In the spirit of Esquire magazine's "Things Every Man Should Know" series, let me enlighten you. An all-wheel-drive European sports wagon is the perfect car for a fashionable young man. A night on the town, a month of resort-hopping in the Canadian Rockies, it matters not. This is the sort of car you should own before you are 30, along with an Andiamo suitcase, a great set of cookware and a tailored tux. Gentlemen do not rent clothes.
It's important to read cars as women read them, as the material adjuncts of a man's inner life. (Attention, gay men: The same rules apply, give or take a sweater.) Sports cars are needy, trucks are desperate, boxy crossovers and active-lifestyle SUVs scream "focus-group patsy" -- women sense these things with an atavism that is a marvel to behold. A sports wagon, by contrast, conveys an effortless and consolidated sense of self, a worldliness and maturity. You are more than just available; you're eligible.
Speaking of maturity: When you invite women over to your apartment, hide the Xbox.
You have a few choices in the European sports wagon department: Audi, Saab, Volvo. Mercedes-Benz built a lovely C320 4matic wagon until this year, when it didn't. But for the simple, syrupy perfection of a well-stroked piece of machinery, you can do no better than the BMW 325xi wagon, in the mid-$30s. Classic, impeccable, enviable -- an entire wardrobe of cars in one package.
The 2006 edition of the 3-series wagon is based on the chassis and interior design launched with the sedan last year; it's powered by the same 2.5-liter inline six putting out 215 hp, up from 184 hp in the previous model. As was true in the previous wagon, the larger displacement 3.0-liter motor in the sedan is not available.
This engine is almost too fine a place for the dirty business of internal combustion. The block is a composite aluminum-magnesium casting. The 24-valve, inline cylinder head uses the BMW's Valvetronic system, varying lift and duration depending on engine load -- thus dispensing with the need for a conventional butterfly throttle. On top of the engine is variable-geometry induction. Smooth? Championship bowling balls don't get this kind of polish.
THE purpose behind all these devices is to precisely modulate pumping volumes across a wide range of engine speed to maximize torque and efficiency and minimize emissions. It's complicated, but the result is simple: a linear, compressive, virtually hydraulic surge of power from just about any point on the tach and any gear in the bag (a six-speed manual transmission is standard, while the six-speed Steptronic automatic is optional).
The new wagon, roughly two inches longer than before, comes in at 3,781 pounds compared with the old model's 3,627 pounds. By the seat of the pants, this feels like a 7-second car to 60 mph. This is by no means the fastest AWD wagon out there -- may I suggest something in a Subaru? -- and its dearth of displacement can become noticeable at drive-for-your-life freeway speeds. But around town the car is capable of truly gratuitous bursts of quickness and bright, vivacious snarls of induction and exhaust noise.
The "x" in the nomenclature refers to BMW's all-wheel-drive system, which the company, known for its devilish German wit, calls "xDrive." A fully intelligent AWD unit, xDrive uses a multi-clutch differential to split torque between the front and rear axles, varying the split depending on available grip.
A new feature -- and instantly lovable -- is the start-off assistant, which prevents the car from rolling back while the driver is shifting into first gear (it holds the brake for a one-count after the driver lifts his or her foot). It's a lot easier than trying to heel-and-toe the throttle and brake.
Like the sedan, the wagon has double-pivot front suspension -- compared to the departing model's front struts -- and five-link rear suspension. To create a little more cargo space under the load floor, the car uses run-flat tires, like those on the X3. I am not wild about these tires, though they are getting better. The wagon's suspension has been carefully tuned to take the characteristic zing out of the run-flats -- the sidewalls are very stiff and transmit sharp impacts to the chassis and steering column. Only occasionally when you catch these tires wrong will the impact startle you.
THROW up the hatch, throw down the seats, throw in your skis or band equipment or climbing gear. In terms of practicality and life-carrying cargo capacity, the 325xi sacrifices very little to the upright, lumpen crossovers whose ads blare from the pages of Vibe and Maxim. But this car will carve and thrash in a way crossovers never could -- and you won't be embarrassed to drive it to your boss' house for supper. When in your prime earning years you add more doors to your garage, you can buy more specialized cars -- something grand like an Aston Martin, or something noble like a Prius. For now, the BMW Sport Wagon is like a great black suit and Hermes tie, always right.
Gentlemen, start your weekends.
- - -
Base price: $35,295
Price, as tested: $40,840
Powertrain: 2.5-liter inline six-cylinder engine, 24-valve DOHC, variable-valve timing and lift, variable induction; six-speed manual transmission; all-wheel drive.
Horsepower: 215 at 6,250 rpm
Torque: 185 at 2,750 rpm
Curb weight: 3,781 pounds
0-60 mph: 7 seconds
Wheelbase: 108.7 inches
Overall length: 178.2 inches
EPA fuel economy: 19 miles per gallon city, 28 highway
Final thoughts: Bachelor of arts
Automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.