There's a long and noble tradition of sport wagons in Europe that for some reason has never fully translated to this side of the Atlantic. The concept of moving more than two people plus cargo efficiently, comfortably and with agility seems like a no-brainer, but the glut of SUVs and minivans on the freeways suggests most Americans don't share this view.
Fortunately, there's a hard-core group of Europhiles who understand the advantages and enjoy the cool factor of owning something out of the ordinary. Audi and Mercedes currently offer some of the most desirable sport wagons on the planet, even if not all of them are available here (that means you, Audi RS4). And while BMW hasn't had any such product to stir the emotions for a few years, it does at least acknowledge the existence of a small, loyal band of wagon aficionados and services them with a stylish 3 Series wagon.
Two such BMW wagon fans are the owners of the cars seen here. Both have owned a series of performance cars in the past, but circumstances led them down similar wagon trails.
The 2014 F31 BMW 328i xDrive belongs to Stan Chen, events and motorsport manager at Toyo Tire USA. Long-standing European Car enthusiasts might remember him as the founder of tuning shop DTM Autohaus, a company he established in 2000 that spawned a series of cover and feature cars for our sister publication Eurotuner magazine.
Chen sold that business in 2004 before joining Toyo, during which time he drove a modified 5 Series. He had hankered after a station wagon for many years, but his wife, Chelsea, was the main obstacle to this plan. The imminent birth of their first child, Valentina, tipped the balance in his favor.
Since they live in one of the trendier parts of Southern California, the Mercedes E-Class wagon was ruled out because it wouldn't fit their garage. So the choice narrowed down to the Audi allroad and the BMW, with the 328i xDrive getting the nod because Mrs. Chen didn't like the Audi's plastic cladding.
Decision made, the next step was finding a car, since few dealers carried stock. However, that can be an advantage if it's been sitting on the lot for a few weeks. Snagging a good deal, Chen immediately set about sourcing parts and planning his SEMA 2014 build. The car will be displayed on the Toyo Treadpath, if you'd like to see it in person.
A veteran of the tuning industry, Chen mapped out a strategy. It involved a host of big names to ensure a quality build, beginning with the M Performance online catalog at bmwusa.com. BMW's entry into the aftermarket business has provided a selection of high-quality parts that can be ordered from any BMW dealer and even added to the vehicle's finance plan.
In this instance, BMW was one of the few resources, but these parts were only intended for cars with the M Sport trim package. Fortunately, the company offers an M Sport retrofit kit, allowing owners of lesser models to update their bumpers to the higher specification. With the new bumpers in place, Chen could fit the M Performance three-piece front splitter and rear diffuser. He also added the side blades and tailgate spoiler.
Everything was color-matched to the white exterior—with the exception of the splitter and diffuser, which were painted in the same charcoal gray as the HRE wheels. The side skirts also received a splash of gray before Porsche Irish Green was applied to strategic areas such as the wheel rims and leading edges of the spoilers.
A similar green stripe was applied along the sides, which older enthusiasts might recognize as a tribute to the AC Schnitzer ACS3 CSL II. The Coupe Lightweight Silhouette II was based on the E36 M3 and caused a stir when it was unveiled in the mid-'90s. Finished in a similar green, it had yellow highlights, which Chen has echoed with his Ferrari-yellow M Performance brake calipers—another official accessory that uses multi-piston Brembo brakes as part of the package.
The Thule roof box continues the white and green color scheme. This addition hasn't won universal approval from his better half, but Chen rationalizes it by being able to keep his car care products separate from the baby formula. It's also in the fine European tradition of packing everything you have into a small vehicle and traveling long distances, so this combination of wagon and roof box is a common sight across the Old World.
HRE's Vintage Series mesh wheels bring more retro nostalgia. These 20-inch custom-painted rims support all-season Toyo Proxes 4 Plus tires that allow the family the chance to explore winter slopes. Ordinarily, this would be a fine choice for the 328i xDrive, but Chen has extracted more horsepower with a piggyback control module from the ECU Tuning Group. It's claimed to provide a healthy power increase, although we're not able to verify any numbers. However, it does suggest that a set of Toyo's high-performance summer tires might be needed soon.
Chen ensured the wagon would sound more purposeful with a cat-back MXP exhaust (previously known as Mevius) with four black chrome tips. Fortunately, the noise isn't loud enough to disturb the sleeping offspring.
