though, and like the BMW 3 series wagon (er, Touring) that's the subject of this rant, it drives and feels like a sedan, but you can haul stuff in it. We've used it to transport dogs, electronics, empty bottles - the stuff you'd think of stuffing into the hatch of an SUV except that you're still driving what would be a sport sedan if it had a conventional bum.
And being a wagon gives the car a kind of "stealth" aspect that might make it stand out a tad less than a more flamboyant sports sedan.
Needless to say, I was dying to get some seat time in BMW's latest 3 series wagon, er, Touring because it goes head to head against the new models of my own car (which is now 11 years old, though you'd never know it to drive it). Questions I had going in included "is this still 'the ultimate driving machine' even though it's also practical?" and, since it's a BMW, "is it still going to drive me nuts?"
BMW Canada's sample 328i xDrive Touring came in a lovely "Mineral White" paint job that looks great, though - like other white cars - would probably be the dickens to keep clean. Inside it "sported" Black Dakota Leather with Oyster stitching, and I imagine it must have been an interesting challenge getting those mollusks to hold the sewing needles properly. The wagon carried a base price of $48,050 CAD, though the as-tested price rose to $56,245 once the options were added (including $895 for the metallic paint).
That's serious money, but it's also entirely in the ballpark when you compare it to the completion: Audi's A4 Allroad (which is kind of a cross between a wagon and a crossover) starts at $47,300; Mercedes-Benz doesn't offer a comparable wagon in Canada, but they will be bringing over a C-Class wagon as a 2017 model and it'll be priced competitively. Another European competitor is the Volvo V60, which depending on the version starts at just over $40K or $44K.
Other than those other Euro examples, I can't think of a real wagon that's for sale these days other than the Subaru Outback or Crosstrek, which aren't really in the same luxury niche. And of course there's a number of hatchbacks that come close to offering a wagon's utility, and you can get these from a wide variety of marques in a variety of niches.
But we're here to talk about the BMW and I must say going in that while I love driving BMW's I've found them frustrating to live with thanks to some strange choices the company made regarding its interfaces, etc. So while I have no issues with the company callings its wares ultimate driving machines (though the folks at Porsche may have something to say about it), they've left a lot to desire when it comes to usability - in that you have to suffer for BMW's art. More about that later.
The model designation 328i - on the wagon or whatever - used to mean the car came with a normally aspirated 2.8 litre inline six cylinder engine, but today's forced march to better fuel economy means it's now a two litre turbocharged four. This isn't just a BMW thing; you can no longer get a six on the Audi A4, for example, and while I love a nice inline six I have to admit this turbo four is a lovely performer. BMW rates it at 241 horses @ 5,000 rpm with 258 lb.-ft. of torque available from 1,250 to 4,800 rpm. It's plenty; the 3 series moves like a wildebeest pursued by a lioness, and with nearly nonexistent turbo lag.
You can still get a six - the 335i - and it's a terrific, three litre twin turbo unit - but it isn't available currently on the wagon, er, Touring version of the 3. You may not miss it, though, because the 328 works just fine.
This year, BMW has given the 3 series some exterior and interior tweaks, including newly designed headlights (with optional full-LED lighting) and LED tail lights. Inside, there are new materials and highlights the company says creates "an even more premium impression." They also claim improvements to the ergonomics, and they seem to have worked because I didn't tear my hair out trying to figure out how to do stuff in the car - a nice change from previous BMW experiences.
Tweaked or not, it's a handsome car inside and out, and the exterior - in my never humble opinion - looks even better than the sedan.
BMW's are supposedly all about the driving experience (well, there's that luxury component as well…) so it's good to see that downsizing the power plant and adding a larger and more capacious posterior haven't done anything to downsize the ride. Well, you can't get a manual transmission any more, which is a shame because the BMW sticks I've tried are fantastic - but the eight speed automatic is a very good one and it offers a really nice manual mode, with paddle controllers.
And of course it doesn't hurt that the car comes equipped with BMW's xDrive all-wheel drive system.
The manufacturer says it has stiffened the 3's already great suspension, via "further developed damper technology, more rigid bodyshell mounting and a more finely honed steering setup." Naturally, it works best in Sport (or Sport Plus) mode, but even in the less enthusiastic settings the car still offers dynamite dynamics. The car's a blast!
I still had some usability issues, but for once I'm not sure any of them would be deal breakers. It's annoying being forced to pull the inside door handle twice to get out (one pull unlocks the door, the second opens it - or you can unlock the doors manually via the central locking button and then open the door, which is even sillier) and there are other such niggles, but overall there's less hassle than before.
I've learned to live with pressing the start/stop button twice to turn the car off because, while it seems kind of dumb, it actually creates a nice "accessory" setting you can use if, for example, you're waiting to pick someone up and want to listen to the radio while the engine is off. Most push button systems like this force you to shut off the car first, then refire it without your foot on the brake - and then fire it up again with your foot on the brake to get the engine running.
You can customize the 3 quite a bit, via optional equipment. BMW's sample, for example, included the $5,400 Premium Package Enhanced, which added such niceties as a heated steering wheel, alarm system, universal remote control (though I couldn't get it to fire up the big screen TV inside the house), rear view camera, auto dimming outside mirrors, park assist, a head's up display (though it was hard to read when I wore my polarized sunglasses), a nice Harman/Kardon audio system and BMW ConnectedDrive package of apps.
The sample also came with the M Performance Package ($1900), with its lovely 19 inch wheels, M Sport brakes, adaptive suspension and variable sport steering. There are other packages available, as well as a variety of standalone options, some of which are no charge extras. If you add in everything you can, paid or "free," your 328i xDrive Touring will set you back (before taxes, etc.) about $63,000. That's serious coin, but it's for a serious car that hauls more than just ass.
BMW is slowly making me a believer. I've loved driving them since my first seat time and now that they're getting a handle on the stuff that really rubbed me the wrong way they're easier to live with as well.
Maybe someday in the not-too-distant future they'll start advertising themselves as "the ultimate driving and living with machine."
Copyright 2016 Jim Bray
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