BMW 325xi

The Werks and I have had our differences. For instance, I think some of the newer cars -- the Z4, X3 and 5-series sedans -- are ugly enough to unknit the fabric of space-time. They point to the company's effortlessly rising sales figures and direct me to the nearest rolling doughnut.

Reasonable minds may disagree.

But when it comes to the BMW 325xi Sports Wagon, the boys from Bavaria and I come to terms: This is a superb car, as smooth as a mink glove, satisfying and well-rounded, polished and competent to the marrow.

The current 3-series generation is several years old, but the car doesn't feel dated so much as well sorted. Compared to the alienating instrumentation of the recent 5-series, for instance, which always feels just a little out of one's mental reach (How do I switch radio bands again?), the 3-series controls are models of fuss-free, intuitive design. The car is a symphony of little things: the dinner-jacket fit of the bucket seats (leather interior is a $1,450 option); the feel of the leather steering wheel in your hands, like the best outfielder's glove; the panoramic sightlines from the driver's seat. The car feels like a biometric appliance.

The all-wheel-drive wagon is more than 300 pounds heavier than the rear-wheel-drive sedan (3,627 pounds versus 3,307), and that translates to more than a half-second penalty from 0-60 mph (7.8 seconds versus 7.1). Pushed around by a 2.5-liter, 187-hp inline 6, the 3-series is in no sense overpowered; yet the engine's variable-valve timing and electronic throttle spread the torque across the rev counter like jam on toast. The engine pulls at just about every rpm (peak torque is 175 pound-feet at 3,500 rpm).

It's an eagerness, a friction-free gait that makes the naturally aspirated engine feel as if it were turbocharged.

Our test car was equipped with the five-speed manual transmission; a five-speed automatic or six-speed sequential manual gearbox is optional. The 225-hp, 3.0-liter engine is not available in an AWD wagon.

It would be hard to tell from the car's handling that it is, in fact, a station wagon. The 325xi's agility and snubbed-down ride is classic Bimmer; our test car's front strut and rear multi-link suspension were endowed with sport suspension's tauter settings. The steering is as precise as a diplomat's language. The car doesn't have quite the liveliness of the sedan or coupe, because of the weight and because of the AWD. The system uses a planetary (mechanical) differential with a fixed-torque split, apportioning 38% of the engine torque to the front wheels and 62% to the rear.

Masterminding the traction are the same electronic brains in the X3 and X5 SUVs. The Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) includes traction control, hill-descent control, anti-lock braking and stability control -- all systems designed to maintain grip and direction. The car comes with 17-inch all-season radials. A change of shoes to winter tires will be necessary to beat up the snowy roads to the ski resorts.

For all its road-savvy handling and performance, the 325xi's versatile cargo space might be its best feature. With the 60/40-split rear seats upright, capacity is 25 cubic feet, 150% better than the sedan's. The cargo compartment is equipped with floor straps, a cargo net, an accessory power outlet and a retractable cargo cover. This window-shade-like device detaches easily from the bulkheads; in some cars, removing and replacing this device is like fighting an anaconda.

Another nice feature of the sport wagon is the hatch with the separately opening window. Also, while other small wagons may require you to tilt forward the rear seat bottoms and remove the headrests to create a flat floor in the cargo bay, the 325xi couldn't ask for less: two easy-to-reach latches allow the rear seat backs to fold forward. That's it.

Our test car was loaded to the gills wit a cold-weather package ($750); premium package including power seats and upgraded interior trim ($2,400); xenon headlights ($700); and Harman-Kardon sound system ($675).

The total was $40,045.

That's a lot of money. But it's a lot of car -- rain-sensing windshield wipers, automatic headlight control, power moon roof, intelligent brake lights -- the full smash.

If you don't like the idea of driving a "station wagon," I have a solution. Don't look behind you. You will soon forget.

Wagons, ho

I hate being right all the time. Nonetheless, I predicted some time ago that the SUV's house of cards -- or is that House of Saud? -- was imperiled by the threat of rising fuel costs and the long-term aggravation that these vehicles impose on their drivers. Now that fuel prices have indeed spiked, buyers are leaving SUVs in droves (the bribing incentive and rebate structure of the manufacturers notwithstanding). Fortunately, thanks to cars like the Volvo V50 and BMW 325xi, they have someplace to go.

2004 BMW 325xi Sport Wagon

Price as tested: $40,045

Powertrain: 2.5-liter inline-6, variable-valve timing, electronic throttle; five-speed manual transmission; planetary

gear center differential;

all-wheel drive.

Horsepower: 184 hp @ 6,000 rpm

Torque: 175 pound-feet @ 3,500 rpm

Weight: 3,627 pounds

0-60 mph: 7.8 seconds

Wheelbase: 107.3 inches

Overall length: 176.3 inches

EPA mileage: 19 miles per gallon city, 26 highway

Competitors: Audi A4 1.8 T Avant Quattro, Volvo V50 T5 AWD

Final thoughts: Clutch Cargo