Near as I can tell, the surest way to kill a person's sense of automotive enthusiasm is to have him (or her) get married and then have a child. I have known plenty of married folk who have owned flashy sports cars or fun-to-drive sedans. But once the first little bundle of joy comes along, it's Banal City.
The vision of a cool car wavers with the onset of the little one's first burps, spit ups, poops, and marathon crying sessions. By the time the strollers, boxes of diapers, and tote bags of baby paraphernalia arrive, the flashy sports car is truly gone, replaced by a geeky minivan or an eco-unfriendly SUV. Is there no justice in this world? Where's the car that is versatile, affordable and capable of delivering mental stimulant equal to at least a few slugs of espresso?
Well, BMW thinks it has an answer with its 2000 BMW 323i Sport Wagon. Now, BMW isn't the first to take a compact wagon and infuse some character -- Audi, Subaru, Volkswagen and Volvo have been doing this for years. But this is the first effort for the company that flouts its "Ultimate Driving Machine" ad tagline at every opportunity.
Actually, BMW has built 3 Series wagons before. It just has never imported them into the United States. The previous ones were too small, says BMW. The redesigning of the 3 Series in 1999 finally gave the wagon enough room that BMW considered it marketable Stateside.
The concept here is pretty simple. Just think of the 323i Sport Wagon as a 323i Sedan with a really big trunk. It still has all of a BMW's inherent goodness, and there is minimal degradation of the way the wagon drives compared to the sedan. As a bonus, it is much more utilitarian than the sedan, thanks to its large cargo area and a standard roof rack.
The 323i Sport Wagon joins the two other wagons in BMW's lineup: the 528i Sport Wagon and 540i Sport Wagon. The 5 Series wagons are certainly bigger and more powerful, but they are also much more expensive. The 323i Sport Wagon is designed to appeal to people on a budget.
Hmm, allow me to qualify that. The 323i Sport Wagon is designed to appeal to people who are looking to spend around $35,000 -- not chump change, but certainly within the realm of other near-luxury vehicles. The base price of the wagon is $29,770. This price is less than the base prices of the V6-powered Audi A4 Avant Quattro, but more than the base price of a Volvo V40. The main problem facing the BMW is that the wagon lacks a notable amount of standard equipment, and the price tag can quickly escalate if a few options are added. Cruise control, for instance, is available only with the $2,900 premium package (Who knew that cruise control is a premium feature?). Add in the optional sport package and the navigation system, and you're looking at a car that comes very close to costing $40,000.
With an as-tested price of $34,820, our test car rang up in the middle of the price range. But regardless of how much money you pay, you will end up with one of the best looking wagons on the market. Automotive stylists often seem to struggle with the shaping of wagons (1993 Toyota Camry Wagon, anybody?), but BMW has done right here. The wagon shares the same styling as the sedan from the B-pillars forward. Aft, the new wagon greenhouse is swept back and purposeful. The 323i Sport Wagon looks like it was born with wagon DNA, not some hack job done by ACME Wagon Company.
The 323i Sport Wagon (starting in 2001, it will be renamed 325i Sport Wagon) obtains motivation from a 2.5-liter inline six-cylinder engine. Featuring dual overhead cams and variable valve timing, this is the same engine that BMW installs in the 323Ci Convertible, 323Ci Coupe and 323i Sedan. It makes 170 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 181 foot-pounds of torque at 3,500 rpm.
These numbers aren't spectacular (one of our editors refers to this engine as BMW Lite), and the car feels rather sluggish under 2,000 rpm. Equipped with the optional five-speed automatic transmission, our test vehicle jogged from zero to 60 in 8.8 seconds and cleared the quarter-mile in 16.7 seconds at 83.8 mph. For comparison, a 328Ci Coupe we tested recently went from zero to 60 in 6.5 seconds and had a quarter-mile time of 15.0 seconds. If our test car had the manual transmission, it probably would have been at least a second faster from zero to 60.
Still, the 323i Sport Wagon isn't a dog, and once the tach needle clears 2,000 rpm, there is more than enough power for everyday use. It also makes the trademark BMW silken purr when the throttle is matted to the floor. The automatic transmission is very apt at picking gears, and it also has BMW's Steptronic mode that allows for manual shifting. To activate it, the driver pulls the shift lever to the left gate, and then pushes or pulls the lever to sequentially pick the higher or lower gear.
Steptronic is most useful when driving on curvy roads or up steep inclines. Like every other 3 Series car, the 323i Sport Wagon is perfectly capable of both highway cruising and high-performance handling. The body structure is quite rigid, and the cabin is very quiet at highway speeds. Thanks to its rear-wheel drive and 47.8/52.2-percent front-and-rear weight bias, the BMW is one of the most nimble compact wagons available.
