While traditionally Audi held the reigns in the U.S. fast wagon scene and there’s news that could resume with the return of the RS6, more recently it’s been rival BMW who has offered enthusiasts a dose of quick 5-doors. Like Audi, BMW had two flavors of wagons in the 2000s; the 5-series Sports Wagon was dropped for the U.S. after 2010, but did breifly offer a turbocharged inline-6 that could be mated to a 6-speed manual. The 3-series Sports Wagon still soldiers on in the market today and you can find a few at dealers, but the bad news is that it, too, has been removed from its ever shrinking fan base. On top of that, BMW never offered the top-tier motors with the 3, and more recently even gave up on the signature manual option. These are dark days, my manual-loving friends.
Luckily for us, though, that hasn’t stopped some individuals from saying ‘why not?’ and combining the best attributes of BMW’s sportier Coupes with their versatile wagon:
Update 8/30/18: The asking price has dropped from the original $32,995 to $28,995 now.
While it was Audi who cut their teeth in the fast wagon market, the S6 Avants we saw the other day were the end of an era for the marque in the U.S.. Sure, the A6 3.0T Avant carried on and was just as quick, but its sales numbers dwindled as the naughts came to an end, and it was removed from the market in 2011. The A4 soldiered on, but even its offerings were slashed – first to fall was the S4 Avant, followed by the normal A4. Today, you can only get the automatic 2.0T Allroad if you want a 5-door Audi.
It was BMW who picked up the reigns of big sporty German wagons in the 2000s, with V8-equipped E39s leading towards the E61. Not to be outdone, the E46 introduced American customers to the smaller 3-series wagon for the first time (though it had been around for 2 prior generations) and that continued with the E91.
However, even though BMW offered two wagons right through 2010, they were rewarded with minuscule amounts of sales. In 2009, the company sold 1,430 3-series Sports Wagons in the U.S. – accounting for only 2% of sales of the E9x here. It was just as bad for the 5-series with 878 sold, so the company dropped it from the U.S. lineup in 2010. Frankly, it’s amazing that BMW continued to sell wagons at all here.
But they did, and you could order yourself up a neat sporty wagon. It wasn’t an M3, true, but the N52K-equipped 328i produced 230 horsepower and could be opted in rear-drive, 6-speed manual configuration with the M-Sport suspension:
Good news! I’ve found another “Unicorn” for your consideration. Now, truth told the E91 isn’t a particularly rare car. There are plenty up for sale every day of the week, since they are really just getting to the sweet spot where the first and (for early examples) second owners dump them. And of those that you can find for sale today, the all-wheel drive 328xi isn’t particularly rare, either. But what is not seen very often is the combination of those two factors plus a stick in the center console which can be articulated in 7 different positions. That’s right, we have a unicorn manual! Such is the unicorn status of this unicorn that “Unicorn” is even included in the sales title of the unicorn! You’d be forgiven for thinking that BMW dealers had a special option box that you could select for your unicorn badge.
Salesman: Now that you’ve selected all your other options, I’m going to tell you about one final “dealer special” option we can offer you – but it’s only for select, and discerning customers!
Rich Plebian: Uh, okay, what is it?
S: It’s the not offered to public “Unicorn” option
RP: “Unicorn”? Like, horned mythological beast?
S: Yes, exactly. The Unicorn Package is option code 785.
RP: Okay, what does it get me?
S: You get to tell everyone how unique your mass produced car is.
RP: Wait, it gives me special powers?
S: No, you just get to say that your car is more special than the other cars that are exactly like it.
RP: Well, people have always told me how special I am, so sign me up!
Thus, when it comes time to sell your unicorn package car, you too can tell everyone that this was the only one that’s like it! Except for the other ones that are like it. But don’t mind them. Let’s look at this one!
Perusing the classifieds for interesting wagons this week, I came across quite a few and thought it would be a good chance to look at some sporty 5-doors. To level the playing field slightly, all are automatics. While that may cause some of you to groan, they make up for a lack of manual with distinctive styling, plenty of power and rarity that will set you apart from the crowd. Which is the one you’d choose?
Rightly so, I’ve been accused of comparing everything to BMWs – so for today’s 10K Friday, I thought why not compare BMWs to BMWs? Part of the reason I compare various cars I write up to the alternative BMW products is because for some time they have been considered the benchmark, and their popularity from new to the used classic market means that they set the pricing trends against which others can be judged. That’s especially true of the 3 series; for some time, the go-to performance product from Germany, increasingly many earlier generations of the 3 are being viewed as not only collectable, but indeed as investments. So, what does your $10,000 budget buy these days? I’ve rounded up five examples from the first five generations, covering nearly every configuration the small executive platform has been available in. Which is the winner?
