Travel to Europe in the summer and you'll be met by an army of sport wagons heading for the Mediterranean coast. Full of children and family detritus, they are the default choice of Europe's upwardly mobile families, while sedans are reserved for the longer of tooth.
That's why, in the Old World, the 2013 BMW 3 Series Sports Wagon is as much a sure-fire hit as the next iPhone. It's everything Europeans look for in a family vehicle.
In the U.S., though, the situation remains puzzlingly different. Wagons, even the sporty kind, have taken a backseat to crossovers and SUVs. In fact, with annual sales of its wagons flatlining at around 15,000 cars per year, there were rumors that BMW wasn't going to even bother importing the new 3 Series wagon.
Thankfully the rumors weren't true, but the introduction of just a single engine variant — the 328i — smacks of a half-hearted effort. Available with either rear- or all-wheel drive, the 3 Series Sports Wagon goes on sale next spring priced from around $37,000, or $2,000-$3,000 more than the equivalent sedan. Still not a bargain, so will it sell?
The original E30 Touring (as it's known in Europe) began life as a skunkworks project. Frustrated by a need to carry more kit, an ingenious engineer butchered his sedan with a hatchback rear. The BMW board liked what they saw and a new model was born.
Four generations later, the premise remains largely the same. Forward of the B-pillar, the Sports Wagon is identical to the sedan. Aft of the B-pillar, life gets more interesting. The roof line extends to a modest tailgate spoiler, while the angles of the rear windows are defined by an exaggerated version of BMW's traditional "Hofmeister kink." The comparatively shallow rake of the tailgate is a non-too-subtle reminder that BMW places the emphasis on sporting versatility rather than outright practicality.
In common with its sedan brethren, the Sports Wagon has grown compared with its predecessor. Overall it's 3.8 inches longer, of which 2.0 of those inches are in the wheelbase. The rear track is 1.9 inches wider, helping balance the car's proportions. While far from radical, the latest 3 Series is a handsome evolution of traditional themes, and the days when the wagon version would pose as a stylist's afterthought are long gone. To our eyes, the Sports Wagon is as appealing as the sedan.
Can't Feel the Wagon From Behind the Wheel
We've been down this road before. Although the wagon is 175 pounds heavier than the sedan and marginally less rigid, you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the two. We've criticized the latest 328i sedan before for not being quite as sharp to drive as its E90 predecessor, but this must be weighed against significant improvements in the ride quality, fuel efficiency and overall refinement.
These attributes seem especially well suited to this version of the Sports Wagon. We drove this car in tandem with the 2013 BMW X1, and while BMW has done a fine job of making its compact crossover feel like a sedan, you can't quite beat the laws of physics and the benefits of the latest-generation chassis technology. With its lower center of gravity and beautifully resolved setup, the Sports Wagon offers a level of driving pleasure that no SUV can match. The ride quality is excellent, and on the twisting back roads of our German test route, the 3 Series revealed all the poise, agility and fluency expected of a car in this price range. It was a reminder why, despite the rise of the SUV, wagons remain so popular in Europe.
Plenty of Power
Even the oft-criticized electromechanical steering system is improving with familiarity (or with BMW's subtle evolutionary tweaks). In Comfort mode it feels disappointingly lightweight and artificial, but in Sport it's nicely weighted and pleasingly linear in response. It's a shame though that, unlike Audi, BMW won't allow you to tailor the setup to your exact requirements. You can't for example, have Sport steering with Comfort chassis options.
In common with the sedan, the 328i boats BMW's 2.0-liter inline-4. Code-named N20, it benefits from a twin-scroll turbocharger and direct injection to deliver 240 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 258 pound-feet of torque at a lowly 1,250 rpm. Mated as standard to ZF's excellent eight-speed auto (there's no manual option), BMW reckons the Sports Wagon is good for zero to 60 mph in 6.0 seconds — just 0.1 second slower than the sedan. Top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph.
EPA fuel economy figures have yet to be released, but we'd be surprised if they differ greatly from the sedan's 23 city/34 highway and 27 combined. The Sports Wagon boasts the full complement of BMW's auto stop/start and brake regeneration technology, together with an Eco Pro mode that works with the driver to minimize consumption.
BMW will be offering both rear- (sDrive) and all-wheel-drive (xDrive) models, although for now we've only been able to test the former. There will also be the option of M Sport and Adaptive M Sport suspension systems, in common with the sedan. Both options add worthwhile capability, albeit at considerable cost.
The increase in length benefits both passengers and cargo. There's a modest but useful 0.7-inch increase in rear legroom over the previous model, while the rear luggage area has grown by just over a cubic foot for a total of 17.5 cubic feet with the seats in place. Fold them down and this extends to 53.0 cubic feet.
Just as significant as the tail of the tape is this wagon's versatility. This is where the Sports Wagon scores over similarly sized SUVs. The trunk lip, for example, is just 24.4 inches above the ground, making it easier to load heavy items. The rear seats are split 40/20/40 to allow longer objects to be carried without unnecessarily penalizing passengers, and there's space under the trunk floor to hide valuables out of sight.
The cargo cover can also be stored under the trunk floor when it's not required, and BMW's engineers have conjured all manner of hooks, nets and straps to help you secure your load for some BMW-esque cornering. Pay extra for the "storage" package and you can even have a reversible trunk floor if you have a penchant for carrying dirty loads.
BMW has also engineered a couple of neat tricks into the rear hatch. A button on the rear wiper arm opens the glass area independently of the main door, which can prove handy in tight spaces if the trunk's full. The main tailgate is electrically powered, and if you opt for the Comfort Access option, you get what BMW calls a Smart Opener feature. It opens the hatch if you have the key present and extend a foot beneath the rear fenders. It's a trick found on the new Ford Escape so it's not exactly novel at this point, but once you use it, you realize it's actually quite handy.
Still a Wagon Worth Having
From the driver seat, only the scene through the rearview mirror will identify the Sports Wagon as something different from the 3 Series sedan. The multi-adjustable driving position and beautifully executed fascia are all present and correct. The view down the hood is also as common as the driving experience. The wagon, like the sedan, continues to tread an enviable line between sport sedan and business tool.
For all the thoroughness of its execution, BMW admits that it has modest aspirations for this car in the U.S. For now at least, there will be no 335i wagon and don't even ask about the brilliant diesel version that's offered in Europe. Instead, they reckon the 328i will continue to serve traditional wagon buyers without seeking out new conquests.
For us, this remains one of the great mysteries of the American automotive landscape. The Sports Wagon is a 3 Series sedan that costs only a little more, drives just as well, is arguably better-looking and comes with enough space to serve an average-size family. What's the catch?
Other than its lack of an elevated seated position, there isn't one.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.