There's a running joke among auto writers that the perfect car would be a diesel-powered, rear-drive wagon with manual transmission and no power accessories whatsoever. It would only be available in brown and would somehow be as fun to drive as a Mazda MX-5 Miata. Makes total sense, right?
Realistically, no manufacturer is ever going to completely fulfill our wishes, no matter how much we beg, plead, kick and scream about our dream car that most of us would actually never buy. The best we can do is hope for a vehicle that mixes some aspects of this ideal journalist's car. And in today's world, that vehicle just might be the BMW 328d xDrive Sport Wagon.
No, it's not available with a manual gearbox, and power can only be sent through an xDrive all-wheel-drive system. It's also not available in brown (although both Mojave Metallic and Sparkling Bronze Metallic are acceptable stand-ins), but it ticks the two main boxes of being a diesel-powered wagon, one of only a couple such models in the United States.
To properly put its versatility and fuel economy through its paces, senior editor Steven Ewing and I used the 328d shown above as our chariot to the 2014 Chicago Auto Show (inclement weather kept us from shooting the darn thing, so that's why you're just now seeing this writeup) - covering some 600 miles on our jaunt from Detroit to the Windy City and back.
As this is our first time driving the 328d packing BMW's 2.0-liter, turbodiesel four-cylinder, let's get the essentials out of the way. 180 horsepower is paired up with 280 pound-feet of torque, available from 1,750 rpm to 2,750 rpm, allowing our oil-burning longroof to hit 60 miles per hour in a leisurely 7.7 seconds before conking out at 130 mph. In short, this is not the 3 Series for those who demand quickness.
In the real world, though, the 328d's acceleration is perfectly adequate. Dip into the throttle at freeway speeds, and you'll surf along on a wave of torque that makes passing a painless affair, although some planning is still required. As is the case with most passenger diesels, the sound isn't terribly evocative when ran hard, but at cruising revs, our tester proved luxuriously quiet.
My leg of the journey was from downtown Detroit, on Interstate 94, to I-69 and onto the I-80 turnpike. Along this route, I had the cruise control pegged at 80 miles per hour, while returning 42 miles per gallon. Yep, it's that good.
Ewing, having a bit of a lead foot, quickly did his best to ruin my decent fuel economy when he took over on the turnpike. However, a nasty winter storm meant that most of our I-80 travels were spent cruising below 50 mph, meaning we arrived in Chicago averaging just over 41 mpg. The trip home, which was highlighted by crisp, clear and dry weather that allowed us to zip along at 80 mph, saw our overall economy dip to just under 41 mpg. Considering our higher-than-average speed, there's little doubt in my mind that the 328d could meet and exceed its 43-mpg highway estimate.
The fuel economy owes some of its success to BMW's suite of fuel-sipping features. Besides the routinely excellent ZF 8HP eight-speed automatic, a standard stop-start system and BMW's Eco Pro mode make conserving fuel an easy task. Eco Pro is particularly handy in urban settings, where its more relaxed throttle response and shorter shifts make hypermiling easier. To keep drivers engaged, the instrument cluster shows how many extra miles of fuel are being saved while in Eco Pro.
We'd be lying if we said choosing the 328d for this trip was only because of its fuel economy. While the 3 Series has grown a bit softer over the years, the upside is that it's more tolerable on long hauls. With the 328d, the suspension has a just-right balance between sportiness and comfort. We had no issues with it along the smoother freeways, while the pockmarked sections of Chicago's surface streets were easy enough to dodge thanks to the 3's agility.
Not surprisingly, this is not a cheap vehicle. Prices for the 328d xDrive Sport Wagon start at $42,950. Our tester, meanwhile, was optioned out to $49,425. Those that have read my Quick Spin of the 320i should see where this is going.
I might not have made too much of the 328d's price had I not picked up our long-term Mazda6 on our return trip. That $31,765 front-drive sedan is obviously not a direct competitor for the BMW - in fact, it's not even the same bodystyle. However, it did give me reason for pause, as it was loaded with navigation, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, leather seats and a rear-view camera - things not found on this 328d. It had all of these features and a larger cabin, yet it could return 38 mpg while running on cheaper gasoline, for less than two-thirds the price of our tester. Different cars, different classes - apples and oranges, maybe, but it did get me thinking anew about the pricing of not just BMW, but all prestige brands.