SEE ALSO: BMW Buyer's Guide
The latest version of BMW's compact 3-Series has a new addition, the 323i sport wagon. "Sport" and "wagon" in the same sentence may seem absurd, but the 323i sport wagon is a BMW. Sport-level performance and handling are part and parcel of every BMW, including the wagons.
The 323i wagon joins the existing midsized 5-Series wagons in the BMW lineup. Wagons may have fallen from favor in the US, replaced by SUVs, but they are quite popular in Europe. The 323 wagon offers interior space and versatility comparable to any of the smaller SUVs, and vastly superior vehicle dynamics and handling. It is based on the 3-Series sedan, one of the benchmarks of the sports sedan class.
I thoroughly enjoyed my recent week with the 323i wagon. While not as roomy as a midsized wagon or SUV, it had plenty of interior space for its modest size. And, best of all, it felt like a 323 sedan or coupe with a little more weight in the rear, with no loss of handling and only slightly less acceleration. Can a wagon be fun? Absolutely, if it's BMW wagon.
APPEARANCE: With its trademark twin-kidney grille and quad round headlights under glass, there is no doubt that the 323i sport wagon is a BMW. There is no doubt that it is a wagon, either, but the passenger cabin is pleasingly tapered, improving aerodynamics and giving it a sleek look. No old-days wagon frumpiness here – the 323 wagon's proportions and styling make it look almost as sporty as the 3-Series coupe, and sportier than the slightly bulbous 3-Series sedan. Short overhangs front a rear allow driveway clearance even with the lowered sport package suspension. The 17-inch spoked alloy wheels and low-profile tires that are part of that package fill the wheel wells nicely. Wagons have rarely been stylish, but the 323 is an exception.
COMFORT: The inside of the 323 wagon is standard BMW, which is to say well-designed for serious driving and very comfortable. Dark material on the top of the instrument panel keeps glare down, and optional wood trim around the cabin and on the shift knob adds elegance. The standard upholstery is leatherette, and the front seats are manually-adjustable, which may sound low-class but is definitely not. The seats are quickly and easily adjustable in all important parameters, and firmly padded for long-distance support and comfort. BMW's leatherette looks and feels better than many other manufacturers' leather. The rear bench has three shoulder straps, but, as is expected in this size car, is better suited for two for any distance. It folds 60/40, and has a central ski passthrough. There are the usual storage areas in the doors and console, and a good amount of space in the rear cargo area.
SAFETY: The BMW 323i wagon has a full complement of active and passive safety features, including a rigid, energy-absorbing unibody structure with interlocking doors for improved side-impact resistance, dual front, front side, and front head-protection airbags, antilock brakes, all-speed traction control, and dynamic stability control.
ROADABILITY: Forget any preconceived notions about station wagon handling, or the lack thereof. The 323i wagon is a true BMW. Consider it a sports sedan with a fanny pack. An extra 198 lbs of weight due to the wagon body makes very little difference in the car's handling abilities on the street. It has the crisp, precise steering and cornering response for which BMW is famed. Suspension is fully-independent, with struts at the front and a multi- link setup at the rear. The wagon's standard suspension calibration is slightly firmer than the sedan's, and the brakes (four-wheel vented antilock discs, of course) are slightly larger to compensate for the extra weight. The sport suspension on my test car is firmer still, with ultra-low profile high-speed rated tires on 17-inch alloy wheels. It is the perfect enthusiast option, and balances sharp handling with civilized comfort.
PERFORMANCE: In many ways, an inline six-cylinder engine is the perfect engine, with excellent smoothness because of its design. Its length is not a drawback in a front-engined, rear-wheel drive car like a BMW. Although it makes other engine types, BMW has been known for its inline sixes since the 1930s. The 2.5-liter powerplant in the 323i wagon is an ultramodern interpretation of this classic design, with variable valve timing on both of its overhead camshafts, aluminum alloy construction, a dual resonance intake system, and direct ignition. The 323i wagon doesn't have the ferocious power of the larger, more expensive 540i sport wagon, but with 170 horsepower at 5500 rpm and 181 lb-ft of torque at 3500 rpm, it is energetic and willing. Although a five-speed automatic is offered, the standard five-speed manual is the perfect gearbox for the car, with good ratios and fast, smooth shift action.
CONCLUSIONS: Have your cake and eat it too with the BMW 323i sport wagon. It offers the space and versatility of a small SUV and the performance and handling expected of a BMW sports sedan.
SPECIFICATIONS 2000 BMW 323i Sport Wagon Base Price $ 29,200 Price As Tested $ 32,945 Engine Type 24-valve dual overhead cam inline 6-cylinder with stepless variable valve timing on both camshafts Engine Size 2.5 liters / 152 cu. in. Horsepower 170 @ 5500 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 181 @ 3500 rpm Transmission 5-speed manual (5-speed automatic available) Wheelbase / Length 107.3 in. / 176.3 in. Curb Weight 3351 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 19.7 Fuel Capacity 16.6 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded premium, 92 octane Tires P225/45 ZR17 Bridgestone Turanza Brakes, front/rear vented disc / vented disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent strut with aluminum lower arms, coil springs / independent multilink, coils springs Drivetrain front engine, rear-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 20 / 29 / 23 0 to 60 mph 7.6 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.33 OPTIONS AND CHARGES Fern green metallic paint $ 475 Sport package – includes: 17x8.0 alloy wheels, 225/45 R 17 tires, sport suspension, leather multifunction sport steering wheel, 10-way adjustable front sport seats, foglights, cruise control, heated exterior mirrors and washer jets $ 1,700 Wood trim $ 500 On-board computer $ 300 AM/FM/CD player $ 200 Destination charge $ 570