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Car Review: 2003 BMW 325i and 540i Sport Wagons

2003 BMW 540i Sport Wagon
540i Sport Wagon

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
325i Sport Wagon

SEE ALSO: BMW Buyer's Guide


   If BMW didn't actually invent the serious sports sedan, it has 
certainly made the concept its own. The 3-Series and 5-Series 
sedans are benchmarks in their respective classes - just check how 
often they are mentioned in competitor's advertising and 
promotional literature. And then, for the hard core enthusiast, there 
are the M3 and M5, which combine space and luxury comfort with 
exotic sports car performance. But what is there for those who 
want the performance and handling of a sports sedan, but need a 
little more room?
    Sports wagons. Jettison any notion of station wagon as large, 
cumbersome family hauler, spiritual ancestor of minivan. We're not 
in the 1950s anymore. There are wagons in both the 3-Series and 5-
Series lines, and they can haul the groceries and more. 
    A number of circumstances conspired to allow me to 
consecutively test both the 325i and 540i sport wagons recently. 
Both were ``sport package'' equipped, adding to their handling 
potential with no negative impact on comfort. They are 
complementary, not competitive, in the BMW lineup. The 325 is 
smaller, and more nimble because of its size, while the 540i wagon 
is more luxurious and faster in a straight line. In either case, a 
BMW wagon is virtually two cars in one, with the versatility and 
functionality of a wagon, and the performance and handling of a 
sports sedan. Sport meets utility in the best possible way.

APPEARANCE: There is a definable ``BMW look,'' and it shows in 
the styling of both the 3-Series and 5-Series. With a twin ``kidney''  
grille integrated into the front of a bulging hood, and low front 
fenders, it is  contemporary but also looks back to the Bavarian 
company's luxury sedans of the 1950s. The basic body shape for 
both wagons is conservatively rounded. The 3-Series sedan and 
wagon have redesigned headlights, with a more elliptical shape. The 
outside ends point upwards, instead of downwards as they did 
before and still do on the 3-Series coupes and convertibles. The 5-
Series is generally similar in look, but larger. The ``Sport Package'' 
available for the wagon adds M5-inspired bodywork, with an 
aggressive, competition-look front bumper fascia, lower side sills, 
and rear bumper. 

COMFORT: Space is not a problem in either BMW wagon. The 
540 is wider than the 325, and so has more shoulder room for both 
front and rear passengers. But, surprisingly, rear-seat leg and head 
room are nearly equal. Two adults fit well in either, with the center 
position available for shorter people and times. Seat comfort, front 
or rear, is top-notch. Interior styling for both the 3-Series and 5-
Series is similar, with the 5 being more luxuriously-appointed. 
Where the 325 has titanium-look trim, the 540 has walnut, and 
leather, optional in the 3, is standard in the 5. Instrument panel 
design in both is very similar, with all instruments easily visible and 
controls logically placed. Seat and steering wheel adjustability 
ensures the perfect driving position for any driver. The 540i 
wagon's sport package includes door sills and a thick-rimmed 
steering wheel with the BMW Motorsport ``M'' logo. Both wagons 
have plenty of useful rear space and split folding rear seats. Cargo 
nets and shades secure items in the rear area.

SAFETY: The body structure of the BMW wagons is designed for 
effective energy management in the event of impact. Dual-stage 
front airbags, front side impact bags, front Head Protection System 
airbags, and an immobilizer key are standard passive safety features. 
Responsive handling, strong anti-lock disc brakes, and electronic 
braking and stability aids enhance active safety.

ROADABILITY: Both wagons were equipped with sport package 
suspensions, tuned a little more firmly for handling, but not so stiff 
as to detract from everyday comfort. Like most BMWs in recent 
years, struts are used in front, with a multilink design in the back. 
Aluminum is used to reduce unsprung weight, further improving 
responsiveness. In town and on the highway, both the 540 and 325 
are quiet and comfortable. And, when the road gets tight, they both 
feel like the sports sedans they really are. But, basic physics, size 
matters. The 325 wagon's smaller size and lighter weight mean that 
it is a more agile vehicle than the larger 540. And the 540i wagon is 
no slouch in the corners. When it comes time to stop quickly, no 
problem. Both have powerful four-wheel vented disc brakes and a 
full complement of modern electronic stopping and stability 
enhancement electronic aids.

