America does not like wagons, plain and simple. Likely rooted in the belief that many people cringe at the idea of driving what their parents did, even modern compact wagons offering far superior style and driving dynamics can’t seem to escape an association with the full-size, woodgrain-cladded barges of now over a quarter century ago. With the few still offered selling in very low numbers, wagons are far and few between, and I’ve driven very few in my driving career.
So when clients of mine recently traded in this 2008 BMW 328xi Touring, I jumped at the opportunity to get a little seat time in this Bavarian beauty, before it went to auction. How it came into my 48-hour possession was that the following day I needed a vehicle to take to Vermont, as I’d be registering a car there for another one of my clients (our dealer runner who’d normally go was going to be out the rest of the week).
Rather than putting some 350 miles on a brand new demo, I decided this car would be a more logical choice, especially considering it would be going to auction. Plus, having driven neither a 3-Series Touring before, nor an E90 3-Series for an extended amount of time, I figured it would give me some entertainment and enjoyment over the 6-7 hour round trip. Additionally, could a wagon be more appropriate a vehicle to take to Vermont?
I took it for quick test drive just to assess its mechanical condition. All checked out fine apart from the tires, which had considerable tread wear. Still, I figured I’d take my chances, and after both my managers’ approval, took the 328 home with all the paperwork, ready to leave straight from home in the morning. I took the 328 to the gym at the crack of dawn (my preferred time of day to work out), and got to test it a bit more on the not yet crowded roads.
Like my own 228, driving this 328 was pure joy. Not quite as quick off the line, again somewhat affected by the poor tires, but still nonetheless an enjoyable driving machine. Its smooth inline-6 produced decidedly Teutonic tunes and redline revs in 1st and 2nd under hard acceleration. Braking was also excellent, with the slightest tap on the pedal producing a short, controlled stop, again the skid of the tires being the only demerit.
The E90 is an excellent chassis, always feeling solid and tight through the twists, turns, and bumps in the road. My most favorite part about this E90 3-Series was its steering, and how much muscle it required. The first time behind the wheel I honestly thought it was experiencing power steering failure. Of course, after a short drive I knew everything was fine, remembering how my mom’s 2007 X3 felt exactly the same way.
It’s only that the power steering in most modern cars (BMWs to some degree but they’re hardly the worst offenders) has become so overly electrically assisted to the point that we’re used to being able to steer with our pinkie finger. It was thoroughly refreshing having to put a little more muscle into it.
My plan to take the 328 to Vermont, however, fell through. All set and ready to go, I decided to give the tires a final once-over, now in the light of day. Apart from the fact that they were virtually bald, I noticed this on the front-right tire. A quick google search of “how far can you drive with a bubble in the sidewall of a tire”, gave me the answer I was expecting: you’re pretty much at the grace of the tire gods.
Considering that stormy weather was forecasted for later in the day and that this car had a Takata airbag recall out on it, the risks of having a blow-out and being stranded some 150+ miles away or worse, skid into another object and get a face full of shrapnel outweighed the benefit of getting to drive this on a seven-hour road trip.
Faced with disappointment, I swung by the dealer on my way, swapping the 328 for a pre-owned, ex-loaner 2016 Cooper S Clubman. While it still provided me with a smooth, sporty ride for my journey, it’s a car I’ve already had considerable seat time in and drive on a regular basis due to the fact that I sell them. Additionally, this Clubman was a front-wheel drive model, which I can firsthand attest is somewhat less fun to drive than the All4, which provides better handling and three-tenths quicker 0-60 acceleration.
Anyhow, I got my Vermont business done, getting back to the dealer around 7 PM that evening. However, reaching in my pocket for my keys, I realized that the set of BMW keys I pulled out were to the 2008 328, and not my own 2016 228 — I had left my own keys at home that morning. I was taking the next day off, as I had worked my normal day off earlier in the week, so with that, the 328 Touring became my wheels for the next two days.
