BMW's Slippery Station Wagon
The Good: All-wheel drive, huge sun roof, BMW handling
The Bad: Price, not great on snow and ice
The Bottom Line: A cool wagon, but not cool enough to lure buyers away from SUVs
When I lived in Germany, where station wagons are more popular than they are in the U.S., I always had the idea that I would one day buy a BMW station wagon. It seemed like a good compromise: a performance car that's more spacious and practical than a BMW sedan without the gas-guzzling wastefulness of an SUV.
Now I've tried one, and I'm disappointed. The folks at Automobile magazine see the newly redesigned 2006 BMW 325xi Sport Wagon as a viable alternative to the BMW X3, the company's entry-level SUV. "If you're considering an X3," they write in their 2006 new car guide, "please humor us and drive a 325xi before you buy -- you just might jump off the SUV boat and join the wagon train." But I doubt that the BMW wagon will convince many buyers to give up their SUVs.
The wagon isn't any cheaper than an SUV, for one thing. The Sport Wagon starts out at $35,295, slightly less than the base price of the X3. But with all-wheel drive, an automatic transmission, and a bunch of options such as a navigation system, my test Sport Wagon listed for $49,640. Loaded up the same way, an X3 would go for $49,395, almost exactly the same price.
The wagon only gets slightly better gas mileage than the SUV. With an automatic transmission and standard all-wheel drive, the Sport Wagon is rated to get 20 miles per gallon in the city and 27 mpg on the highway (I got about 23 mpg in mixed driving). With an automatic and all-wheel dive, the X3 is rated to get 17 mpg in the city and 25 on the highway.
The bigger disappointment for me is that the Sport Wagon doesn't do very well under winter driving conditions. It isn't nearly as solid on snowy and icy pavement as the Audi A6 Quattro (see BW Online, 2/1/06, "An Audi That Pampers and Protects") and Mercedes C350 (see BW Online, 1/11/06, "A Mercedes That Grips the Road") sedans.
For instance, when I took the Audi A6 and the BMW Sport Wagon onto the same icy patch of road, one right after the other, the BMW slipped and slid a lot more than the Audi. The BMW's rear end even fishtailed on ice, which shouldn't happen in a vehicle with full-time all-wheel drive.
One problem is that the Bridgestone run-flat all-weather tires on the BMW (it's a good thing they're standard since the Sport Wagon has no spare tire) didn't seem to grip the road as well as the tires on the Audi. BMW recommends that you use snow tires in the winter, and I'd definitely say you need them. I suspect the reason the Sport Wagon fishtails on ice is that BMW's xDrive all-wheel-drive system is designed to transmit more torque to the rear wheels than to the front under most conditions. This makes the Sport Wagon handle much like a traditional rear-wheel-drive BMW sedan, but also makes it less stable than it might be on snow and ice, at least until the traction control kicks in.
Otherwise, the Sport Wagon has a lot going for it. The 3-liter, 215-horsepower, 6-cylinder engine propels it from 0 to 60 in about 7 seconds, which is pretty quick for a station wagon. It also has the taut handling and steering of an old-fashioned BMW, even though it comes standard with all sorts of high-tech equipment, including speed-sensitive steering and a new dynamic braking control system that, among other things, automatically dries the brakes so they work better under wet conditions.
Happily, BMW's much-criticized iDrive system is optional. You now only have to take this frustrating system, in which you use a central control knob to operate just about every one of the car's functions, if you get the $2,000 navigation system. Otherwise, the radio, heater and other accessories can be operated by old-fashioned knobs (hallelujah!).
HARD TO NAVIGATE.
My test car, however, came with iDrive, so I deliberately tried to use it without referring to BMW's voluminous owner's manual. It can be done, but the system still doesn't have enough buttons and knobs to override the screen controls when you need help or want to do something simple.
From that standpoint, Audi's system is easier to use.
Worse, the central control knob on the iDrive just doesn't work very well. I sat in a parking space in Manhattan one evening for 15 minutes laboriously entering a destination address into the nav system by picking out letters and numbers one at a time. Each time I'd get to the end of this process, the system would refuse to accept the destination, and I had to start all over again. It took four or five tries to get the address entered, which was maddening.
Most of the car's other high-tech features are intuitive to use. For instance, the active cruise control, a $2,000 option, comes on automatically as you overtake another vehicle on the highway. If you have the speed set at, say, 70 and the vehicle ahead is going 65, a little icon appears on the instrument panel and the system automatically slows the car and stays at a set distance behind the vehicle ahead. If the car ahead moves over into the other lane, the icon disappears and the BMW speeds up to 70 again on its own.
The Sport Wagon has several other cool features I really like: The keyless starting and entry system is very handy when, say, you come out of a store with you arms full of purchases. With the key fob on you, all you have to do is walk up to the car and the doors unlock when you try them. The engine turns on and off with the push of a button.
There's also a very handy little needle gauge under the tachometer that tells you at any given moment how many miles per gallon you're getting. It's easy to read at a quick glance, giving you the feedback you need to moderate your driving style to improve gas mileage if you want to.
The Sport Wagon's huge standard sun roof -- which forms a window over the entire passenger compartment -- is also very nice. Head room is tight otherwise, but the sun roof provides extra space and gives the car's interior an open, airy feel. There's also a handy storage compartment where the spare normally would be.
CONSIDER YOUR OPTIONS.
Major options on the Sport Wagon include a $2,900 premium package that bundles leather upholstery, power seats, and power and auto-dimming mirrors, among other things; a six-speed automatic transmission ($1,275); an upgraded sound system ($1,200); adaptive Xenon headlights that self-level and automatically swivel to follow turns ($800); Sirius (SIRI) satellite radio ($595), and heated front seats ($500).
The BMW Sport Wagon is pretty cool for a station wagon. But if I were trading in an SUV, I'd test drive the less-expensive Jaguar Sport Wagon (see BW Online, 8/1/05, "Jag's Barely Domesticated Wagon") before buying one. Better yet, I'd probably buy a BMW 3 series sedan. With all-wheel drive they're even more agile, and with the optional fold-down rear seats they're nearly as practical.