I had this perhaps unrealistic hope that within the next year, a replacement for my Passat was going to become available from Volkswagen. But the promise of the new Golf Sportwagon Alltrack with a manual and TDi motor – even better, in GTD trim – has been slowly evaporating. First was the news that the Alltrack was delayed until 2017; well, I’ve waited this long since the Quantum Syncro, so okay, I’ll wait another few years. Then came the news that it would only arrive in 1.8T form with the DSG automatic. Like many other wagon hopefuls over the past few years, that was very disappointing to say the least. That doesn’t even begin to encompass the problems Volkswagen has encountered in the past week, as the promise of TDi becomes the new “unintended acceleration” for the brand. So where is a fan of 5-doors to look when considering a newer, all-wheel drive manual sport wagon? Audi? No, like Volkswagen, Audi has decided that the car should shift for you. Instead, it is BMW where you can most recently get your manual sport all-wheel drive wagon jollies in a package which even they have done away with; the classic inline-6, a 6-speed manual and all-wheel drive:
Over the past few years, my wife and I have had an ongoing conversation about what would replace her 2006 Subaru Outback. It’s not that we don’t like the car; in fact, quite the opposite. Subaru really stepped up the quality and look of the fourth generation Legacy and made it close to comparable to the European counterparts. A svelte exterior was matched by a luxurious interior, a great all-wheel drive system, and the theory of Subaru reliability. But there are several places where the Legacy, despite it’s massive popularity, shows its budget origins. The ride is great as long as the roads aren’t rough and are reasonably straight; it doesn’t really like corners much and if there is a bump mid corner prepare for you and your passengers to look a bit like bobble head dolls. Then there’s the transmission; if you went with the Limited spec like my wife originally did, you got the nicer interior wood finish, climate control and leather seats – but the manual was opted out, making them automatic only. Couple that automatic to the 2.5 liter boxer 4 and saddle it with the best part of 4,000 lbs and the result is anemic. But the real thorn in the side has been the reality of fourth generation Subaru ownership; far from trouble free, the Outback has eaten its headgaskets, wheel bearings, batteries and brakes like it’s going out of style. I think when you purchase something like an Audi or BMW wagon, you expect that once it’s outside of warranty there will be a big occasional repair – that’s the trade off for the luxury and performance of the nicer marques. But in a Subaru? It’s then when the other shortcomings really begin to wear on your patience and you begin to think of alternatives. While my natural inclination has been to look at the benchmark for performance luxury all-wheel drive wagons – Audi’s Avants – ironically it’s been BMW who has offered more options in recent years, such as this lovely sport wagon E91 Sports Wagon:
If you asked a random person on the street which was more rare, an E91 wagon with a manual transmission or an Audi R8, I guarantee you that the majority of folks would say the R8. They would of course be wrong because an average of 1,500 wagons came to the U.S. annually with a estimated maximum of 5% being manuals. That lumps this example in with rare gated manuals like Ferrari F430s or Aston Martins. Of course most people look at this car and just see another AWD wagon suited for life in a mountain town. In my opinion, that is a big part of the appeal and though it’s not nearly as powerful as an Audi S4, I think these M-Sport package cars are equally as special. I have yet to get a chance to drive on with a manual but I know how well they handle and as someone who owned a B7 S4 Avant, I have to say the BMW was more enjoyable for spirited driving. Sure, you don’t get the V8 wail like you do with the S4 or an AMG wagon but the venerable 3.0L I-6 can sing a pleasing song with the right upgrades, particularly an M-Sport exhaust and headers.
I’ll be the first to admit that I was very late to the E91 touring party. When it debuted, I was still far more interested in the Audi S4 and Subaru Legacy Turbo. In fact, up until I began to take a healthier interest in the world of BMWs, I didn’t associate the brand with AWD long roofs at all even though they have a storied history within the segment. When I thought of BMW wagons I thought of a ’91 525i that belonged to some friends of my parents. At the time that car seemed like nothing special but oh if I could turn back the clock and get my hands on it now I’d be a happy man. Dark green with a brown leather interior, M Parallel wheels, let me tell you, that thing was gorgeous. The idea that BMW made a nice wagon began to percolate and it wasn’t long before I found myself adding the E91 to my regular internet searches.
While we certainly all love the idea of the pavement-stomping, Bahn-burner muscle wagons, sometimes that just isn’t practical. Yes, I dream of RS6 Avants, smile at the many E63 Wagons in my area and fanboyishly took tons of iPhone pictures when I saw an M5 Touring (with foreign plates), but those crazy longroofs are as expensive and rare as they are awesome. For the family-man enthusiast, a spruced-up standard model can be a more achievable dream. Today’s E91 fits that bill perfectly, accentuating the sharp, long lines of this generation of 3-series wagons with an M3 front bumper and very low coilovers. The OEM+ look is continued with 19″ Style 95 wheels off a 7-series, while the car also comes with blacked-out 5-series rims as well as the originals. The clean look is continued inside with a gorgeous brown leather interior. It may not be the craziest performer, but it’s a beautiful and useful wagon that will make trips to school, the grocery store, and sports practices a little more special.