2006 BMW 325xi Sport Wagon Review

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DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS

2006 BMW 325Xi Sport Wagon

SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for BMW

A quandry: you want a car with sports performance, and especially value handling. You view driving as a pleasurable activity, not a chore. But you need room for four people, and even, sometimes, large or bulky objects, so a sports coupe or sedan won't work. What to do?

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A small crossover SUV is out of the question. Your emphasis is on sport, not utility, even if you do need the utility. The higher stance of even a modern crossover works against cornering ability, and fun-to-drive character is usually not in the specification of such a vehicle. Besides, you're not an SUV person.

That leaves a small wagon, and the sportiest of the bunch is the 2006 BMW 325Xi Sport Wagon. Based on the current-generation E90 3-Series sedan that debuted early in 2005, the wagon offers the extra space and versatility of that body style - and the all-wheel drive all-weather traction associated with SUVs.

The wagon and the all-wheel drive models of both the 325 and 330 sedans are mid model-year additions to the E90 lineup. As with the existing rear-wheel drive sedans, 325 and 330 models share basic 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine architecture, but the 330 gets hardware and software upgrades for additional power.

Still, the 325's 215 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque best the previous 2.5-liter 325 engine's 184 hp and 175 lb-ft, and a choice of six-speed transmissions in manual or automatic ensure that power gets to the ground efficiently and moves the car quickly. The xDrive all-wheel drive system, derived from the system used in BMW's X5 and X3 ``Sport Activity Vehicle'' crossovers, does add weight, but it also adds traction in wet or dry conditions. The 325 wagon comes only in all-wheel drive form.

Speaking of the X3, my 325Xi test car was delayed for a couple of days, with an X3 for replacement. If, superficially, the two seem too similar, they are really very different. With its tall stature and extra clearance, the X3 is a crossover done BMW-style, with good power and road manners that put it at the head of the small crossover class. It is taller than the wagon, for increased room and utility. But the wagon's lower stature, lighter weight, newer chassis and drivetrain, and sportier demeanor make it a sports sedan in a very light disguise, with extra utility at no expense to the sport.

APPEARANCE: If BMW's recent styling has been controversial, especially for the treatment of the trunk, what better way to silence that controversy than to do away with the trunk? The E90 3-Series was already the most conservative example of recent BMW styling, and the wagon body style makes it more so. It keeps the pleasantly angular front styling of the current 3-Series intact, and replaces the sedan's greenhouse and trunk with an aerodynamically-tapered wagon form. The design is cohesive and distinctive, and undeniably BMW.

COMFORT: The 325 wagon shares most of its interior design with its sedan stablemates. No complaints there. With the optional navigation system fitted, as was the case with my test car, styling is very similar to its larger cousins.

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The hooded main instrument pod is joined by another in the center of the instrument panel that does an admirable job of shading the LCD screen for the nav system. Control is by the latest generation of BMW's iDrive system, which has been simplified since its inception in the 7-Series a few years ago and is generally pleasant and logical to use. As always, instrumentation and controls are arranged for serious driving. Passenger room is reasonable, although six-foot passengers won't like sitting in tandem.

The wagon's greatest advantage over the sedan is its cargo space and versatility. Not only is there a little more cargo space behind the rear seats than in the sedan's trunk, large objects that won't fit through a trunk opening can fit easily through the tailgate.

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And with the rear seat folded, large and long objects are no problem. Rear passengers are treated to an excellent view of the heavens, or mountain scenery, through the standard extra-long panorama moonroof.

Luxury appointment level is limited only by budget, and that budget can be high. The 325Xi wagon's $34,600 base price can quickly shoot up as most of the premium luxury appurtenances at home in a 7-Series can be specified.

SAFETY: For active safety, the 3-Series has responsive handling and quick steering to stay out of trouble, enhanced by very good four-wheel vented disc brakes that are larger than in earlier versions and feature four-piston front calipers. The standard Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) system includes the usual anti-lock, traction control, stability enhancement, and brake control functions, and can compensate for the effects of brake fade and water on the discs. Dual front, front side, and front and rear head curtain airbags are standard.

