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Review and photos by Chris Chase
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I’m a geek for grocery-getters. While I don’t think minivans are particularly cool, I do admire their cargo carrying capabilities. Same goes for SUVs. But what really turns my crank are station wagons. When I was a kid and my friends were drooling over Porsches and Ferraris, I lusted after Chevy Celebrity Eurosport wagons, a Volvo 240 like my grandfather used to drive, or a 740 Turbo (I didn’t know what a turbo or an intercooler were back then, but the words looked so cool on the 740’s boxy behind).
These days, my preferences lean towards cars that are a bit more performance-oriented. For a while there, when minivans and SUVs were big (both literally and figuratively), it was tough to find any vehicle that could haul arse while also hauling a friend’s possessions on moving day, without needing a landing crew to negotiate a crowded parking lot.
If it weren’t for the Europeans and their refreshing preference for wagons over SUVs, the station wagon might have disappeared completely. But even many European car builders — and those who get why European cars are cool — seem ashamed to attach the station wagon name to their carry-all cars, preferring terms like Avant (Audi), Sport Wagon (Mazda) and crossover (what Toyota, for instance, calls its Corolla wagon — sorry, I meant Matrix).
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BMW is no different. They’ve been building wagons for years (though not all have been sold here) but have steadfastly avoided admitting the obvious, using the term “Touring,” and denoting it with a capital T added to the end of the model name. For 2006, two BMWs are available in Touring form: the 530xiT and the car you’re reading about now, the smaller 325xiT.
The all-new 3-series Touring is available with just one engine — the less-powerful of the company’s two new 3.0-litre inline sixes — and is available only in all-wheel-drive form, that traction provided by BMW’s X-Drive system. The sedan version of the new 3-series (known by BMW freaks as the E90) is one of the least controversial styling exercises to carry the blue-and-white propeller badge in a number of years, and to a wagon fiend, the rumped rear end of the Touring version is quite sexy.
So, too, is the extra cargo space contained within the stretched skin that BMW has so gracefully grafted onto its smallest sedan. BMW claims 460 litres of luggage capacity with the split-folding rear seats in place. That’s less than the 787 litres Audi’s A4 Avant will carry, and another sporty carryall, the Mazda6 Sport Wagon, offers 959 litres of cargo space — more than double what the Bimmer will hold. However, the 325xiT will hold 1,385 litres with the rear seats folded flat. Credit the BMW’s smallish cargo hold to the high load floor common to all BMW cars, as well as to the sleek roofline that tapers toward the rear. But BMW’s Touring models have never been meant as practical alternatives to other wagons — just practical alternatives to other BMWs. The roll-out cargo cover is a thing of beauty, housed in a roller blind-like contraption that also contains a mesh screen that can be pulled up to hooks in the headliner to keep cargo where it belongs. Press a couple of buttons and it can easily be taken right out of the car, too.
Hop in, and the first thing you notice is what’s not there: BMW’s overwrought and generally-reviled iDrive system. All of the controls for the stereo and ventilation systems are right where they belong, on the dash, within easy reach from the driver’s seat.
Short drivers will appreciate the height-adjustable pilot’s seat, as well as the tilting and telescoping steering wheel. Those approaching six feet tall might not appreciate any of the five places in this car, though, at least not with the biggest-sunroof-in-the-world (seriously, I got yer glass ceiling right here) taking up valuable headroom front and rear. Another issue is the lack of space under the front seats for rear seat passengers’ toes. Head and toe-room aside, the rear seats themselves are actually pretty comfy.
My test car was equipped with a $2,000 Sport package that bundled comfortable and supportive front sport seats and an equally wonderful three-spoke steering wheel with a 17-inch wheel and tire combo. Good thing the seats and steering wheel are almost worth the $2,000 on their own; the 17-inch wheels and low-profile tires clunked and clomped over Ottawa’s potholed winter roads and made me wish the car had the standard 16-inch wheels instead. Otherwise, the 325xiT’s suspension soaks up bumps beautifully while endowing the car with terrific handling.
