Get you where you want to go quickly yet nimbly thanks to engines and suspension systems designed to complement one another.Not machines for everyone, however. There's a price to pay for being able to motor aggressively, the primary one being suspensions tuned to force the vehicles to sit flat in corners and turns for agile handling, but in doing so sacrifice a cushioned ride. If the backside is tender, visit the Mercedes store. A combination of firm sports-tuned suspensions and firm, actually too firm, seats with rib-poking side bolsters are designed for those whose goal is to drive rather than ride. Though as we've said numerous times, a little more padding in the bottoms, a little wider bolsters on the sides, and you still could put a BMW through its paces without punishing the passengers. But no need to pick on BMW. It isn't the German that messed up Chrysler. So let's look at the trio we tested separately, starting with the new for 2001 330i sedan, the 3-liter, 225-horsepower inline 6-cylinder replacement for the 2.8-liter, 193-h.p. model. So what makes the 330i stand out from the 328i? "More oomph," the folks from BMW boast, which isn't exactly a high-tech term but gets the message across. If you want to drive even more aggressively and have a car with all-season capabilities, all-wheel-drive is available in the 3-Series for 2001 as well, the 330xi. Noteworthy is the fact that while the 3-liter provides a sharp horsepower boost over the 2.8, the mileage rating is a most impressive 21 m.p.g. city/30 m.p.g. highway. Our test vehicle came with the fairly smooth 5-speed manual, which is ideal at playtime and when the roads are covered with snow and you downshift to help braking, but less than ideal at rush hour. The 330i starts at $33,990, but quickly swells when you add the necessary goodies, such as the $1,200 sport package with its sport suspension and performance radials, $1,050 power moonroof and $945 power front seats. Next up was the 540i sport wagon, which we didn't look forward to because it is, after all, a station wagon whether it has kidney-shaped grille work or not. But, as BMW beams, "the 540i sport wagon is the fastest station wagon in the world," an accomplishment that would be more appealing if there were more than six station wagons left in the world. Once you press the pedal to activate the 4.4-liter, 282-h.p., 32-valve V-8, you forget whether the vehicle is a wagon, sedan, coupe or truck and sit back and enjoy how lively the machine is. And the sport suspension, while firm, keeps the radials planted solidly on the pavement no matter which direction you point the wheel. And when you need to haul luggage or golf clubs, the cargo hold does come in handy. New for 2001 are the front end and headlamp treatment, or what BMW calls a "discretely freshened" appearance, plus a new wider screen navigati on system. Though if BMW insists cupholders are purely decoration, then we insist a navigation system is strictly for show. When enjoying the spirit of the 282-h.p. V-8, does it really matter knowing where you are going, much less where you have been? If you need directions, visit the Mercedes showroom. Base price is $53,480, which means the 540i sport wagon is not only the world's fastest wagon, but also one of the world's most expensive, though you'll never find that mentioned in BMW sales brochures. In addition to the high price, you'll have to add $2,800 for the sport package, plus $1,300 for the gas-guzzler tax because the 4.4-liter V-8 is rated at only 15 m.p.g. city/20 m.p.g. highway. For that kind of money you could buy a sports car, the Corvette, rather than a wagon wannabe, or, if you wait a few years, for that kind of money you could buy DaimlerChrysler. But we digress. The BMW X5 sport-ute is somewhat a contradiction to what has en noted above about performance in BMWs. Not that the X5 is a slouch by any measure, but for 2001 a new version has been added powered by the 3-liter 225-h.p. inline 6 to offer a lower-cost choice from the 4.4-liter, 282-h.p. V-8 version that had been offered only until now. The 3-liter, however, is rated only at 15 m.p.g. city/20 m.p.g. highway, so obviously its function at BMW is to attract buyers based on low cost, not high mileage. While the X5 carries the same mileage rating as the sport wagon, it escapes a gas-guzzler tax because it is classified as a truck with the government, which makes it exempt from guzzler penalties. The 3-liter X5 starts at $39,470, or $10,500 less than the $49,970 V-8 version. BMW says since adding the 6 and the $10,000 price spread, X5 sales have tripled each month this year from last with only the V-8. Take note that a higher-performance or obviously higher-priced X5 powered by a 4.6-liter, 350-h.p.V-8 will be added this fall. Why? Because BMW doesn't want all those folks we've directed over to the Mercedes stores to spot the high-performance ML55 AMG. So the X5 will be added to give the ML55 AMG (Transportation, Feb. 18) a rival. The 3-liter 6 X5 comes with a 5-speed manual not offered with the V-8. How many BMW loyalists will opt for a 5-speed sport-ute? BMW says less than 10 percent, but those 10 percent are worthy of special attention. Have to admit that while a 5-speed X5 didn't sound that appealing when it arrived, it didn't take long to realize it allows every one of those 225 horses to perform up to potential. Lot of fun and handy on snowy roads for braking or off-road for climbing and maneuvering. But, again, nice for playtime, a bit annoying at rush hour. As noted, the X5 with 3-liter starts at $38,900, and you must add $2,470 for the sports package and all its goodies, which include 18-inch performance tires. One gripe. BMW made a concession to the lowly masses by adding a pair of cupholders, providing you can find them. To do so, turn the X5 over on its roof and ... oops. Sorry, there is a somewhat easier way. Slide back the cover on the cellphone holder in the center console (if you do without the navigation system you have to have a place to hold the phone so you can call for directions), lift out the rubber cellphone holder and you expose what BMW calls "beverage receptacles." Like the 540 sport wagon, the X5 has plenty of room in the cargo hold to store valuables such as golf clubs or junk such as groceries. The X5 will be joined in 2004 by a smaller Toyota RAV4-size AWD sport-ute now dubbed the X3. That's the same time as the expected appearance of a new small rear-wheel-drive, entry-level 1-Series model priced at less than the 3-Series, which now starts at about $27,000.
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