Please note the following Trendsetter Alert: You are now authorized, even encouraged, to diss the sport/utility vehicle. After more than a decade of singing the sport/ute’s praises as the luxury vehicle with the demotic touch, the Kultur Mavens have awakened to the reality of the SUV’s overweening example of conspicuous consumption. Now the word on the street is, “Bad, bad SUVs, with your thirsty habits and oversized heft.” As of today, showing off is “out”; social responsibility is “in.”
Of course, a cynic might ask, “What took so long?” Then again, even a cynic will understand that every trend must prevail for as long as it takes to groom its successor. Well, it has taken the world’s automakers, collectively, almost a decade to resurrect the reputation of the lowly station wagon. Now, just when it becomes chic to decry the SUV, a new crop of spunky wagonsahem, sport wagonsstands ready and willing to offer drivers a socially conscious transportation alternative.
Quietly but persistently, the automakers have been infiltrating a new generation of station wagons into the traffic stream. In the last year, I have driven wagons made by Suzuki, Ford, Mercury, Daewoo, Saturn, Subaru, Volkswagen, Saab, Volvo, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW. A sports car-inspired Mazda wagon is due for 2002. Chrysler’s quirky contribution to the mix is its cartoony PT Cruiser.
The BMW 325i Sport Wagon under review here is hardly an average representative of the New Wagon category. At $37,895 as-tested, it’s distinctly high-end, in fact. Then again, it’s almost $10,000 less than Audi’s stunning new Allroad Quattro wagon; and the BMW’s base price of $29,400 does at least compete nominally with Subaru’s flagship wagon, the “L.L. Bean Edition” Outback H6 (at $29,990, as tested).
What intrigues me most about BMW’s 3-series wagon, however, is the way it presents itself as an “intelligent” SUV alternative. In essence, it is a collection of judiciousin some cases, excruciatingcompromises; and its potential for success in the U.S. is entirely dependent upon BMW’s ability to forecast correctly the fickle tastes of American car buyers.
Unlike an SUV, the 325i Sport Wagon is blatantly sporty. Its pedigree derives from the classic European “touring car,” and for 2001, BMW has armed its “baby wagon” with a larger straight-six displacing 2.5 liters and making 184 horsepower. A standard five-speed manual transmission proves BMW isn’t joking about the car’s sporting potential. Even the optional 5-speed auto I tested is dedicated to the enthusiast: Clutchless manual shifts are possible with BMW’s Steptronic feature, and a Sport Mode selector recalibrates shift points to higher RPMs. A brainy computer is in charge of the All-Season Traction Control and Dynamic Stability Control systems in the rear-wheel-drive model I tested. Alternatively, a 325xi model features all-wheel-drive and DSC-X stability control for $1,750 more.
BMW tempers its wagon’s sporting potential, however, with the practicality of a 25.7 cu.-ft. cargo hold at the rear. This is slightly more than twice the luggage space of the company’s 3-series sedan, and with the rear seats folded, stowage approaches 40 cubes. But this is a far cry from the mainstream compact SUV, such as a Ford Explorer, with its 80-plus cu.-ft. capacity. Moreover, while seating in the BMW wagon is designated for five, the three-passenger bench in the rear is diabolically tight for adults and potentially uncomfortable over long distances even for adolescents.
The whole point of a “smart” alternative to the oversize SUV, however, is packing smarter, driving smarter, traveling smarter. After paring luggage to the appropriate minimum and packing as neatly as a stone mason, you at least have a standard roof rack for those essential gadgets that are impossible to leave behind. As for traveling smarter, one obvious virtue derives from this wagon’s combination of supple aerodynamic lines and the efficient performance of the engine’s VANOS variable valve-timing: Fuel mileage of 19 miles-per-gallon/city, 27/highway far excels the typical SUV.
Moreover, BMW’s engineers have designed a cabin structure of preeminent safety that is further enhanced with standard front, side, and head airbags for front occupants, plus optional side airbags for the rear. The battle lines against the traditional SUV are presently being drawn, and they stretch from fuel efficiency at one end to occupant safety at the other. Wagons like BMW’s 325i are out to prove that certain curtailments of passenger and cargo space can be offset by better fuel economy and occupant protection in the approaching onslaught of tightened emission, mileage, and safety regulations.
There’s nothing necessarily Puritan about the coming Age of the New Wagon, however. For all the talk about practicality and hauling capacity, today’s ethos of the big, bulky SUV is often dominated by an owner’s simple desire to make the biggest possible splash in public. BMW’s 3-series sport wagon indulges this “Lookie here” mentality in its own way; and the results aren’t always subtle. With optional 17-inch “spoker” wheels, a svelte silhouette, judicious application of black highlights, and gleaming lamp lenses, the 325i wagon cuts an eye-catching swath through traffic. Its aggressive looks extol the motoring skills of the driver, whether the driver knows how to exploit this vehicle’s potential or not. Inside, all is sophisticated luxury, especially with $1,450 worth of leather upholstery and $3,500 worth of power conveniences set into varnished panels of myrtle wood.
Of course, totin’ bales and haulin’ bricks will always require big enough vehicles for the job. As the cost of traditional SUV gargantuans grows increasingly punitive, however, practical souls with lesser needs may look to next-generation station wagons like BMW’s exotic 325i Sport Wagon to carry all their real and imaginary baggage.
WOW!!! Now that is a pot/kettle thing from the zoom!
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