When I pressed the voice command button on the steering wheel of the 2014 328i xDrive Sports Wagon, nothing happened. No voice prompt and no helpful list of commands on the car's LCD, nothing at all. The button was merely a tease for an option not included on this particular example of the model.
Likewise, after pairing my phone with the Bluetooth hands-free system in the car, I looked under the available audio sources and did not find Bluetooth streaming. Unlike any other automaker, BMW gives you Bluetooth calls for free, but makes Bluetooth streaming as an audio source optional.
The 328i xDrive Sports Wagon is BMW's newest wagon, and one of only a handful of wagons available on the market. It comes with BMW's 2-liter four-cylinder engine, and eight-speed automatic transmission, and that's about it.
Where normally I look forward to reviewing a BMW, I was beginning to have my doubts about this car.
It's not that BMW doesn't have good technology. The option list for the 328i shows a Technology package with navigation, app integration, Bluetooth audio streaming, and even a head-up display. Optional driver assistance features include adaptive cruise control, a blind-spot monitor, and automated parallel parking.
I would think, in a car that bases over $40,000, at least a few of these features should come standard.
Despite the lack of electronics, the 328i featured an LCD panel perched on the dashboard that showed the stereo, hands-free phone controls, and vehicle information. The iDrive controller, a dial surrounded by buttons, let me choose menu items from the screen.
I was pleased to see that BMW made the LCD standard, as it made choosing music from a USB device plugged into the car or picking a name off my paired phone's contact list easy. And even though I only sporadically drive BMWs equipped with iDrive, I found using the controller very intuitive. Driving down the freeway, I could use the controls by touch and only needed to glance at the screen to find the music or phone contacts I wanted.
Satellite radio was optional, so not included in this car, but HD Radio for the FM band came standard. Also standard were a USB port and auxiliary input in the console. I was unimpressed to see a Y-adapter in the console, one end having a 30-pin old-style iOS device connector and the other a USB plug paired with a one-eighth-inch audio plug. To use it, I had to connect one of Apple's Lightning connection adapters for my iPhone 5.
It is ridiculous that BMW still uses this antiquated Y-adapter in a 2014 model. Not only is it annoying to string adapters together, the audio quality suffers.
I spent most of my drive time in the 328i listening to music on a USB drive. In the car's favor, the stereo parsed the ID3 tags for the music files on the USB drive, presenting a music library on the screen with categories for album, artist, and genre.
Left to the option list was a 16-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, which I sorely missed as I listened to the uninspired reproduction from the car's stock seven-speaker system. The stock system had very limited bass and little power, resulting in flat tones. I could hear reasonable detail in music I played, but the frequency response sounded very narrow.
Beyond stereo and phone, the 328i's screen serves to show trip information and the car's manual, the latter feature an excellent move by BMW. The onscreen manual makes it very easy to look up the car's quirks, such as the double-pull on the release lever required to open the hood.
Digging further into iDrive, I was able to configure two of the 328i's four drive modes. With a rocker switch on the console, I could select from Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport, and Sport Plus modes. The Eco Pro settings menu let me choose whether it would affect the car's climate control. For the Sport settings, I could choose whether that mode would affect the throttle, suspension, or both.
That suspension setting only came courtesy of one of the two options that actually were equipped on this car, the Dynamic Handling package. Not only did it bring in adaptive dampers, but also BMW's variable steering technology, which changes the steering ratio depending on cornering speed.
Without the Dynamic Handling package, this 328i would have been about as interesting as beige wallpaper.
For this 3 Series generation, BMW dialed back the performance character. With older BMWs, you could pick just about any model and be assured of excellent handling right off the lot. Now, a base-level 3 Series doesn't distinguish itself much from the competition. You can get classic BMW handling, but only after adding a few important performance options.
Along with Dynamic Handling, this example came with the M Sport package, adding aerodynamic pieces, cosmetic elements, and BMW's M suspension. I'm really not sure if the M suspension makes a difference when you have an adaptive suspension. I would think the sport setting on the dampers would do the same thing as M suspension tuning.
To get the most out of the 328i, and find out if the phrase Sports Wagon held any water, I punched in the Sport Plus setting, which not only put the throttle and suspension in sport mode, but also engaged BMW's Dynamic Traction Control, a traction control program that lets the rear wheels slide out a bit in the curves.
Slamming the shifter into the Sport gate as well, I set off down a twisty back road determined to find out if this car was really an ultimate driving machine.