It also comes close to matching the 323i Sedan. Because of its 16x7-inch wheels and 205/55R16 tires, the wagon actually puts more rubber to the road than the sedan (195/65R15s). The wagon's suspension is also slightly stiffer than the sedan's. About the only fault we can find with the wagon's driving dynamics is the additional 198 pounds of curb weight from the extra glass and roofline. Driven hard through corners, the extra weight seems to dull the car's reactions to the driver's steering wheel inputs. Adding the optional (and expensive) sport package would certainly help matters, but most of us feel that the car is still more than capable without it.
The steering still gives the driver plenty of feedback. ABS is standard, and 60-to-zero braking happens in a very short 128 feet. As with other 323i models, the wagon comes standard with traction control and Dynamic Stability Control (DSC). DSC is a system that detects skids, understeer and oversteer. Once those situations are detected, it applies corrective measures like reducing engine torque, speeding up the engine, or applying individual brakes. We were able to probe DSC's limits at our test track, and it does work the way BMW intends. Unless you are driving on a race track, DSC is a great safety feature to have activated.
One area in which the wagon is clearly superior to the sedan is utility. The 60/40 split-fold rear seats are easy to lay flat -- just pull up on the latch and push the seats forward. With the rear seats up, the wagon offers 26 cubic feet of cargo space. Lower them, and 48 cubic feet will be available. A retractable cargo cover is standard, and the cover also includes a dog-friendly cargo net that extends upward. This combo unit is useful, but it is also heavy and bulky, making installation and removal somewhat of a dreaded process. BMW also includes cargo tie-town anchor points, rubber straps to hold small items, and an under-floor storage area that will hold an additional 2 cubic feet of goods.
Our main gripe about the 323i Sport Wagon is that 26 cubic feet sounds like a lot until you start trying to put stuff in the back. The BMW's rear-wheel-drive layout and rear suspension design are the main culprits, as they crowd in on otherwise valuable real estate. With the seats lowered, the BMW has more cargo room than the V40 but less than the A4 Avant.
Fortunately, the rest of the interior is typical 3 Series. Materials are of high quality, and the six-way front seats of our test vehicle proved to be comfortable over long distances. There are three-point seatbelts and headrests for all five positions, with dual-stage front airbags and door-mounted side airbags for the front passengers. Entry and exit to the rear seats is made a bit difficult because of the thick seat bolstering on the sides, but the bolstering does provide good support and comfort. Three kids or two adults will be perfectly happy in back. A rear-seat center armrest folds down to offer a shallow storage bin and two small cupholders.
If you are already a BMW 3 Series owner, you will love the sport wagon. It really is just a 323i Sedan with a big trunk. It also manages to offer almost as much cargo space as BMW's X5, but without the bulk and poor fuel mileage. If you are mainly looking for cargo space with sporty handling being secondary, the A4 Avant or the larger Volkswagen Passat GLX Wagon are better choices. But otherwise, the 323i Sport Wagon offers an excellent blend of utility and performance perfect for a young family that doesn't want to give up its sports car dreams.
System Score: 8.0
Components. My first look at this car's interior reminded me of how difficult it is to engineer a good car audio system, and of how many design options the engineers face. In this car, the BMW folks have come up with some intriguing solutions to the ongoing battle of space versus sound. I found it one of the more interesting OEM sound systems I've seen (and heard) in quite a while.
For instance, in the rear of the car (the luggage area of the wagon), the engineers have placed two 4-by-6 subwoofers along the side walls. You don't normally find subwoofers in a car this small, and their presence adds much to the overall sound of the system. In the rear doors, a pair of midrange speakers fills the cabin with sound. Now, here's where it gets really interesting. The front doors contain a three-way speaker array of tweeter, midrange and bass. This is very unusual, and rarely seen in an OEM car audio system. More speakers aren't always necessarily better, but in this case it sounds wonderful.
Electronically, the system boasts a sleek and elegant faceplate, which includes AM/FM and a single-play CD. The controls are very user-friendly, with wide spaces between the various features. The LED displays matches the rest of the instrumentation.
Performance. Most of the BMW vehicles we've listened to in the last year have really been disappointing in the car audio area. This one is a rare exception, and it really comes through in flying colors. This can be attributed to the subwoofers in the rear of the car and the three-way setup in the front doors. The front tweeters, in particular, sound awesome, and are perfectly positioned to fill the cabin with sound. As a result, highs are clear and concise without being brassy. The bass is deep, aggressive and wide, giving great thump-ability. The middle frequencies provide fine detail and texture. Acoustic string instruments therefore show forth with great warmth and lushness. Female vocals come through open and alive for the most part, although they also point out the weakest link in this system (and in many Bimmers) -- the anemic power amp. The tweeters tend to get a little grainy above half volume. This is the only weakness I found in this system.
Best Feature: Three-way speakers in the front doors.
Worst Feature: Weak power amp.
Conclusion. BMW has really nailed this one. With the exception of the slightly grainy power amp, it's close to perfect. Scott Memmer