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Perfection Isn’t Cheap

With the BMW's 321 xDrive wagon, you get what you pay for, which means you get a lot. Illustrates WHEELS-BMW (category l), by Warren Brown, special to The Washington Post. Moved Friday, Aug. 16, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: BMW)

With the BMW's 321 xDrive wagon, you get what you pay for, which means you get a lot. Illustrates WHEELS-BMW (category l), by Warren Brown, special to The Washington Post. Moved Friday, Aug. 16, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: BMW)

Cornwall, N.Y. — I once thought the BMW 3-Series wagon an overpriced toy. That was in 2011, before it took much-needed time off for a substantial redesign.

It comes back to us now, initially as the turbocharged, gasoline-fueled 2014 BMW 328i xDrive used for this column. It still carries a hefty price tag — a base price of $41,450 and a price as driven of $51,075 including “M Sport” and other options.

It is worth every cent. I’ll go farther, literally and figuratively in the matter of the 328i xDrive: It is the best entry-level luxury ($40,000 to $60,000), compact family wagon available. That’s “best” in terms of road performance, handling, safety, comfort, and exterior and interior design.

Any number of small wagons beat the 328i xDrive in overall utility and fuel economy — and, of course, price. But none come close to matching it in total package — that combination of performance, handling, top-shelf safety and comfort; good looks inside and out and reasonable utility; grin-forever fun-to-drive and affordable fuel economy.

Here is where you get what you pay for, which means you get a lot.

Let’s start with performance and fuel economy. In the 328i xDrive, BMW has wisely coupled smiles per mile with miles per gallon. The little wagon, currently available only with all-wheel drive, comes standard with a turbocharged (forced-air) 2-liter in-line four-cylinder gasoline engine. But small, in this case, is mighty: a maximum 240 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque.

Federally rated fuel economy of 22 miles per gallon in the city and 33 on the highway is achieved through a variety of technical advances including vehicle weight reduction, start-stop engine technology (the engine stops at red lights and stop signs and automatically starts when the driver’s foot is lifted from the brake pedal), and an eight-speed automatic transmission that also can be shifted manually via paddle shifters mounted left and right behind the steering wheel.

My real-world fuel economy was two miles per gallon less in the city and on the highway, largely because my city driving was in forever-congested Manhattan, some 50 miles south of here, and my highway driving was at a somewhat legally brisk pace up and down Route 9W across Storm King Mountain.

That country road became my private roller coaster in the in the 328i xDrive, even with the required premium gasoline locally priced at $3.99 per gallon. I had lots of fun behind its wheel, a joy enhanced by knowledge that I was driving one of the safest small hatchback wagons on sale.

A possible drawback, from a consumer’s viewpoint, is that so much of the active safety equipment, the stuff that helps you prevent crashing in the first place — parking distance control (front and rear), active blind-spot detection, lane-departure warning, speed-limit warning — is optional in the 2014 BMW 328i xDrive wagon. You can pay as much as $2,600 extra in the wagon’s purchase price for the items just mentioned. But they are worth it, too.

I’ve heard all the complaints about this new wave of automotive technology, mostly snipes from young drivers, men and women, whose egos are grander than their actual driving skills.

I am 65. I drive an average of 36,000 miles annually, many miles more in some years. I’ve been in accidents, none of them my fault, of course. I’ve witnessed every kind of vehicle crash there is to see. I’ve been thoroughly and permanently humbled.

I applaud BMW and other car companies for making advanced safety systems available. I look forward to the time when many of those systems are installed in cars and trucks as standard equipment. In real-world driving, they have saved me from several potentially fatal smash-ups. It shames me not to admit that. I’m thankful that I’m still around to write it.

And then there’s the beauty of it all — the art of the car, if you will. The muscular but inviting exterior sculpture of the 2014 BMW 328i xDrive makes everyone smile. The interior is arranged with ergonomic common sense, including an optional 8.8-inch above-dash display screen, and enhanced with premium materials.

In Manhattan, I usually park at a garage near 87th Street and Park Avenue that is no stranger to expensive automobiles. But the little BMW wagon was a star during the week or so it was lodged there. Parking attendants raced one another to get it. One opined: “This is my favorite car, the prettiest BMW ever.”

I join him in that opinion. I rather suspect that future sales of the wagon will confirm that conclusion.