The interior "only" has a set of Recaro Sportster CS front seats, but such a well-equipped wagon needed little else. Chen did visit Alpine Coding to have all the European options activated on the car, so it now has emergency brake lights, an M Performance logo on the dash at start-up, the ability to turn off the daytime running lights and tire pressures displayed by the TPMS. With the parts assembled and the car built in a hectic two days at The Shop in Culver City, California, this F31 cuts through traffic with panache. It's a modern car with retro accents and proves that it's possible to stand out from the crowd without having to make sacrifices in style or performance.
James Camarador from La Canada, California, had a similar desire to create an interpretation of the ultimate 3 Series wagon. His starting point was the previous-generation E91, taking obvious inspiration from the M3.
Again, Camarador is a mainstay of the West Coast tuning community, previously known for a 2000 Honda Civic (EK) and later an E46 M3. His current fleet includes a modified 997.2 Porsche 911 GT3, Lexus lS 460, right-hand-drive S13 Nissan 240SX, Honda Element daily driver and this wagon.
When he bought his 2007 BMW 328i last year, he fully intended to modify it heavily, but took his time finding the right shop. Anyone who pays attention to the SoCal BMW tuning scene won't be surprised to learn Camarador eventually arrived at the door of our good friend at LTMotorwerks. Long Tran and his crew had recently completed an M3 conversion on another E91. So with all the research and development carried out on the first car, "the second would be a breeze," Tran assured him.
Creating a convincing M3 conversion is far from plain sailing, however. The first task is sourcing the many parts. This included the entire M3 front end: bumper, radiator support, hood, headlights, air ducts, fenders and bellypan. Everything fits fairly easily, but it has to be aligned properly, which takes most of the time.
The hardest aspect of the swap was the rear end. Although the E91 wagon is similar to the E90 sedan, there are differences, particularly around the lights and tailgate. As a result, fitting the rear bumper was a real challenge. And to make it harder, it must be aligned with the M3 rear quarter-panels, which also have to be grafted precisely into position. These then dictate the location of the side skirts. Oh, and all four M3 fender liners are required to complete the project properly.
The LTMW team is adept at bodywork and soon had the wagon bulging in all the right places. They then painted it in the E46 M3's distinctive Laguna Seca Blue to ensure an eye-catching finish.
Beyond its M3 panels, the 328i also sports a GT4-style dry carbon-fiber front lip from Vollkommen Design as well as M Performance black grilles. LTMW even carried out an LCI upgrade, using the later window trim and taillights. This sounds easy enough, but actually delayed the project for four weeks while awaiting delivery of the trim from Germany, since it wasn't offered as an option in the United States.
The carbon lip must fear for its life because, thanks to the AirREX air suspension, Camarador can bring it into contact with terra firma at the touch of a button on the digital display. With AirREX bags at each corner, a five-gallon air tank and a Viair compressor, Camarador is able to set it low for show. However, he's also able to raise the car and drive it home. Not that he does. He likes to have it slammed at all times, with his cruising setting lower than most people would dare.
The eagle-eyed will have noticed that not only does the E91 wagon wear a set of highly desirable staggered BBS E88 wheels, but they're a different color on either side. This might be partially our fault.
You see, Camarador runs a business called Floss Design. He refinishes wheels or creates custom finishes to customers' specifications. When he asked us what color we'd like to see the wheels, we couldn't decide between silver or gold. So he gave us both options. At least it supports our dilemma, because even now we can't decide which we prefer.
Behind the wheels is a set of M Performance big brakes with the calipers painted yellow. There's also a BurgerTuning Juice Box piggyback ECU to provide the straight-six with a little more pep. Why doesn't the car have a more potent powerplant? "The M3 bodywork represents the first stage of a comprehensive conversion, but it's also expensive," Camarador said. "So while major engine work is planned, the car remains at stage one for the time being. We hope to either fit the new ESS supercharger for the original 3.0-liter engine or transplant the M3 V8."
As it stands, Camarador loves cruising in his stanced 328i. He occasionally uses its cargo hold for business purposes, but mostly he enjoys people's reactions when they first spot the Laguna Seca M3—a rare occurrence in its own right. What gives him the most satisfaction, though, is the subsequent double take when they realize it's a wagon.