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HIGHWAY 1

BMW wagon strikes a good balance

February 01, 2014|Brian Thevenot

The quest for the perfect car is forever frustrated by compromises.

Shopping turns into an endless series of trade-offs: You can have a cushy ride or taut handling, but not both. Interior room or sleek styling. Horsepower or gas mileage.

That makes the art of building cars a balancing act -- one that BMW pulls of better than most with the 328d xDrive Sports Wagon. This is a four-wheel-drive station wagon that drives like a sports car and gets 43 mpg on the highway.

Yes, there's a catch -- the $49,275 sticker price on our test car.

That suggests the 328d is more than $20,000 better than, say, a Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen diesel. And it isn't. But you do get quite a lot of Sports Wagon for the premium price, in a well-rounded package with precious few compromises.

The praise starts with the car's looks. U.S. drivers generally shun station wagons -- and hatchbacks of any kind. But even the most ardent wagon-hater would be hard-pressed to say this one isn't good looking. We think it's gorgeous. (The BMW definitely trumps the VW on this score, and by a good margin.)

Like any 3 Series, the best attribute of this car is the handling, and the extra cabin on the rear doesn't seem to detract. No station wagon will fly in and out of sharp turns faster or with less drama, and neither will most cars of any kind.

In our test car, the nimble handling was aided by an M Sport package. The M package included 18-inch alloy wheels along with a host of other mostly cosmetic options (at a too-high price of $3,850). The Dynamic Handling Package, for $1,000, may make more difference, adding adaptive sport suspension and variable sport steering.

The four-wheel-drive option will play well in cold or wet climates, but is basically useless in Southern California.

Under the handsome hood is an equally sweet power plant, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo diesel with an aluminum engine block. Just a hint of diesel rattle is apparent at low RPMs, and morphs nicely into a low-pitched roar under acceleration. Shifts are crisp and well-timed via an eight-speed automatic transmission.

The 328d has the same 180 horsepower as can be found in base gasoline 3 Series, the 320i, which we tested alongside this diesel. But the 328d has far more torque -- 280 compared with 200.

Both cars are quick but not blazing fast, with zero-to-60 mph times close to seven seconds. But they accomplish the task in much different ways. Like most diesels, the 328d delivers most of its power right away, at lower RPMs, delivering an off-the-line jolt that wanes as the car enters higher revs. The gasoline engine does the opposite -- starting slower, but building power through the rev range, toward a higher redline.

Neither is better; they're just different. Which you prefer comes down to personal taste. We like both, but the diesel's fuel economy -- 31 mpg in the city, 43 mpg on the highway -- makes it the obvious choice if you are comparing similarly priced models.

The only gasoline-powered 3 Series wagon offered is a 328 fitted with a more powerful turbocharged four-cylinder, making 241 horsepower. The base prices are close: $42,375 for the gas-powered 328 and $43,875 for the diesel. Given that choice, the diesel seems like a no-brainer.

We'd happily trade a little bit of acceleration for the extra gas mileage -- along with the longevity and better resale value that are the hallmarks of diesel cars.

That's a compromise we could live with.

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brian.thevenot@latimes.com

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