Although nowhere near as thrilling nor empowering to drive as my 228 coupe, I honestly grew quite fond of this Sparkling Graphite 328 wagon and its more humbling personality. Driving it a bit more sensibly than my own car due to the tires and the fact that I was on a dealer plate, I had a chance to appreciate its comfortable qualities, and decidedly understated yet stately nature.
Now I feel like “understated yet stately” tends to describe the typical buyer of European luxury wagons. Boasting all the same luxury amenities, the clientele these wagons attract tend to be far less attention-seeking than those who’d go for a luxury SUV. Quite frankly, there’s something about these wagons that screams “old money” in a very loud voice.
Speaking of luxury, this 328 had just about every imaginable luxury feature available in 2008. Cold Weather, Premium, and Sport packages, 6-speed Steptronic transmission with paddle shifters, Comfort Access key-less entry, Park Distance Control, Navigation with voice recognition, Bluetooth, satellite radio, Xenon headlights, and rear privacy shades.
It was like taking a step back in time using its first generation iDrive infotainment system. I might be biased as I’m used to the current incarnation, but apart from its hesitant feedback, I found it completely intuitive and easy to use, contrary to the scathing reviews of it in the mid-2000s. BMW was a bit ahead of its time with iDrive, but now that most other automakers have implemented similar systems, it’s no longer an issue.
The interior was trimmed in gray Dakota leather, with superbly comfortable front sports seats offering 8-way power adjustments, 4-way power lumber support, and manual thigh cushion adjustment. Grey may be a somewhat somber color, but it’s a color BMW hasn’t offered in several years, and it was quite refreshing to see an interior with a completely color-keyed lower dashboard for a change. The burled walnut was classic BMW elegance, particularly the horizontal bands trimming the door armrests.
As stated, I grew quite fond of this 3-Series wagon in my short time with it, appreciating its many satisfying virtues, as well as its main deficiency in the form of those well past their prime tires. I’m not going to lie, the slight lateral drift experienced when accelerating through corners provided some thrills.
But I knew from the start that this was only to be a brief love affair, and these few days apart had me longing for my own baby. I was elated to get back behind the wheel of my 228 coupe, which is as far more exciting car on all levels. Yet I always value to experience of driving something new to me for a bit, and this 3-Series Touring really appealed to me. Should I ever be in need of something more practical down the line, a BMW Touring may have to be in my future. Although by that point it might be a grey market import, as I’m willing to bet that the next generation 3-Series Touring won’t even be sold here, as has happened with its larger sibling.
Very nice review, Brendan, and excellent photos. Wagons are completely underappreciated so it is great to see their virtues being given a spotlight. I think most car buyers find the look of wagons too tame compared to the aggressive, and in my opinion, overwrought look of most cross-overs and SUVs. The usefulness of cross-overs and SUVs is also overrated, again IMO. I never met a station wagon that couldn’t haul as much or more than an SUV. Regarding the BMW 328xi Touring, I think the lines of the 3-series and 5-series wagons are elegant and far more satisfying than those of their sedan mates. The same could be said for other wagons, such as the original Taurus/Sable and Volvo’s 7-series. But what do I know? The roads are overpopulated with tall, clunky boxes riding on 20″ wheels and that doesn’t seem likely to change soon. That just makes me miss station wagons even more.
I really liked the CTS wagon too. But the crossover Cadillac sells so much better that they gave up on it. I tried to buy one, but the local dealer did not have any, and a dealer with a left over 2011 (the 2013 were current) did not want to make a deal….
I liked the CTS wagon, too, but sadly knew it was doomed to a short life. The concurrent Cadillac (2010-16) was ugly, but that didn’t stop it from becoming a top seller for Cadillac.
Its automatic so yeah nar I’d really rather not drive it even if it is the ultimate advertising machine.
I would much rather have bought an estate car rather than my current “soft roader”, but I needed the extra seats. Our family went through a Simca 1500 estate, two Cortina estates, a Volvo 245 estate, a Peugeot 504 estate and a Renault 21 Savanna Estate before I left home, so the whole concept just feels deeply ingrained in me.
