GLADSTONE, Michigan - Some vehicles are fine choices for a road trip. Others are not. BMW's 3-Series wagon most emphatically falls into the former category. In fact, apart from slightly limited interior dimensions, it's a superlative choice for carrying three or four passengers and a load of luggage on a lengthy journey.
Over a 1,000-mile trip between Chicago and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the all-wheel-drive 328xi sport wagon demonstrated both its roadgoing competence and its easy-driving nature. BMW offers a more powerful engine in its 335 series, but only as a coupe or sedan. Wagons come only with the 230-horsepower, 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine. Our test 328xi wagon was equipped with the extra-cost six-speed automatic transmission, but six-speed manual shift is standard.
Long known for rear-wheel-drive performance, BMW recently added all-wheel-drive xDrive models to its lineup. For 2009, all 3-Series models got subtly freshened styling, inside and out. Traditional quad headlamps sit within new chromed "tubes." On cars with optional xenon adaptive lighting, luminous rings around the headlamps serve as Daytime Running Lamps. Active front head restraints are new for 2009. BMW also added a diesel-engine model for 2009, but only in sedan form.
With the automatic transmission, acceleration may fall short of startling, but the 328xi never lacks vigor for passing and merging. In fact, it performs easily, even though loaded with passengers and luggage. This wagon feels like a solid, firmly planted and somewhat heavy car when you push on the gas. Yet, the powertrain responds with enthusiasm - though hardly on the level of BMW's M-Series high-performance models. BMW's six-cylinder engine revs unusually freely, whipping near its limit when an extra dose of performance is called for. Premium-grade gasoline is required.
Despite a sternly taut suspension, the ride rarely gets uncomfortable even for a moment. A 328xi copes effectively with bumps and imperfections of all types and sizes. Handling is invariably where BMW excels, and the 328i is no exception. Steering exactly where it's pointed, the wagon demands a fair degree of effort, but not enough to be troubling. BMW claims "harmonious" front/rear weight balance for the 3-Series, and it shows.
Some tire noise can be heard on certain surfaces, but not enough to annoy. The engine emits a mild, highly refined note and is seldom noticed in ordinary driving. When accelerating hard with windows open, you hear a high whine as the engine revs rapidly, along with a controlled but energetic sound.
Visibility is unimpaired all around. Front space is ample for most riders, on serious yet comfortable seats. Not everyone may be totally comfortable on a longer trip, but as a rule, both driver and passenger should be more than satisfied.
Getting into and out of the wagon's backseat isn't easy for riders with limited mobility - especially if front seats are pushed back. Once there, however, seats are comfortable for two (not three), though foot and knee space may suffer if front seats are rearward. It's a compact wagon, after all.
Controls and instruments are wholly familiar to any BMW owner/driver, starting with white-on-black gauges that are easy to read. Electronic turn signals take a bit of practice to use effectively. BMW's revised iDrive controller functions acceptably for some tasks, but others are obtuse and need consultation with the owner's manual.
BMW's 328i wagon with rear-wheel drive has a Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) of $36,225 (including desgination charge). With all-wheel drive, the 328xi wagon stickers for $38,225. An automatic transmission costs $1,325 extra.
As for fuel economy, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gives the 328i wagon with automatic an estimate of 18 mpg in city driving and 27 mpg on the highway. With all-wheel drive in the 328xi, estimates dip to 17/25 mpg (with either manual or automatic transmission). Premium-grade gasoline is required. In a thousand miles of real-world driving, mainly on open highways, the 328xi sport wagon had no trouble topping the EPA's highway fuel-economy estimate of 25 miles per gallon. Not a bad figure, for so much excellence.
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