1999 BMW 528i Sport Wagon Road Test

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1999 BMW 5 Series Wagon

(2.8L 6-cyl. 5-speed Manual)

An Estate for the States?

The first step is admitting you have a problem. Therefore, we admit it. We love Bavarian Motor Works. We love the cars they build because we love to drive, and a BMW - any BMW - is first and foremost a great driver's car. BMW is driving excitement. No wait, that's Pontiac. BMW is what a luxury car should be. No, that's Lincoln. So BMW must be the standard of excellence? While most car manufacturers use catchy advertising taglines that read like a corporate mission statement, BMW marketers simply label all of their products "The Ultimate Driving Machine." No aspirations, no overstatements, just a matter of fact.

The second step on the way to recovery is identifying the root of the addiction. In this case, we love BMW for cars like the M coupe, which looks and acts like a basketball shoe on the foot of Michael Jordan. The M coupe is funky, and paired with the equally athletic Z3 roadster, it's a slam-dunk in the sports-car market. We're also rather fond of the new 3 Series sedan, which improves on a car that many people considered perfect already. When the 5 Series sedan was redesigned three years ago, we were duly impressed, and the car has made Edmund's "Most Wanted" list every year since.

There's nothing to distinguish the 5 Series wagons from the 5 Series sedans other than the obvious, so let's talk about the obvious. Instead of a trunk, the wagon's rear forms a bulbous hatch. The immediate benefit is a large cargo area for hauling groceries, pets or the old lawnmower. An indirect bonus is that the wagon offers a heavier rear end (some would consider a heavy rear to be less desirable, but allow us to explain). The added weight over the rear axle actually improves straight-line stability when traction might be lost on a rear-drive sedan. Finally, a wagon is a statement car, whether or not the driver intends that statement. Wagon drivers are saying, "I want the utility of a sport-ute, I want good fuel economy, I want superior handling, and I want it in one package."

Europeans are better than Americans at making that statement, which is why wagons like the 5 Series are sold primarily to folks in European countries. During our stay with the 528i sport wagon, a thickly accented man from Denmark approached us as we were busy washing the car. "Wow, I'm impressed! You don't see these in the States! Where can I get one just like it?"

The man went on to say, almost to himself: "These things are all over Europe. Everybody has a wagon over there. Here, the people like SUVs more, I think." We think so too, and unfortunately, estate wagons are the oddity on these shores. Even BMW is gearing up to sell the X5, a "sport-activity vehicle" that will compete with Mercedes' hot-selling M-Class. But the sport-luxury-wagon market has filled out in recent years. In the past, consumers could turn to Volvo alone to satisfy this niche. Now, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Saab also offer wagons that appeal to our European sensibilities.

The third step in our four-step program lies in evaluating the addiction. What is it that attracts us so strongly to the vehicle in question? If this car were not wearing the blue and white roundel, what would we say about it? We'd say it was one hell of a Saab 9-5, with a surprising lack of turbo lag. Or we'd exclaim that Mercedes-Benz had finally perfected the chassis on their E-Class. Maybe we'd say that Volvo finally got the steering just right, or that Audi actually molded a style we could live with. But the point is, all of the subtle aspects that give the competition grief have come together in one car. The 528i sport wagon has none of its competitors' shortcomings, and all of their strengths.

Despite a lack of punch in Colorado's rather thin air, the 2.8-liter engine proved to be adequate for our everyday needs. Bringing 193 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 206 foot-pounds of torque at 3,500 rpm, the peppy row of six cylinders is just right for a car of this size. However, we couldn't help daydreaming about the 540i's 4.4-liter twin-cam V8, an adrenal gland of a motor that pushes 282 horsepower and 324 ft-lbs. of torque to the rear wheels. Just the knowledge that such an engine exists is enough to spoil one's mood while driving the inline six, and we felt a little confined knowing that the V8 would propel us from zero to 60 a full two seconds faster than the 528's run of about eight seconds.

The wagon drives just like the 528i sedan with a tad more weight over the rear wheels. This means it goes, slows, steers and slices through traffic without peer. Our test wagon came equipped with the Sport Package, which includes a more tightly sprung and self-leveling suspension, 17-inch alloy wheels and low-profile performance tires. Combined with the "cashmere beige" (don't call it tan) metallic paint, our test car turned its share of heads.

Interior room abounds; perfect for a family of four, the 5 Series will seat five people in a pinch. The controls are laid out within easy reach of the driver, though some of the typical German symbols were lost on us. A clock-like graphic on the steering wheel operates the cruise control, but we can't describe exactly how it works. Just push the "I/O" button a few times, then try the "+/-" switch to set the speed. On the other side of the steering wheel are stereo controls and a phone button, though our test car did not come with the phone. And as long as we're picking some nits, why would someone want an "M" steering wheel with the base engine? Is it for those with active imaginations? Please, BMW, when we see the M logo, we expect more performance. Let the poseurs do without this option.

Performance-wise, our only gripe is with clutch engagement, which proved stubborn. One driver commented: "It is virtually impossible for me to modulate this clutch consistently, and I've stalled it at least once. This is maddening! The only time I can shift smoothly and fluidly is when I'm driving hard. But when putzing around town, I snap passengers' necks and jerk the car on a regular basis." We complained about this with the six-speed manual transmission of the 540i sedan (the 540i sport wagon is not available with a stick), but even the five-speed has a tendency to slip.

What we didn't expect to find appealing was the car's poor-weather performance. Rear-wheel drive can be a quick recipe for disaster on slick surfaces, so maybe that's why we were flabbergasted at how well the car navigated in the frozen, late-springtime goop. The 528 has an outstanding traction-control system. It operates transparently to the driver, with no bucking starts and stops or sudden losses of power. Like the rest of the car, it is smooth and seamless, resulting in rapid forward motion when, by all rights, this rear driver with performance rubber should wallow around like the fat kid on the waterslide. Makes us wonder why people bother with four- and all-wheel drive.

The final process in this four-step program is accepting the addiction for what it is: a natural enthusiast's response to an exhilarating set of wheels. When most people think of wagons, they think of the old days of the Ford Country Squire, Buick Roadmaster or Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser. Who would've thought that wagons could be utilitarian as well as fun to drive? Apparently, it takes a European to point that out to us every once in a while.

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