2014 BMW 328i xDrive Sports Wagon review: BMW loses its mojo, but options buy it back

2014 BMW 328i xDrive Sports Wagon
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BMW's automatic transmission shifter is an odd-looking thing. Josh Miller/CNET

Diving into the turns, I felt the car's nice balance and very responsive steering, but a lack of power kept the thrills to a minimum. The transmission's sport program turned out to be not all that aggressive. When I floored the gas pedal, the program kicked in, but didn't keep the engine speed much above 4,000rpm. Unlike the brilliant automatic in the Jaguar F-type, the 328i's didn't downshift precisely when I wanted it to.

Tapping the paddle shifters on the steering wheel, I engaged manual mode.

Racing through a tight set of turns, the transmission let me quickly tap down to second, get into the turn, go up to third, then back to second for the next turn. For longer straights, I tapped up to fourth. This was more like it. Not only could I keep the engine speed up above 5,000rpm and get at the engine's peak power, but the transmission proved satisfyingly quick to shift each time I tapped a paddle.

Although it's a standard torque converter automatic transmission, BMW refined this one for excellent performance.

2014 BMW 328i xDrive Sports Wagon
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BMW seems to have lost some of its magic in this latest 3 Series generation. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

However, I didn't feel the 328i's handling was up to that of older models. It felt competent, but didn't offer the kind of exhilaration I've experienced in other cars. Dropping down to the standard Sport mode, which engaged full traction control, was slightly less engaging, although the differences were minor.

One piece of the handling puzzle that really stood out for me was the electric power-steering tuning. The wheel had excellent heft, not too heavy and not too light, and really direct response. I can't think of a car with better tuning on the steering.

This car's xDrive all-wheel-drive system wasn't noticeable during these dry-road cornering exercises, but during a few rounds in the dirt I could feel the front wheels dig in when the rears lost traction. For most people, the 328i's all-wheel drive will play a role in wintery weather.

Boring on demand
Switching between Sport and Comfort modes made a very obvious difference in accelerator response. The detuned accelerator in Comfort mode, which the car defaults to at start, felt adequate but boring. The throttle was less sensitive, which was probably better for fuel economy, but also tended to peel away at BMW's ultimate driving machine phrase. The adaptive suspension also assumed a loose character, although I would hardly call it sheer comfort.

BMW's move to make the 328i's default driving mode feel less lively might come from a desire to make it more of a mass-market vehicle, but other changes show a serious effort to improve fuel economy.

2014 BMW 328i xDrive Sports Wagon
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In BMW nomenclature, TwinPower Turbo means a twin-scroll turbocharger. Josh Miller/CNET

BMW refined the 328i's engine to maximize efficiency. This 2-liter four-cylinder powers a number of BMW models. Direct injection sprays fuel directly into the cylinders, which makes for a more complete burn, while variable valve and camshaft technology help the engine operate optimally at different speeds.

The 328i also benefits from BMW's turbocharging development. The engine uses a twin-scroll turbo, each scroll spun by a different set of cylinder exhaust gasses. That refinement means virtually zero turbo lag. In fact, the only real lag I felt in the car seemed to come from the transmission's hesitation at downshifting.

This engine tech leads to an impressive 240 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque, along with an EPA-rated 22 mpg city and 33 mpg highway. In my driving over a variety of traffic situations and roads, I found mid-20s fuel economy to be completely realistic.

Turning on the 328i's Eco Pro mode helped the fuel economy substantially, something BMW reminded me of with a little display on the instrument cluster showing how many miles driving in this mode added to the range. Between Comfort and Eco Pro modes, I didn't feel a difference in accelerator response. They both seem equally detuned.

Another key fuel-saving technology in the 328i was idle-stop, which shut down the engine at stoplights. This feature can be disturbing if you're not used to it, and BMW's version needs some work. I appreciated that the car wasn't wasting gas while idling at a light, but the engine restart is just a little slower and rougher than it should be. As soon as I lifted my foot from the brake, the engine coughed to life, causing a shudder throughout the car. The minor hesitation before I could go wasn't a problem, as other drivers around me weren't all that quick on the accelerator. I could also turn off idle-stop with a simple button push.

The car was, however, caught flat-footed a couple of times on a hill climb. In traffic, driving up one of San Francisco's notorious hills, I found myself flooring the accelerator and getting very little response for more than a few seconds, until the transmission could figure things out and downshift appropriately.

Mojo optional
I hate to even think it, but the 2014 328i xDrive Sports Wagon makes it look like BMW has lost some of its mojo. From base, I don't think the 328i would show much of the performance flair for which the brand has been known. Options, however, make up the difference. BMW brings some really brilliant technology to improve handling, such as the adaptive suspension and variable steering.

Equally impressive is the car's efficiency technology. BMW has really refined its turbocharging and fuel delivery technology, while also using an eight-speed transmission, giving the car more overdrive gears.

Despite this model offering little in the way of cabin electronics, I did like the standard LCD for its phone and stereo interface. Having previously used most of the electronics options that were not included on this car, I'm rating it highly for what is available. For example, simply adding the Technology package brings in voice command, app integration, the navigation system, and even a HUD.

To bring the 328i xDrive Sports Wagon anything close to its potential, you have to tick off many boxes on the option sheet.

Tech specs
Model 2014 BMW 328i xDrive Sports Wagon
Trim M Sport
Power train Direct-injection turbocharged 2-liter 4-cylinder engine, 8-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy 22 mpg city/33 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy 25.5 mpg
Navigation Optional hard drive-based system with traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources Internet-based radio, Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio, HD Radio
Audio system Optional Harman Kardon 16-speaker system
Driver aids Adaptive cruise control, HUD, blind-spot monitor, automatic parallel parking, surround-view cameras, rearview camera
Base price $41,450
Price as tested $47,750

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