Friday, May 16, 2014

Test Drive: 2014 BMW 328i xDrive Sports Wagon

Update: See how the 328i did against its competitors in our Bike Month Wagon Comparison Test.

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with BMW. Most BMWs I have driven have been good fun and the engineering that goes into them to keep their weight balance as close to 50/50 is certainly nothing to scoff at. However, over the years, they have also gotten progressively less Germanic in their construction and there is always the negative reputation of BMW owners to contend with (we've all heard the joke about the different between a BMW and a porcupine). Still, when it comes to cars that offer solid driving dynamics, good power, and tons of customizability, few manufacturers can match BMW, with that annoying caveat of "so long as you can afford it." Still, with as few options as there are in terms of wagons, it would be remiss for me not to test the 3-series wagon in looking at this segment.

On the outside, the 328i wagon pretty much looks exactly like a 3-series sedan from the B-pillar forward. The roof is stretched out to meet the aggressively sloped hatch, giving it a sporty appearance. According to BMW, the entire greenhouse of the 3-series wagon is actually a few inches taller than that of the sedan, though you would be hard-pressed to tell without placing the cars side-by-side. Our test car was not fitted with any of the specific trim lines, so we had to make do with just the basic bumpers and the 17-inch wheels, which are not great, but are also not terrible. The lack of any trim line also means that there is no additional brightwork on the exterior, leaving lots of flat black trim where many competitors have added metal or other materials to give their cars a more upscale appearance. The overall look of the car is athletic, but feels substantially more down-market, especially when you take into consideration just how much this car costs. For the price, I think it is fair to expect more.

Opening the door and stepping inside does not do much to change my impressions. The instrument panel is simple and legible, but extraordinarily basic, with very limited functionality. The center console is a large swath of smooth black plastic, dotted with a few buttons and knobs and topped with the largish screen for the iDrive system. The new iDrive controller sits on the console between the two front seats and offers control of many of the cars functions, whether you want it to or not. While dramatically improved from the earliest iterations, the system still feels overly complicated or gimmicky at times, though the screen is impressively high resolution. The presence of iDrive does cut down on the clutter and offers the chance to have a fairly simple center stack. The rest of the interior materials all feel of decent quality, but generally do not look any nicer than materials used in less expensive cars. Plus, you have to like BMW's chosen aesthetic for the interior, which feels a touch Post-Impressionist, as if inspired by Picasso after he went crazy. Our test car was fitted with BMWs leatherette on the seats, but if I had not looked at the window sticker, I honestly would not have been able to tell the difference between the leatherette and the real leather. I am not sure if that speaks volumes about how good the leatherette is or how bad the real leather is. Worst of all, while I was waiting for the test car, I crawled around a BMW M6 Gran Coupe and the difference in the quality and feel of the leather used is absolutely staggering. There is definitely no mistaking that leather for the fake stuff. 

In back, there is good room for rear passengers and the material quality seems to be the same as the for the front passengers. There is sufficient room for three across, but for the sake of comfort, only two adults will be able to enjoy the rear seats for a longer trip. Legroom is actually pretty good, even with the front seats set up for my preferred driving position. Overhead, there is a panoramic sunroof to help the interior feel brighter and airier. Behind those rear seats is a decently sized cargo space that is slightly oddly shaped due to intrusion from the wheel wells and rear suspension. That means, despite it's rather large overall volume, the cargo space is narrower than I would have liked and would definitely create issues trying to fit my road bike. There is a fair bit of underfloor storage space, but it is not all that well thought out, making it just a bit awkward. One interesting inclusion is the power rear hatch, which is actually standard whereas other competitors make it optional or not available at all.

Back up front, a stab of the starter button brings BMW's fantastic 2.0L turbocharged inline-4 roaring to life. This little motor is shared across a number of BMWs model lines and is an absolute gem. It is easily the smoothest in its class and returns decent fuel economy. This motor powers all four wheels through an 8-speed automatic transmission that is largely transparent, which is a good thing. BMW's rear biased xDrive AWD system comes standard, which feels rather unnecessary and actually takes a big bite out of the fuel economy while offering little added value to those living outside the snow belt. It seems like it would be smarter to drop the added weight, rotational drag, and complexity to bring the cost down a bit. Also included as standard equipment is BMW's auto start/stop system, which worked fairly seamlessly, though still had a hiccup or two as these systems are apt to have. Lay into the throttle and the drivetrain offers up solid power throughout the rev range with nearly no turbo lag. Mid-range power is always present and readily accessible with just a little more pressure on the pedal. Bringing all that power to a stop are solid brakes that offer good feel and feedback. 

BMW continues to use the tagline, "The Ultimate Driving Machine" these days, even though in recent generations, the cars have gotten softer and more luxurious while becoming less and less sporty. That decline in sporting feel starts with the steering, which is fairly accurate, but still lacks feel when compared with the BMWs that I grew up with. Even with the ability to change the weighting of the steering, the amount of feedback provided does not really change, leaving the lingering sensation that there is always a barrier between the driver and the road. Likely because of the 17-inch wheels, the car actually offers a very pleasant ride. If there is one thing that BMW continues to do well, it is offer a fantastic balance between comfortable ride and great handling. Running through the back roads, the car cornered flatly, even when tossed into corners at rather inappropriate speeds. The effort that BMW puts into trying to maintain as close to a 50/50 weight distribution pays off in how willing the car rotates and how easy it is to drive quickly.

Still, upon returning the car, I could not help but feel a little disappointed, especially when I saw the price tag. Sure, the car drives well, but compared to the other wagons I have driven, the interior quality is a half step down and is actually the worst of any 3-series I have driven in recent memory. And despite the fact that our test car was not outfitted with many features that competitors offer as standard, it stickers at over $46,000. To some extent, BMW makes up for it with some solid driving dynamics and that fantastic engine, but that alone only compensates so much for the mediocre interior and lack of features. Given how competent the competition has gotten, it is much harder to justify paying the extra cost just to be able to say that I own a car with the roundel badge. BMW continues to trade on its reputation, but that will only last so long and the competition keeps getting better and better.

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