You state thatyou drive more sensibly because you’re on dealer plates. Must be a very different culture to my local dealers. Typically a dealer plate seems to entitle you to be most inconsiderate and aggressive driver on the road….
The way I see driving on a dealer plate is that I’m representing the company I work for. If I were to drive a little more aggressively, you never know who might just call up to complain, and then it would undoubtedly come back on me. Also, if I were to cause an accident, the dealer assumes liability and could be sued.
Smart man. You have everything to lose for a momentary lapse of judgement.
If only more company drivers thought like you.
Interesting write up on a classy car.
The photo of the driver’s floor mat gave me pause. It clearly doesn’t fit right and overlaps the foot rest (no problem there) and the gas pedal (problem there). It’s not hard to think that if it was pushed forward (maybe the driver stretched his/her leg to get a cell phone out of their jean’s pocket), it could push the the accelerator and perhaps create an uncomfortable incident.
Cheap OTC mats in an expensive car? At least, get a pair of scissors and cut them down to fit. Or, buy OEM versions.
The previous owner actually had the carpeted mats underneath, which is why the all weather ones don’t fit in correctly. BMW floor mats typically have large velcrow patched on the bottom to secure them down. The bad thing is I’ve known many drivers to do this exact thing in placing the all weather mats on top of the carpeted ones. Not very safe in my opinion.
I find myself impressed with the first owner. Getting the car almost exactly to 100,000 miles so they feel they got their monies worth. Keeping the car pristine for that time. Getting the tires through to avoid the unrecoverable expense of new ones. Yet notice they were still Continentals and not a no name. All speaks to a good owner. A wagon this size is limited to singles and empty nesters so probably lot poison. I hope it finds a good home, bet it still has a few adventures to live.
Yes, the previous owners (who were the original owners) were empty nesters and they definitely took good care of this car. As you can see from the pictures, the interior still looks immaculate! They also had VentureShield installed on the front, protecting against rock chips.
I always enjoy your posts. They well written, insightful, and candid. Look forward to more.
Thank you! That’s very kind of you to say.
If this were a few years from now, and were a lot closer, I would be interested in this BMW. Why? I have a daughter who plays the harp. Ever try to transport a harp? It’s not easy, as her small one (yes, she has two) takes up the bulk of the trunk in the VW even with the seat folded down. This would be ideal for hauling a harp.
Having once had season tickets to the St. Louis Symphony, it was interesting to walk through the parking lot nearer the building, where the performers parked. It was easy to tell who played the larger instruments, as Subaru, Focus, and VW wagons were prevalent. This BMW would play well toward that need.
Yup, I used to know a guy who played an upright string bass. He went from a Taurus wagon to a Mazda Protoge5. There aren’t many wagons in that price range now.
My kids’ music teacher, and my nephew who’s a musician, are the only people I’ve known who drove Focus wagons. We sold our Corolla wagon to a cellist.
Generally, track-day and autocross organizers ban trucks and SUVs. Those of us who want mostly “sport” with some “utility” in our vehicles go for wagons. I autocross mine in about 20 events each year. Usually I have the only wagon, but occasionally more show up. This spring we had four Bavarian slant-six wagons at a 100-car autocross and we posed them for a few pictures after a rainstorm had passed through. They are all more or less daily drivers. The green one on the right recently spent a week in Vermont (complete with black Labrador). As Brendan said, it was entirely appropriate.
Glad to see I’m not the only one who will autocross a wagon! I’ve only gone a few times, and each time I was the only proper wagon there.
I’m surprised the wagon wasn’t going to Vermont to be delivered to a new owner or exchanged with the dealer…wagons of all kinds are relatively popular here and it seems that the higher-end ones drift in as they get a few years old.
On that note, I’m given to understand that the wagons enjoy just slightly higher demand used than new which means they hold their value quite a bit better than BMW sedans and crossovers – maybe it was a mistake to give the latter so much dedicated sheetmetal and they should’ve built them so they could be lowered with all “Genuine BMW” parts after the initial lease ends.
It’s hard to say which I envy more, your dealership job or your writing skills. You might want to submit an article to a major car magazine.
