Scott Mead, Contributor
We had to pinch ourselves a few times while carving the canyons through Anza Borrego, California in BMW's latest entry - the 323i Sport Wagon. "It's a wagon," our journalistic side said, while our enthusiast side retorted, "no, it's a sports sedan." "Wagon." "Sports sedan." "Wagon!" "Sports sedan!" OK. It's a station wagon and sports sedan wrapped into one wonderful Autobahn-running package.
For the past two decades, compact sport wagons have been one of the most popular vehicles in Europe, and they're now one of the fastest growing segments in America. Sport wagons aren't about hauling the ubiquitous load of two-by-fours home from Home Depot; they're about versatile cargo space with the handling and performance of a sports car - a melding BMW has perfected.
True to the 3-Series line, the sport wagon shares the same sheet metal as the 323i Sedan from the B-pillar forward, with the trademark headlamp scallops, wide fender arches and bullet-style foglamps. From the B-pillar back, it's all new sheetmetal, making the sport wagon slightly longer (.3-inch) and lower (.2-inch) than the sedan.
So, if there's little difference between the size of the sedan and sport wagon, why should you purchase the latter? Elementary, my dear Watson! BMW has made it simple to accommodate varying amounts of cargo, thanks in part to a 1/3 to 2/3-split, fold-down rear seat. With the rear seats up, the sport wagon easily handles three adults in relative comfort (with three-point seatbelts and headrests), courtesy of the third-generation 3's increased legroom. Remove the third passenger and a fold-down center armrest gives passengers a set of cupholders and additional storage space with the optional ski sack.
With the rear seats up, the sport wagon offers 26 cubic feet of cargo space - about 2.5 times that of the 323i Sedan. Fold the seats down and the cargo-carrying capacity almost doubles to 48 cubic feet. An additional two cubic feet of under-floor storage is available in the space-saver spare well, but is negated with the optional full-size spare tire.
BMW has added a host of neat amenities to the sport wagon, including a 12-volt power outlet in the cargo area, a cargo net incorporated into the retractable cargo area cover and C-pillar-mounted cargo lights. The tailgate and rear window open separately, providing the option of easy top-load access and low, wide cargo ingress/egress.
Climbing behind the wheel of the 323i Sport Wagon, we were immediately greeted by the familiar 3-Series dash - smooth and flowing in design, with a soft-touch upper section and customary high mounted gauge pod, clean center stack, inlaid wood trim and coddling Montana leather. Settling into the articulated eight-way, power sport seats (which exhibited exceptional lumbar, lateral and thigh support), we twisted the key and the turbine-smooth, 170-horsepower 2.5-liter inline six came to life, quickly settling down to a dual-cam symphony of sounds.
Selecting first gear, we released the clutch to find another typical trait of BMW's 24-valve, six pack motor - absolutely no torque from idle to 2,000 rpm. Once the tachometer hits the two-grand mark, the low-emission, Double-VANOS variable valve timing kicks in with a swelling rush of power to the rear wheels -- all the way to redline.
In typical BMW fashion, the five-speed manual provided smooth and precise shifts with the signature "tink" into each gate and gear ratios perfectly mated to the engine's rpm band. If rowing gears doesn't suit you, an optional five-speed Steptronic automanual is available, which delivers the convenience of a traditional automatic and the control of a manual. Moving the shift lever from the fully automatic position to sport mode, drivers merely have to tap the shifter forward to upshift and rearward to downshift. The Steptronic tranny also features adaptive transmission control that automatically "learns" individual driving styles and selects the appropriate shift points.
Unlike many compact wagons, the 323i is right at home carving canyons with gusto. Equipped with the optional Sport package (which includes performance suspension tuning, 17-inch wheels and tires, sport seats, foglamps, heated mirrors and washer jets and a multi-function steering wheel with cruise control), our test wagon hugged the twisties like flypaper, keeping the vehicle pointed in the right direction when pushed hard, thanks to the standard traction and Dynamic Stability Control (DSC). Press the DSC defeat button and the wagon will happily wag its tail upon driver command.
The BMW's steering exhibited the unique "feel" common to the marque, as well as precise turn-in and exemplary road feel - just enough to communicate what was happening underfoot, yet without steering shock when traversing pot-holed roads. Braking was equally impressive with vented front and rear ABS-assisted discs sourced from the 328 sedan. Panic stops were powerful and linear, with very little ABS pedal pulse and absolutely no fade when attempted at Autobahn speeds.
On highway and city streets, the wagon exhibited the customary smooth and docile manners one would expect from BMW. The compliant suspension displayed additional road feel through the cabin, without transmitting any jolts to the occupants. With 200 pounds of added heft (over the sedan), the sport wagon still feels nimble and light.
At a base price of $29,700 (including destination charge), the 323i Sport Wagon is a deal for a well-equipped base Bimmer. After adding in another $4,210 worth of options (rear seat side-impact air bags, in-dash CD player, Leather and Sport Packages), our tester came in at a very respectable $33,980, about $4,980 over a comparably equipped Volvo V40 wagon and $2,230 under a Audi A4 2.8 Avant quattro wagon.
While the Volvo has the slight advantage of front-wheel drive for those living in hardier climates, BMW will release an all-wheel drive version of the 323i Sport Wagon this fall. If you aren't concerned with heavy snowfall, the traction control and DSC system should get you through without any problems.
With the sport utility vehicle segment becoming increasingly saturated, the 323i Sport Wagon is a viable option for families who need to comfortably haul the kids in style and have room for all the related soccer equipment. Best of all, this is one wagon that pegs the fun factor dial off the scale.
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