A Dearborn reader wrote to us recently about some automotive arguments

taking place in his household.

"We have two kids and two separate ideas about vehicles," this husband and father admits.

It seems that he loves sport-utility vehicles. But his wife hates them. Sedans seem boring, plus they don't feel roomy enough. A good compromise vehicle? A station wagon, they agree. In fact, they bought one. And now the couple are arguing about which one they should purchase next.

In the interest of defusing future marital spats, we wondered: What could make a meat-and-potatoes station wagon more palatable to moms and dads than giving it a little European panache? With that in mind, we plunged headlong into the German family wagon face-off. The Teutonic contenders: The 2001 BMW 325xi sport wagon and what, on the surface, may seem a surprising sparring partner - the 2001 Volkswagen Passat GLX wagon with 4Motion.

Both begin with almost identical base prices. The 325xi is a variant of the 325i wagon, which has a starting sticker of $29,400. The Passat GLX has a $29,550 base price. We chose models that came equipped with all-wheel drive systems, something we figured would be important to families cross-shopping SUVs.

With the $1,750 all-wheel-drive system and other extras like $475 metallic silver paint and a $1,050 power moonroof, the BMW topped out at $36,795. All-wheel drive, which VW calls 4Motion, costs $1,750 on the Passat. A $1,075 five-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission pushed the sticker to $32,925. We were anxious to see just how much buyers would have to give up if they opt for the less-expensive Volkswagen over the BMW. What we found out was quite reassuring. They don't give up all that much.

After a two-week test drive of the two Euro wagons, our impressions are that BMW is the obvious choice if you always pick the Ralph Lauren Polo shirt over the generic department-store version and fancy yourself a driving aficionado. But if you can live without the glamour of the gaudy brand name, the VW is a great choice - and it can save you almost $4,000 in the process.

Paul summed it up perfectly: "The Passat is a better family vehicle with fewer compromises."

The Passat, with its 190-horsepower 2.8-liter V-6 engine, held its own against the 325xi, which has a 184-horsepower 2.5-liter inline six-cylinder. Our test BMW had a standard five-speed manual transmission; the Volkswagen had the entertaining Tiptronic automatic, which can be shifted manually without a clutch.

The VW has more rear cargo space and a friendlier cabin, something that seems critical when you're hauling kids and their gear. The BMW offers great handling and unbeatable build quality - better than the VW, which had noticeable gaps around areas like the glove box door.

Both vehicles had similar, classic station-wagon lines. But where the German-built wagons parted company was the interior. And that's where we spe nt a lot of our time nit-picking. After all, to most families, the cabin becomes their rolling family room. It had better be roomy and comfortable. That's where the Passat GLX has the 325xi beat.

The BMW wagon's cabin looks like it was designed by Darth Vader, before he mellowed out and reunited with Luke. Perhaps it was the relentlessly monochromatic combination of the optional $1,450 black leather seats coupled with the weird gloss-black plastic trim on the 325xi that seemed off-putting to Anita. The seats in the BMW were comfortable, but nobody - driver or passengers - could get used to the complicated manual seat controls. We also heard complaints from back-seat passengers that the rear felt cramped. And while the gauges on the BMW's instrument panel looked nice, the radio controls were tiny and overly complicated.

Intruding into the cabin was a bit of engine and tire noise. If you opt for the BMW, be prepared for a harsher ride than you get in the Passat - the price ou pay for the handling edge provided by the Bimmer.

The Passat's cabin was pleasant, with power driver and passenger seats, wood trim and tasteful light leather. Heated front seats are standard in the VW. On the BMW, they are part of a $700 cold-weather package that includes a ski bag and headlamp cleaning system.

New for 2001 on the GLX model are the addition of steering-wheel controls for radio and cruise. Controls and gauges overall were easy to read and use. We heard no complaints from the rear passengers about feeling claustrophobic in the Passat. The cabin calm was broken by a bit of wind and road noise, however. Neither vehicle had a standard CD player, which we consider an oversight in this price class.

Gas mileage won't be the deal-breaker here, since both wagons are very close. The 325xi gets 19 miles per gallon in the city and 26 miles per gallon on the highway; the Passat GLX gets 17 miles per gallon in the city and 24 miles per gallon on the highway.

New for 2001 on the VW are side curtain air bags, which protect front and rear passengers in a crash. They come in addition to front and side bags on the Passat. The Passat also has standard anti-lock brakes and height-adjustable front seat belts.

Of course, the BMW wagon also has superior safety features, including front and side air bags and a head-protection air-bag system for front seat passengers. The 325xi also features standard anti-lock brakes, traction control and dynamic stability control, which helps prevent skids and "fishtailing" on slick pavement.

The BMW wagon has the VW wagon beat when it comes to free maintenance and warranty coverage. The 325xi comes with three-year/36,000-mile free maintenance and a four-year/50,000-mile warranty. It also has a four-year/50,000-mile roadside assistance program. VW does free scheduled maintenance for two years or 24,000 miles and offers a two-year/24,000-mile warranty on the GLX wagon. The VW roadside assistance program is good for two years.

There are no arguments in the Lienert family about which German wagon is the best value. You may have more fun driving the BMW. But we're recommending the Passat GLX wagon as our top pick for families.

2001 BMW 325xi VS. 2001 VW Passat GLX

BMW 325xi

Wheelbase: 107.3 in.

Length: 173.6 in.

Width: 68.5 in.

Height: 56.3 in.

Weight: 3,627 lbs.

Engine: 2.5L DOHC I-6

Output: 184 hp

Fuel Economy: 19/26 mpg.

Base Price: $29,400

Price as Tested: $36,795

VW Passat

Wheelbase: 106.4 in.

Length: 183.8 in.

Width: 68.5 in.

Height: 59.0 in.

Weight: 3,603 lbs.

Engine: 2.8L DOHC V-6

Output: 190 hp

Fuel Economy: 17/24 mpg.

Base Price: $29,550

Price as Tested: $32,925