BMW wagons make parking the big SUV a smart idea

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Upscale sport utility vehicles are still on the most wanted end of the automotive spectrum. At least for those with excess disposable income.

But buying a Porsche Cayenne, a Mercedes ML350 or a Cadillac Escalade certainly is not as politically correct as it once was. Getting politically correct may mean making another choice, particularly one that uses less fossil fuel.

For those wishing to become more politically correct without giving up cargo space, luxury, performance and the bad-weather driving security of an SUV, BMW has two sport wagons for 2006 that offer the proper solution.

The German automaker has stylish wagons in 3-Series compact and 5-Series mid-sized formats. And not only do both wagons have the vaunted driving characteristics that BMW has become known for around the world, but they also have an all-wheel drive system — called xDrive — that makes them a confident companion no matter snow in suburbia or rain fall on city streets or if you just want the confidence of road-hugging ability at any time. According to BMW, the xDrive system is the same in both cars.

Additionally they really feature the cargo space of comparably sized sport utilities and crossovers, but the gas mileage of more frugal sedans.

Their biggest selling point in our estimation remains their sports-sedan-like handling. Believe us don’t try to keep up with a 325xi or a 530xi on a winding country road in your Escalade or even with your X5. Bad things will happen.

Your choice of wagon in this instance will be based on your need for performance, space and the depth of your pocketbook.

Both the 325xi and the 530xi are gorgeous renditions of how a modern luxury car should look. In fact, the 530xi is better looking than its sedan counterpart because the weakest link in the 5-Series sedan styling is the rear end. The sloping roofline over the cargo area gives the 5-Series a more appealing profile.

The 3-Series sedan and wagon are all-new for 2006 and the somewhat controversial BMW styling elements, first used on the 7-Series and later on the 5-Series, look breathtakingly handsome in a wagon shape. BMW has really nailed it for the wagon set.

Of the two cars, we lean toward the smaller 325xi and its vaunted 3-Series driving dynamics. It has the precision handling traits of the sedan, but with nearly 49 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seatbacks folded into a flat load floor.

If passenger hauling is paramount above all else, you should opt for the 530xi. It features more rear-seat legroom than the 325. And the cargo hold is 10 cubic feet bigger as well.

Both can be purchased with manual transmissions, and if ever a lineup was enhanced by a six-speed do-it-yourself shifter, it’s the BMW. But a six-speed automatic will probably be the choice of most families purchasing one of these haulers. They won’t be terribly disappointed.

Another reason we would lean toward the 3-Series wagon — it can be purchased without the infamous iDrive system. The iDrive is bundled with a navigation system as a $2,000 option. The standard BMW 3-Series dashboard is handsome with intuitive switchgear.

With iDrive, standard on the 5-Series, most controls such as audio, navigation and many of the climate settings must be obtained using a computer-like joystick mounted between the seats. It turns normal one-step chores such as tuning a radio into a series of commands navigated through the center screen by use of the so-called joystick. Too distracting and if nothing else annoying.

We applaud BMW for giving 3-Series buyers a choice.

There is only one engine available in each of these wagons, and they are not the most dynamic in the model lineups. But, that being said, we had no qualms with the performance of either car.

The 530xi comes with a 3.0-liter inline 6 developing 255 horsepower. When mated to the 6-speed automatic, the engine will propel the wagon from 0 to 60 in 7.6 seconds as measured by a major automobile publication. The lighter 3-Series gets a 3.0-liter inline 6 making 215 horsepower. Equipped with the automatic, BMW says it will finish off a 0-to-60 run in 7.7 seconds.

Driving torque is always transmitted to the rear wheels, and most of the time to all four wheels. The portion of torque transmitted to the front wheels is controlled by a multi-disc clutch that can be fully open, fully engaged or at any degree of partial engagement in between. The torque split between rear and front wheels is thus variable.

While we’re discussing the safety aspects of the all-wheel drive system, let’s throw in the fact that numerous other standard safety features are built into both vehicles including antilock brakes, stability control, dynamic brake control, front-seat-mounted side airbags and head curtain airbags for both the first and second rows.

The 3-Series just won a Silver Award as a top pick of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety in frontal and side-impact crash testing.

The biggest differences between the two stylish BMW siblings are size and price.

The 530xi can haul more stuff and offers more passenger space. And it costs considerably more than the 325xi starting at $51,100. Add in some good stuff such as the premium package (including leather upholstery), automatic transmission, navigation and premium sound system and it will take $61,265 to drive off the lot.

The 325xi starts at much more affordable $34,600. Extras including iDrive with the navigation, automatic transmission, a sport package and the premium package takes the bottom line to $46,690.

Both cars get about the same mileage and its nothing to write home about. Both with the automatic are rated at 20 miles per gallon city and 27 on the highway with premium fuel recommended. With all the engineering prowess of BMW we should expect better.

In comparison to the gas guzzling sport utility we guess you could feel good about yourself without sacrificing such family-oriented things as room and safety? Try a BMW wagon. Just pick your size and price range. It is the ultimate sensible thing to do.