When BMW’s X cars first hit the market, many folks asked why BMW even produced them as they were little more than station wagons “on stilts”. A Touring did/does pretty much everything the “equivalent” X model did….except that the X sells for a higher price.
BTW, back when bias belted tires still had a sizeable chunk of the tire market, I saw 1 or 2 tires with bigger bulges. Never saw one blow, but did see the aftermath: lots of damage to surrounding bodywork.
I think you found the answer.
“…X sells for a higher price…”
Comparably equipped, maybe, but the wagons only come in fully equipped X-Drive models while the CUVs are offered in “Prices Starting At_____” versions.
Count me as another who envies you for your job. Getting lots of seat time in a variety of cars would be a great gig.
I am also a wagon fan. I love the utility that comes with all of that space in the back. As much of a fan as I am, I can only think of one true wagon that I owned – the 86 Fox body Marquis, and I really hated when I had to get rid of it. My Honda Fit is the next best thing.
My problem with modern wagons like this is that they just aren’t all that practical. Between the sloping roof, raked rear window and short depth, there really isn’t a whole lot more usable space than a sedan with fold-down seats.
Of course, most modern CUVs have that problem too.
Phil is right, modern wagons haven’t been killed by a fear of looking like one’s father. They’ve been killed by a combination of small dimensions and by car-seat and seat-belt requirements (which I completely support).
In 1980, my neighbor’s mom had a Buick Century Wagon, and we had a Mercedes Benz 300TD, both mid-sized wagons for the timeframe, but they seem to have a great deal more space in the “way back” than any modern wagon.
Further, if you had a family of five, even a mid-sized wagon was big enough, because in a pinch you could seat four across in the middle row, two in the front passenger seat, and 2-3 more in the “way back” without a seat or belt. That’s most of a soccer team. It wasn’t safe, but everyone did it.
In 2001 I bought my first and last wagon, a Saab 9-5 wagon. With two car seats installed in the back seat, I couldn’t even transport any of my children’s friends if I had both children with me, as there wasn’t room for a third car seat in the middle row and they couldn’t ride in the front.
Now I drive a minivan!
Above is a 1980 Buick Century way back, and here is a 1980 300TD…
My Jetta wagon, on the way to Goodwill last year.
Exactly, nice pics. Look at how spacious those cargo areas are.
I have 3 kids so a minivan is almost required. Most modern cars are just too narrow to fit 3 in the back seat. Oh sure you can stuff 3 across most cars if you really have to, but on a 4-5 hour trip you’ll regret it. And forget about adding a friend for a trip to the beach or a birthday party.
It’s not all bad though, our Town and Country is superior in almost every way to the Caprice wagon of my youth. It’s a stellar family hauler, perhaps the most thoughtfully designed interior of any vehicle ever made. A stark contrast to modern wagons and CUVs, which seem to strive to be sedans with hatches. But, at least some CUVs give you a 3rd row, which surely helps with sales.
Width has been a problem for a long time. The only two vehicles I have owned which could accommodate 3-abreast car seats with any degree of separation was my 68 Newport and later the 3rd row bench of my 94 Club Wagon. My 1984 rwd Olds 98 could accommodate a booster seat between the other two car seats in back, but only by jamming it in, which would probably not have been all that safe in a collision. Once cars lost that width in the late 70s, they lost all utility for carrying bigger families.
I thought you had cancelled the 9-5 purchase (that’s what I seemed to have read in the 9-3 hatch COAL)
Wow, I just re-read the 9-3 COAL article and I wasn’t very clear! We leased a 2002 Saab 9-5 Wagon, red, with a 5-speed automatic, for 3 years and then replaced it with a 2005 Ford Freestyle. The 9-5 was pretty stylish, pretty fast, and very good on the highway, but it was disappointing to drive because the 5-speed automatic was ineffective at power-on downshifts, and had no provision for manual shifting. And as described above, once my second child was born in December of 2002, it no longer had enough space for our family!
Nice and well-maintained car, good review.