The shifter is a joy to use, which is good: the lower ratios in the six-speed manual are packed in fairly close, which means you’ll be doing a lot of rowing around town. The engine’s 215 horsepower are plenty to make city driving a point-and-shoot affair though, and power delivery is so smooth that you don’t really notice the lack of low-end torque. BMW claims a 0-100 km/h acceleration time in the high seven-second range, which feels about right.
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Out on the highway, the tall sixth gear allows for calm cruising, even if a downshift or two are necessary in passing situations. That’s okay — even after a few minutes behind the wheel, you’ll look for any excuse to run through the gears to hear the beautiful sounds these smooth new sixes make. The clutch takes some getting used to, though, as it lacks the smooth take-up and easy-to-modulate qualities of other BMW clutches. After about an hour, though, it feels natural, and you’ll be shifting like a pro again.
My week with the 325xiT was a snowy one here in Ottawa, making all-wheel-drive a nice thing to have. Paired with the Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires, this sporty wagon handled the snow like a natural. The stability control system kept things under control for commuting, but with it turned off, snowy powerslides were only a stab of the throttle away.
Also included on my test car was the $4,500 Premium Package, which added the aforementioned huge sunroof, auto dimming exterior mirrors, power front seats and a terrific-sounding Harmon/Kardon stereo. Unfortunately, the stereo was resolutely mute for most of the week I had the car, only coming alive if the car had been running for about an hour.
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BMW seems to be aware of the problem, if a couple of Technical Service Bulletins are any indication, but it’s this kind of problem that raises the ugly spectre of flaky electrics that has plagued European cars for years. Other options included metallic paint ($800), useful adaptive headlights that swivel left and right with the steering ($490) and for $585, attractive aluminum trim that brightened up the otherwise funereal interior. Add all those extras to the 325xiT’s $44,400 base price, and watch the bottom line balloon to $52,775.
Yeah, that’s a lot of coin, and it doesn’t get any easier to take when you consider that there are other, far cheaper wagons that are as good or better at the basics, like rear seat space and cargo room. From a purely practical point of view, this car is actually a very poor value, but BMWs have always been wasted on pragmatists; this is a lifestyle car, one equally at home at the opera and the ski resort, and it certainly wouldn’t be out of place in a driving enthusiast’s garage. With a starting price of almost $45,000, it won’t be within financial reach of everyone, at least not until these cars start popping up on used car lots in a few years.
This wagon geek’s already started saving up.
Technical Data: 2006 BMW 325xiT
|Options||$8,375 (Premium package, $4,500 — Panorama sunroof, auto-dimming exterior mirrors, power front seats, Harmon/Kardon LOGIC7 sound system; Sport package, $2,000 — three-spoke leather sport steering wheel, 17-inch alloy wheels, sport seats; metallic paint, $800; adaptive headlights, $490; aluminum interior trim, $585)|
|Price as tested||$54,470Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives|
|Type||4-door, 5-passenger station wagon|
|Layout||longitudinal front engine/all-wheel-drive|
|Engine||3.0-litre inline 6-cylinder, DOHC, VANOS|
|Horsepower||215 @ 6,250 rpm|
|Torque||185 lb.-ft. @ 2,750 rpm|
|Curb weight||1,695 kg (3,650 lbs)|
|Wheelbase||2,760 mm (108.7 in.)|
|Length||4,526 mm (178.2 in.)|
|Width||1,817 mm (71.5 in.)|
|Height||1,418 mm (55.8 in.)|
|Cargo capacity||460 L (16.2 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 12.1 L/100 km (23 mpg Imperial)|
|Hwy: 7.8 L/100 km (36 mpg Imperial)|
|Warranty||4 years/80,000 km|
|Powertrain warranty||4 years/80,000 km|