PERFORMANCE: Neither of BMW's sport wagons can be called 
slow, but the 540's better power-to-weight ratio makes itself known 
with the first touch of the throttle. With 290 horsepower, 324 lb-ft 
of torque, and a 4056-lb curb weight versus the 325's 184 hp, 175 
lb-ft, and 3362 lbs, the 540i wagon is the winner on acceleration. 
Its 4.4-liter V8 is never intrusive, just pleasantly noticeable. And it 
produces plenty of torquey thrust from any speed, which gets to the 
rear wheels through a five-speed automatic transmission with 
``Steptronic'' manual shift mode. Manual shifting adds to the driving 
experience, but is hardly necessary, given the engine's plentiful 
torque. The 325's silky-smooth 2.5-liter inline six has plenty of 
punch, too, good off the line, with a great midrange, and healthy 
top-end power. It makes wonderful music, and is matched to a 
wonderfully smooth Getrag five-speed manual gearbox. 

CONCLUSIONS: Need space, want performance? BMW has two 
good solutions to your quandary in the 325i and 540i sport wagons.

BMW 325i Sport Wagon

Base Price			$ 30,400
Price As Tested		$ 38,040
Engine Type			dual overhead cam 24-valve inline
 6-cylinder with variable valve timing
 on both camshafts
Engine Size			2.5 liters / 152 cu. in.
Horsepower			184 @ 6000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			175 @ 3500 rpm
Transmission			5-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length		107.3 in. / 176.3 in.
Curb Weight			3362 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower	18.3
Fuel Capacity			16.6 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91 octane unleaded premium gasoline
Tires				P225/45 WR17 Michelin MXM (part 
of sport package)
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / vented disc
Suspension, front/rear		independent strut /
 independent multilink
Drivetrain			front engine, rear-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		20 / 29 / 24
0 to 60 mph				7.4  sec
Coefficient of Drag (cd)		0.32

Steel Gray Metallic paint			$    475
Black leather					$ 1,450
Cold Weather Package - includes:
  heated front seats, retractable headlight
  washers, ski bag				$    700
Sport package - includes:
  17x8.0 alloy wheels, performance tires and
  sport-tuned suspension, leather steering wheel,
  adjustable front sports seats			$ 1,400
Power front seats with driver memory	$    995
Bi-xenon headlamps				$    700
On-board computer				$    300
Harmon Kardon sound system		$    675
Full-size spare					$    200
Destination charge				$    695
BMW540i Sport Wagon
Base Price			$ 54,100
Price As Tested		$ 63,385
Engine Type			dual overhead cam 32-valve
 V8 with stepless variable valve
 timing on the intake cams
Engine Size			4.4 liters / 268 cu. in.
Horsepower			290 @ 5400 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			324 @ 3600 rpm
Transmission			5-speed electronically-controlled
 automatic with ``Steptronic''
 manual-shift mode
Wheelbase / Length		111.4 in. / 189.2 in.
Curb Weight			4056 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower	14
Fuel Capacity			18.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91 octane unleaded gasoline
Tires				P235/45 YR17 Michelin Pilot 
Primacy XSE
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / vented disc
Suspension, front/rear		independent strut with double-pivot 
lower arms /
				independent multilink
Drivetrain			front engine, rear-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		17 / 21 / 18
0 to 60 mph				6.3  sec (mfg)
Coefficient of Drag (cd)		0.33

Cold Weather Package - includes:
  heated front seats, retractable headlight
  washers, ski bag				$    700
Sport Package - includes:
  17-inch alloy wheels, sport-tuned suspension
  and performance tires, power front sports seats,
  M-Sport steering wheel, high-gloss shadowline
  trim, aerodynamic package			$ 3,200
Park Distance Control				$    700
Navigation System				$ 1,800
Premium Sound System			$ 1,200
Destination Charge				$    695
Gas Guzzler Tax				$ 1,000