Ever notice that when a new product is introduced, we automatically begin ringing the death knell for its competition?

Television was supposed to kill radio. Newspapers were supposed to fall first to TV, then TeleText, then the Internet. High-tech building materials meant bricks were obsolete, and I remember when "Life" folded the first time, everyone said that was the end of magazines. When it folded the second time, no one even noticed.

Sure, not everything gets a new lease on life. Buggy whips and button hooks probably won't come back. But how do you explain the continual reincarnation of lava lamps and hula hoops?

Same with station wagons. Turns out their death was as greatly exaggerated as Bob Hope's. It didn't seem possible that the dowdy wagon could hold on against the minivan monsoon of the '80s and the sport-utility tsunami of the '90s, but hold on they have.

Apparently, station wagons fill a niche that vans and SUVs don't, and I think it is this: They provide just enough utility — extra cargo capacity when needed — without the van/SUV downsides of too big, too thirsty, too cumbersome and too expensive.

Ironically, the minivan and sport-ute manufacturers have spent the past 10 years struggling to make their sport-utes and minivans what station wagons have remained all along: "carlike."

That's because wagons have never stopped being cars. This week's test ride, the 2000 BMW 323i Sport Wagon is pretty much the same vehicle as the BMW 3-series coupes and sedans, which are the most desirable of Germany's vaunted "Ultimate Driving Machines" because they're the ones that more people can — just barely — afford.

The BMW name carries mucho status, it's products are all fun to drive, one's image as a person of discriminating taste is there for all to see (as is one's image as a yuppie snob, but you can't have everything) and on those rare occasions when one finds a road free of orange barrels and signs proclaiming "Fines double for speeding in work zones," then one can rediscover the joys of a car made for driving, not just transporting.

Not that the 323i is a road rocket. The Sport Wagon has the smaller of BMW's two 3-series engines, a 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter aluminum in-line six-cylinder with dual overhead cams, four valves per cylinder and variable valve timing.

The 328i has a larger, 2.8-liter power plant that brings 23 more ponies to the party (and also adds more than $5,000 to the bottom line) but it's a moot point because BMW has decided not to offer the more potent power plant in the Sport Wagon for U.S. consumption.

Still, the 323 is no slug as station wagons go. It can sprint from zero to 60 mph in less than 8 seconds, which is not sizzling but should dust most minivans and SUVs.

BMW's 3-series offers a pretty broad range, including a two-door coupe, four-door sedan, a convertible and the vehicle with which we are concerning ourselves today, a station wagon or "Sport Wagon" in BMW-speak.

Although BMW has been offering some of its models in wagon configuration since 1971, I believe this is the first time the company's offered it in the 3-Series. By far, the most popular BMW wagon is its 5-Series, which I reviewed last September. The 5-Series is BMW's middle-of-the-road lineup; if we were talking General Motors it would be a Buick or maybe an Oldsmobile.

It's just enough larger than the 3-Series to work really well as a family car, and it probably makes the most sense as a wagon. But my tester last September stickered out at $44,215, and that was the "low-end" 528i model. The 540i Sport Wagon with a 282-horsepower V8 had a bottom line of more than $53,000, which pretty much puts it out of the range of most soccer moms and into the realm of families who car-pool the neighborhood kids to the local polo field.

All of which makes the 323i Sport Wagon look a lot tastier with its base price of $29,200. Of course we can't forget the options, can we? My tester was outfitted with a $2,900 "Premium Package," which added a power glass sunroof, interior trim pieces made of something called myrtlewood, six-way power front seats with memory, a front center armrest, auto-dimming interior mirror, leather steering wheel, cruise control, upgraded interior lighting and one of those on-board computers that seem to be de rigueur for luxury cars these days.

A CD player upped the ante another $200, and $570 in delivery charges brought the bottom line to $32,870.

Fuel mileage is rated at 20 mpg in city driving and 29 on the highway.

My tester came with BMW's lovely five-speed manual transmission, but an automatic is available for an extra $1,275, although most Bimmerphiles believe that adding a slushbox negates much of the BMW experience. (It's part of the snooty "driving machine" cachet noted above). Also, the auto tranny will likely add about 1.5 seconds to your 0-60 time.

Usually, taking a car like BMW and converting it into a station wagon body style tends to cancel out the prestige factor, but I think the 323i may be an exception. Volvo wagons have always looked sleeker and sexier than the marque's sedans, and something similar can be said of the 3-series wagon.

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In case you go off thinking the 323i Sport Wagon is competition for full-size American wagons in the cargo department, I assure you it is not. While it's roomy by BMW 3-Series standards it really doesn't hold a lot of stuff. The space behind the rear seats is said to hold 26 cubic feet of whatever will fit and that figure jumps to some 48 cubic feet when you fold the rear seat backs flat. That's not much by American wagon standards.

And while the 323i is marketed as a five-passenger wagon, it's best if the three back-seat passengers aren't grown-ups.

A case can be made that with the 323i, the wagon configuration is a more dynamic body style than the same car in sedan trim, but I'm sure much of the Bimmer faithful will disagree. However, since I have a newspaper column and they don't, all they can do is send me nasty e-mails. I look forward to reading every one.


E-mail: max@desnews.com

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