We say that we want to drive the sports wagon, and our sales guide, a perfectly-suited convivial fellow named Kent Beard, can’t help but laugh into the surprisingly bracing air of our mid-April morning.
“That is a weird choice,” he agrees, which is why we almost didn’t even bring it up. It would have been much easier to go with something more contemporary like the X1 or X3. No one stands before his parents and says that he wants to be a telegraph operator any more than telegraph operators stood before their parents and said they wanted to be a Roman gladiator; they’re from a different time.
The whole concept of a sports wagon—BMW nomenclature for station wagon—is much more 20th century than 21st. It predates the SUV rush that waded into the pool of automotive sales and gobbled up market share from nearly every vehicle type: sedans, minivans, and especially station wagons. LMC Automotive said that in 2004 there were 24 station wagons on the market. As of late 2013, there were only nine.
“Do you think the 3-Wagon will survive another five years?”
Kent is optimistic, in a fashion: “There will always be one in Europe, certainly.” Over here, he wasn’t as sure. All the more reason we were glad to feel the well-regulated ticking of the 2014 BMW 328i xDrive Sports Wagon under our hands.
Why drive the 3-series wagon? Mainly because we just like wagons and we’re at Leith BMW. Another sales guide notes that although they don’t carry more than a handful of wagons at a time—keeping inventory low keeps costs low—they do sell very fast. That’s because they’re a niche product, an increasingly rare commodity that helps their owners stand out from the “me-too” crowd of SUVs in front of the nearest Starbucks. Want to draw some comments on your car without buying a Ferrari? Try driving a station wagon in Raleigh for a day, particularly the Alpine White one Kent pulls up in front for our drive.
A chrome-streaked, fender-tweaked, road-flattened, Aspen-hauling, space-platform with a muscular hood is exactly what we wanted to see. There are plenty of demure coupes, sedans, hatchbacks, SUVs and saloons out there today. The elongated body of the 3-wagon lets the body streak backward without the premature cabin-clipping that a sedan requires. And honestly, the design language of the 3-series is so pretty that it seems a shame to get one in sedan form. It’s beyond prosaic to describe the “sweep” of a car’s lines from the ripples of the front hood to the air contours that run along the sides, but BMW’s 3-series is a model that deserves the moniker; it’s all in the grade of the series’ curves.
The wagon is the fullest representation of the 3-series’ design language. The trademark circular headlights are a bit squarish to echo the wedge-like grille up front, but the use of xenon gas lamps give it a very sophisticated look. The car as a whole is lower, wider, and more bound together than you would think, partially owing to the extra-long roof. Having a longer roof increases the overall rigidity of the car which, in addition to bettering the handling and blocking out road noise, also makes the double-panoramic sun roof and rear lid a welcome source of natural light.
Because the car sits a scant five and a half inches off the ground, the 3-wagon is short. The rear lid opens to reveal a cargo area that is super easy to load things into, and rather than giving you a barren cave, the 3-wagon offers a plethora of racks, hooks, straps, and cubbies to help you secure your precious cargo. After all, someone with extra cargo probably likes their cargo, right? They probably don’t want it rolling around all over the place. Sure, they could secure it by putting it up front with them, but then the cargo space of a station wagon is defeated. The 3-wagon has a removable gate stored in one of two(!) compartments in the rear, which can be configured to partition the rear into sections. Netting can be drawn to separate the rear from the backseat, and the backseat from the front. There’s even a cover that can be drawn over the rear space so that if you had, for example, a dozen loose rabbits, they wouldn’t be able to hop into the backseat. BMW wasn’t going to leave the potential of the rear space up to chance; they really went all out to make sure that the 3-wagon not only lets you store more, but stores it better.
Obviously, we are fans of the aesthetic and utilitarian aspects of the wagon. Kent is a nice guy, and indulged our obsessing with the size of the rearmost windows—thankfully un-hearselike—, the lowness of the body, and just the overall look of the wagon itself. But, normal guy that he is, Kent had other things to do in his day, and took us off the lot for a bit of time actually driving the 328.
The engine note is fantastic. At this point in our lives, we’ve become relatively resigned to the fact that in the future, everything from microwaves to elevators will probably be powered by turbocharged four-cylinder engines, but in 2014 it’s a fact we’re still getting used to. We ask Kent about something we read about the 3-wagon, that it had something called “twin-scroll turbo.”
This does not mean, it turns out, that the car has two turbochargers. Rather, it means that it has two sets of blades, one short and the other long, for a single turbocharger. These scrolls suck up air at different rates, which delivers hits of air in two stages, thus eliminating the lag time associated with a turbocharger’s speed boost. In simplest terms: no turbo lag. Instead, the car has a meaty rev that changes often thanks to the eight-speed transmission, and makes sure that your ears are always full of a European cacophony of race melodies.
We also wanted to know about something we read off the spec sheet: “brake drying.” The windshield has a sensor that lets the car know when it’s raining. Besides turning on the wipers and lights, the 3-wagon will also edge your brake pads just a hair closer to the rotors, not enough to reduce speed or wear, but enough to remove that thin layer of water so that your brakes will be dry even in a rainstorm.
Two of our other favorite features: a head-up display projects your speed and navigation onto the windshield in front of you so that it looks as if the information were floating on the asphalt or gravelly road. This is a super-advanced feature that most cars don’t have, and literally keeps your eyes on the road instead of your instrument panel or dash screen. Speed limit information is also pulled based on the street you’re on and projected on the HUD, as well, so you’re always informed (awesome and safety-promoting).
All of this is a blast, but we want to put the various drive systems to work all at once, and see if we can confuse the computer from making the correct decision. Sport mode, suspension tuning, all-wheel drive, dynamic stability control, twin scroll turbo, and an eight speed-transmission: what happens if you embrace your inner Neanderthal and peal out on a right turn at a red light?
Soon enough, we see our chance: Kent tells us to take the next right so we can take 540-East back to Capital Blvd. and Leith BMW. We debate momentarily whether telling Kent that we’re about to play the adolescent, but at this point we know that we’re either going to find out the 3-wagon is a unified being, or we’re going to be pretty embarrassed. As the green arrow illuminates for us, we sharp the wheel to the right, nose out into the lane and floor it: fishtail or no, we want to see what happens.
What happens is what the all-wheel drive system was put in place to do. The extra weight of that system is present only because it earned its spot, and its pairing with DSC means the front wheels rotated at slower, individual speeds while power shunted to the rear to push us through the “turn” and back into a straight line as quickly as possible. The 3-wagon acted like a champ, and as we took the squeeze-tight ramp back onto 540, we pushed it a little bit, but not much. We were already satisfied.
Back on the highway we dialed the car back to comfort mode and it was like loosening your belt buckle a few notches. The car seemed to let out a breath of air and the ride became softer, meeker and settled as we cruised. While we would have loved to take the 3-wagon up to the mountains to play on switchback roads with the paddle shifters, maybe throwing a canoe up top and a bike or two in the back, that will have to be a dream for a different day.
The 3-wagon is a vehicle to love. You get it because no one else has one. You get it because it looks great. You get it because it reminds you of your youth. You get it because it doesn’t fit neatly into a box and neither do you. You get it because it’s good for hauling, but not for hauling the whole neighborhood.
We want to thank Kent Beard for letting us take the 3-wagon out, and Leith BMW for letting us take Kent Beard out. If BMW drops the 3-wagon, then we’ll probably take ourselves out and have a sad party. You’re welcome to join us whether you bought Leith BMW’s 3-wagons out or just wanted to go out. Until then, consider the unique opportunity that remains in 2014: pioneers never travelled America on horseback. They went in wagons.