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BMW 540iA SportWagon (2000)

by John Heilig

BMW Full Line Video footage (37:39)

MODEL: BMW 540iA SportWagon
ENGINE:  4.4-liter DOHC V-8 
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE:  282 hp @ 5400 rpm/324 lb-ft @ 3600  rpm
TRANSMISSION:  Five-speed automatic
WHEELBASE: 107.3 in.
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT:  18902 x 70.9 x 56.7 in.
CURB WEIGHT: 4056 lbs.
FUEL CAPACITY: 18.5 gal.
LUGGAGE CAPACITY: 32.1/63.9 cu. ft. (rear seat up/down)
TIRES:  235/45R17
INSTRUMENTS:  Speedometer, tachometer, fuel gauge, water temperature, digital clock.
EQUIPMENT:  :  Power windows, power door locks, power mirrors, power seats,
heated seats, power sunroof, cruise control, air conditioner, AM-FM stereo 
radio with in-dash cassette player, anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes, dual front air bags,
side air bags,sport package, navigation system.

If you're like I am, the first thing that comes to mind when I think "station wagon" is the bog Ford LTDs of the 1960s and 70s. I know we had one when our girls were growing up and it was practical and served as a passenger car, truck and camper. Oh sure, the fuel economy was horrible, but that was in an era of 30 cents per gallon gas.

In recent years, the Volvo station wagons have gone a long way toward dispelling that image. But what really destroyed it was this week's tester, the BMW 540iA sport wagon. This is a wagon with style and performance, but it still has the attributes of a wagon - good payload, seating for a family and enough room behind the rear seat to hold a ton of luggage or whatever. We didn't use the Bimmer as a family wagon, primarily because the girls are all grown and have moved away. But we did use it as a daily commuter and as a hauler. Yes, we put our grass and garden clippings in the cargo bay and used the Bimmer to haul them down to the compost center. We drew a few glances from people who were convinced we were either crazy or had too much money to know what we were doing. These were the same people who stared at us when we brought tree clippings to the same center in a Mercedes wagon.

The commuting part of the test was the best. Not only did we average almost 20 mpg (19.5 to be exact), but we had typical BMW performance. The 540iA moved. If I punched the loud pedal and asked for performance it was right there. The 4.4-liter V-8 was rated at 282 horsepower and it put that power to the rear wheels through a five-speed automatic transmission.

What I enjoyed most about the engine was that it barely let you know it was working, even when we pushed the revs up to near the 6,000 rpm red line. Along with the performance was a civility that you don't normally expect from an engine that can do what this one can do.

Coupled with the five-speed automatic was a stick-shift option that allowed the driver to operate the transmission as a stick if he or she wanted. We looked for a couple of roads to check the tranny and even found my old commuting road that was a winding uphill climb. What fun. I don't know if I broke any speed records in climbing the hill, but it was fun and it felt as if I did.

Seating was leather-covered all around. In the front were two buckets that had excellent side support. When you have a car that can handle and performs like the 540iA, you want side support. My only complaint was that the "bucket" sides seemed narrow. Yes, I know I've put on a pound or two, but I think the side bolsters were pulled in.

I also felt there was less legroom than you'd find in a BMW 5-Series sedan. I checked with a 5-Series in the company parking lot and my guess was correct. Technically, the numbers are equal , but BMW appears to have shortened the front legroom by a couple of inches and the rear legroom by a similar amount in order to stick the wagon part on the back. As it turned out, this wasn't a major problem for me since my legs just fit, but for anyone much over six feet tall it would be a problem. Since the usual rear seat passengers in a wagon are children. There wasn't a problem with restricted legroom there.

At almost $60,000, the BMW 540iA isn't cheap. This definitely isn't a car for young families, unless those families have made a killing bon Internet stocks. But the price aside, the 540iA is a great kick to drive, whether on the highway or on a back road. You can play sports car with it or drive it like the family wagon it pretends to be.