RIDE AND HANDLING: On the street, as opposed to on the track, there is no practical disadvantage to the 3-Series wagon body from a handling perspective. The additional rear bodywork redistributes the car's weight rearward for near 50/50 weight distribution. The new E90 chassis structure and suspension carry over to the wagon, but with some modifications for the all-wheel drive system also shared by the AWD sedans. Chiefly, although the double-pivot strut front suspension is similar in design to that found in the rear-drive models, in AWD cars the aluminum parts are exchanged for steel, as they are subject to drive loads. This slight increase in unsprung weight is not noticeable in normal driving. The xDrive system starts with a 40/60 front/rear torque split and adjusts it fore and aft as needed to improve traction, while the DSC system adjusts lateral traction to control excessive oversteer or understeer. It all works quickly and seamlessly, and the result is pure sports car handling. Even with the Sport Package, the wagon gets BMW's standard suspension tuning, but fear not - it's comparable to the sport suspension of some competitors, and provides a firm but comfortable ride and excellent fun on the right road.

PERFORMANCE: Yes, there is some extra weight in the wagon body, compared to the sedan. It's 177 lbs, about the weight of one passenger. The xDrive system adds another 250 lbs, partially compensated for by a shorter final drive ratio. Acceleration to 60 mph is off only by less than a quarter of a second compared to the 325Xi sedan, at 7.9 seconds for the automatic. In 325 form as in the 330, BMW's innovative aluminum and magnesium alloy 3.0-liter dual overhead cam inline six-cylinder engine use VANOS variable cam phasing on both the intake and exhaust cams and the newest version of the Valvetronic variable valve lift system on the intake valves instead of a traditional throttle for excellent, clean power characteristics. The 325 lacks the 330's three-stage intake manifold and has different engine control software, so it produces less power. Still, it 215 horsepower (at 6250 rpm) and 185 lb-ft of torque (at 2750 rpm) is enough for spirited performance, which is enhanced by the use of a six-speed gearbox whether the choice is the standard manual or the automatic. My test car had the automatic, and while is decreases acceleration a bit - figure half a second to 60 mph - it works well enough that even in spirited driving on my favorite twisty roads I never missed the manual. The automatic chooses gears well, and the engine's torque is good enough that a higher gear than expected usually works just as well. And manual shifting is simple - just slide the gearshift into ``Steptronic'' manual shift mode. Only for second-gear runs through very tight corners was this necessary, all other times the automatic worked fine on its own, even downshifting descending steep hills.

CONCLUSIONS: Think of the 2006 BMW 325Xi as a stealthy sports sedan with a useful backpack. Sport and utility never combined quite so well.

SPECIFICATIONS

2006 BMW 325Xi Sport Wagon

Base Price			$ 34,600
Price As Tested			$ 49,640
Engine Type			dual overhead cam 24-valve inline 6-
				cylinder with variable valve timing on
				 both cams
Engine Size			3.0 liters / 183 cu. in.
Horsepower			215 @ 6250 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 			185 @ 2750 rpm
Transmission			six-speed automatic (opt)
Wheelbase / Length		108.7 in. / 178.2 in.
Curb Weight			3737 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		17.4
Fuel Capacity			15.9 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91 octane unleaded premium gasoline
Tires				P225/45 HR17 (opt)
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / vented disc,
				 ABS, DSC standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent double-pivot strut /
				  independent 5-link
Drivetrain			front engine, all-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		20 / 27 / 24
0 to 60 mph				7.9  sec

OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Mystic Blue Metallic paint				$  475
Cold Weather Package - includes: 
  heated front seats, ski bag				$  600
Premium Package - includes:
  leather upholstery, BMW Assist system and services,
  universal transceiver, interior auto-dimming mirror,
  power seat with lumbar support and
  driver-side memory					$2,900
Sport Package - includes:
  17-inch alloy wheels with all-season tires,
  leather sport steering wheel, front sports seats
  with adjustable side bolsters				$1,200
Automatic transmission					$1,275
Comfort Access						$  500
Rear door window sun blinds				$  250
Park Distance Control					$  350
Xenon headlights with adaptive control			$  800
Active Cruise Control					$2,200
Navigation system					$2,000
Satellite radio (Sirius)				$  595
Premium sound system					$1,200
Destination charge					$  695

Complete specifications on the 2006 BMW 3 Series Wagon 325xi and other vehicles are available at the New Car Buyers Guide!

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