Lifestyle

Prince of Wagons


The BMW 5 Series wagon is everything you'd expect from a Bimmer, plus the utility of a bigger back end. But it commands a royal price

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The BMW 530xi Sport Wagon is not the King of Wagonland. Until an M-tuned version of the Bavarians' flagship people-mover drops, that stately distinction goes to Mercedes-Benz's $83,375, AMG-bred, E55 Wagon, which can haul groceries and tykes from zero to 60 in less than 5 seconds. The 5 Series wagon is, instead, the princely heir to the throne, not at the kingdom's helm exactly, but full of youthful zoom and undoubtedly pure-bred.

With a base price of just over $50,000, the 530xi Sport Wagon certainly commands of buyers a royal sum. That's much more than competing wagons from Audi and Volvo. And with a generous serving of BMW's pricey options, my test car stickered at $63,765, including the $695 destination charge. It was equipped with a $900 cold-weather package, $2,100 premium-interior package, $1,800 premium-sound package, $1,275 automatic transmission, $1,000 comfort package, $1,200 seats, $1,800 navigation system, $1,000 head-up display, and $595 satellite radio.

Those prices haven't stopped BMW from moving luxury metal. Since the beginning of this year, the company has sold 27,835 of the 5 Series, a mere 1,437 in the wagon version. Both of those numbers are up from the same period last year, when the company introduced the wagon version as a 2006 model in May of 2005. And the luxury wagon segment could heat up as the popularity of midsize SUVs continues to decline.

UP FRONT.

At this point, it's become tiresome to whine about the 5's redesign. Yes, it's an extreme departure from previous generations, one which some will find excellent and others heretical. Though I was a bit shocked at the drastic redo when BMW's chief designer Chris Bangle unveiled his radical new 5 series in 2003, earning equal amounts of opprobrium and praise, I've gotten pleasantly used to the aggressive cat-eye headlamps, sporty posture, and sculpted backside. The 530xi, dressed up in new threads, certainly looks as tough as Audi's A6 Avant and—I think—is slightly more macho than Mercedes' E-Series wagon.

The 5's looks managed to surprise me in another way. Some BusinessWeek colleagues and I loaded the car's voluminous back with beach gear of all types and headed to the Hamptons—where a $63,375 station wagon was bound to fit in, or at least look good trying. And, even in Southampton, where Bentleys are so common they might as well be Volkswagen Rabbits, the 5 turned (a few) heads.

Looks aside, the 5 has a lot going for it under the hood. Powered by a 3-liter, 255-horsepower, 6-cylinder engine, the wagon goes from zero to 60 in 6.8 seconds with a manual transmission, a mere 0.2 seconds slower than the lighter sedan. Even in the shadow of the steroidal Mercedes, that's very impressive for a wagon.

BMW's press materials quip that the sport wagon puts the "fun in functional." It's an appropriately uncool-Dad joke to make, but it is certainly true. In fact, the wagon is faster than BMW's own entry-level X5 SUV and just as fast as the $53,600 (base) performance-enhanced 4.4i version. Along with decent fuel economy of 20/27 miles per gallon, the car's zippy character is another check in the plus column for the wagon if you're comparing it to an SUV.

BEHIND THE WHEEL.

Driving the 5 wagon, much like driving the 5 sedan, is a pleasure. The steering is nearly perfect and power abounds. I have to say, there's nothing quite like beating wagon-haters' low expectations by zooming ahead of them with that BMW quickness: "Look at all that cargo space whizzing ahead of you, pal." The xDrive system ensures plenty of grip, though I wasn't able to put the car through its all-wheel drive paces due to lack of rain or snow.

True to BMW form, the interior is a mix of sport and luxury. The dark poplar wood trim in my vehicle really gives the dash an above-the-fray quality, as if the 5 weren't happy to merely keep up with what's in fashion elsewhere but preferred to set new trends. Patrician elements like the wood and leather blend naturally with sportier black and silver trim. Cabin-dwellers are swaddles in the swooping lines of the door sills and center console.

BMW's master-of-the-universe iDrive system is standard on all 5s, so get ready to spin the wheel. The much-discussed center console-mounted click wheel is not as hard to use as some have suggested. Yes, sometimes back-tracking is a bit frustrating, but steering wheel-mounted buttons can be customized to take users back to their favorite features, hopping instantly from the navigation to the radio or general settings. Anyone who owns an iPod ought to be able to get the hang of it in short time. For buyers not aware of the iPod's existence, there are voice-activated commands for nearly every feature.

Tech gadgets abound. The car's Bluetooth phone setup was one of the easiest I've ever used in a luxury vehicle. (It was overly complicated in my last Mercedes and just didn't work in an earlier test Infiniti.) Once the initial two-minute setup was complete, the car automatically and wirelessly connected to my phone, piping calls through the audio system and, most importantly, making me look like a tech-pro in the eyes of my colleagues.

The other piece of ooh-ah-eliciting technology is the fully powered back door. Having grown up struggling to open clunky back gates by Volvo and Subaru, it took me an absurdly long time to get used to the fact that opening and closing the trunk is simple as pressing a button. It's an extremely handy feature.

BUY IT OR BAG IT?

The BMW 530xi is fast and fun, it coddles and comforts, and performs its wagon duties with plenty of aplomb. But should you buy it?

As a wagon, the 5 faces some serious competition. Its chief rivals, the Audi A6 and noninsane version of the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, are both from Europe, where the wagon reigns. The A6 is less expensive, the E-Class slightly more powerful, and both cost much less to own and operate over the long term than the 5, according to Edmunds.com. At a price point above $65,000, that might not matter so much.

One quibble: Why didn't BMW give the 5 Series wagon a third row? Mercedes's E-Class wagon has one. Granted, it wouldn't be comfortable for an adult for terribly long, but wagons are aimed at families with kids. Just because you're driving a $50,000-plus car doesn't mean that Dad or Mom don't still have to take their a load of kids for ice cream, pick them up from hockey practice, etc., etc. For that reason alone—and many parents will get this immediately—the BMW falls out of contention.

Despite this real design flaw, and given the interior room and brilliant xDrive system, the 5 wagon is a very exciting alternative to SUVs from BMW and its competitors. In fact, I would heartily recommend throwing this wagon into the mix if you're looking at buying a luxury midsize SUV—assuming you don't have a large family or the kids are grown. Though more expensive, it more than matches its wagon competitors, one-upping them both in the stance and looks departments. If you want a wagon that makes a statement, your ride's arrived.

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