I just read that more than 1/3th of the D-segment cars (among them the BMW 3-series) is a wagon in Europe. In Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands wagons outsell the sedans in this segment.
I don’t know about Portugal, but I see wagons a lot more than sedans. Make mine an orange-reddish 330xd with caramel seats and very dark wood (am I the only one getting tired of aluminum trim?)
Last year there was a BMW wagon for sale in my neighborhood. 5-series, all wheel drive, manual trans. It was tempting. If it had been brown and a diesel I might have bought it. Seriously, I’d be concerned about a used late-model BMW with 100K miles. I see them regularly along our independent used car dealer auto row, and they’re usually priced about the same as mundane Japanese contemporaries.
Reading this reminds me of how much I miss the way BMW’s steering feel used to be. Your description of the E90’s steering highlights a key feature that made a BMW a BMW. Spot on when you say that you wondered for a second if the car had power steering failure–for me that was part of the charm: no other car offered a better sense of steering control and engagement. Technology and focus groups have diminished that direct feel. Sadly, now I think the steering on our 2013 535 Xdrive would please a Camry driver…
I haven’t driven a 2-Series personally, but I think your new car is one of the few (or only?) BMWs left that retain that connectedness.
Even the F22 2-Series’ steering is a little more electrically assisted than in this E90, but happy to say that it is the most connected feeling of the current BMW, especially when compared to the 3-Series.
The description of the steering also reminded me of the Audi 5000S my family owned in the 90’s. Very heavy around town and in parking lots, but the flip side was excellent weight and communication at speed.
Getting to drive both the old 1-series (my mum’s car) and the current one (hello, DriveNow) fairly frequently, I concur concerning the steering. While the current one, and the 2-series, offer very good steering, it feels much less connected than in the old one, and I’d almost prefer the old model for that reason alone.
Why would you want steering like that? It sounds simply unpleasant for a luxury car. Besides, I can’t think of any cars made today that you could turn with your pinkie, like I could grandma’s Olds Delta 88 Brougham or an acquaintance’s ’78 Continental Town Car. Nothing is even close to those sorts of vaguely related motions of the steering wheel vis a vis the front wheels.
My 300c certainly can’t be pinkie turned nor can a CT6 or even a MKS. No cheaper Fords or Chevies can either. All of them give a much more obvious relation between the wheel and wheels than barges of old but don’t need muscle either.
“I can’t think of any cars made today that you could turn with your pinkie, like I could grandma’s Olds Delta 88 Brougham or an acquaintance’s ’78 Continental Town Car.”
Previous-generation Toyota Sienna. Pinkie steering, numb as numb can be. Not sure about the slightly updated current gen.
When I was in the market for a wagon a couple years ago, I headed to the Detroit auto show.
The BMW stand didn’t even have a 3 series wagon. Just SUVs. A search of dealer stock in metro Detroit did not turn up a single new 3 series wagon anywhere.
Test drove the now discontinued TSX wagon, but the suspension was too firm for Michigan’s third world pavement.
Ended up with a Jetta wagon as best alternative available. This month the AWD version of the Golf wagon, with full “Outback” treatment: jacked up suspension and plastic wheelarch extensions, hits dealers. I expect the FWD Golf Sportwagen to be driven from the US market by the Alltrack within two years.
My dealer gets a few 3-Series tourings in every now and then but they’re usually all special orders. We’d rather have someone wait 6-8 weeks to have one come special from Germany than to have one sit on our lot for 6-8 months or longer due to the wagon’s narrow appeal.
That was actually the reason why my clients got a Clubman instead of another 3-Series wagon – the BMW dealer closer to where they lived didn’t even have one to test drive and my dealer didn’t have anything in stock they liked. There have been a few former 3-Series wagon owners who’ve bought new Clubmans recently, as mechanically they’re BMWs and have the same technology and offer an even higher degree of personalization for a lower price.
At least they’re willing to special order. From what I’ve heard there aren’t many dealers who will do that anymore, though maybe it’s a different story with higher-priced brands like BMW.
I can also only assume that if you can even get a dealer to special order a car for you, you’re probably going to pay full list or close to it as there’s not much incentive for the dealer to give you a break on price?
At least at my MINI dealer, we’ll always special order a car if there is nothing on the ground we can locate or if the customer specifies they only want an ordered car and don’t mind waiting (and are willing to put down a non-refundable deposit).
And we have them submit a credit app when they order it to lock in any special rates/incentives. If the programs get worse, nothing changes for the customer, but if the programs get better, they can take advantage of that too.
Were I to buy new, I’d special order. I want to buy what I want, not what the dealer wants me to buy (no offence intended to dealers), so I’d special order and spec it out with the options and colors I want.
These are both 2014 Certified Pre-Owned, but still, they exist 🙂
I wouldn’t worry about the Alltrack version too much, they don’t lift them very much!
The Gilmore hosts a German show each year. Outside of VWs, few attract my attention, but I had to stop and ponder this 535xi.
Ah, this reminds me of how much I enjoyed our 2011 328i. If you believe the online inventories, it was the last rwd, straight-six 3-series in the Northeast. Everything about it was perfect (loved the steering and the iDrive), except the suspension was simply too harsh for Boston city driving. It was white with a tan leather interior, and it had most of the gadgets (heated steering wheel, GPS, etc.) It was an automatic, which wasn’t our first choice… but as I said, it was the last one we could find!
The wagon is such a logical choice for a general purpose vehicle. My 1985 Peugeot 505 Turbodiesel wagon handles well enough, is very comfortable, and returns quite excellent fuel economy. In addition, it has a fairly massive amount of space in the back. The only sort of shortcoming is that it is slow, but that is not a big deal to me.
I love the e90. One of my best friends bought this Montego Blue 2008 328xi new through European delivery and is still enjoying it all these years later. Your review is spot on – silky smooth inline 6, great steering and braking, classy interior. And right-sized, unlike the somewhat bloated current 3-series. Pre-CC effect: I just saw one of these wagons in Santa Monica yesterday!
I have an odd stance on wagons. I want them to exist, but I’d much rather a sedan. I get CUVs/crossovers, having driven my dad’s Equinox, they’re wagons with extra height, but I’d much rather have a lower car.
I’m conflicted on the steering; weighty is nice, but I do like light. I can criticize my dad’s Equinox for having numb steering, but that light steering… so smooth and easy.
That 3-series looks nice. Have you driven a 5-series? How do they compare?
I’ve yet to drive an E60 5-Series, which ran mostly concurrent to this E90 generation 3-Series. Comparing the current F10 5-Series versus the F30 3-Series, I prefer the 5-Series, even though it’s been around for some time now.
They both handle similarly, and even in base 528 form (the exact same engine as my much lighter 228), I was impressed with its acceleration. I got to drive a loaner back from the Cape earlier this year and was very happy in it (obligatory selfie below). The 535 is a rocket on the highway, sprinting effortlessly to 90mph and comfortably and controllably cruising at that speed. The F10 M5 is absolutely unreal though. Insane amount of power and superb handling, with the right amount of comfort.
The 5-Series’ interior is predictably higher quality in materials and more elegant in design, and you just feel much more prestigious driving it. Considering it comes with much more standard content even in base fare, and that the residual is crazy high right now making for much better lease rates (as it’s in its final season for this generation), the 528 is a win-win versus the 3-Series, at least in my opinion.
Thanks for this Brendan
It’s replacement time here next year, probably, and if certain things happen something like a 2010-2012 320d Touring could get the nod. The saloon won’t, as I like and need frequently enough some practicality. The X1 (and its ilk) leave me cold – it seems we’re buying tall cars to keep up (literally) with other people buying tall cars
Good to hear you’re impressed, though a 328 in the UK is perhaps not ideal!
Just spent a week in a 325I SE version. Apart from the £2000 optional sunroof that did a good job of keeping out airflow..pointless in an a/c car and that lunatic I Drive. Why when
normal buttons like any other car work. You need a co pilot to operate the dam thing otherwise its a distraction to the driver.