c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

Considering the rarity of station wagons in America, BMW’s new tailgating 3 Series set me wondering: Who exactly spends $50,000 or more on a compact wagon, instead of going the usual American route with an SUV or a crossover?

In certain locales scented with artisanal coffee and self-affirmation — college towns, gentrified urban blocks, Ralph Lauren suburbs — the natives have circled the wagons for what may be their last stand. Strangely, considering the station wagon’s wood-paneled role in American cultural history, today’s downsized models rarely seem to have children on board. Instead, they seem to be favored by bearded software developers, practical-performance iconoclasts and empty nesters in mourning for the boxy old Volvos and Subarus they once drove.

Like many people who write about cars, I also have a thing for wagons, the more out-there, the better. For instance, the Cadillac CTS-V, Mercedes E63 AMG and Ferrari FF wagons — the latter the most unexpected of all — make a combined 1,784 horsepower, and their average top speed is nearly 195 mph But you’re as likely to see a Lamborghini at your local Dairy Queen as to spot any of those exotic family haulers pulling up for Xtreme Blizzards.

To ensure their survival, even mainstream wagons may soon need a nature preserve — perhaps a simulated “Leave It to Beaver” environment of pink houses and picket fences.

This year, Americans have just nine wagon models to choose from, down from 24 in 2004, according to LMC Automotive, an industry research firm. Their percentage of the market, not strong to begin with, slipped to 1.1 percent last year, to a paltry 165,000 sales. (A single model, the Subaru Outback, accounted for 112,000 of those.)

As the enlarged version of the latest 3 Series sedan, the 328i xDrive does its part to keep wagons from extinction.

It’s an especially handsome member of its herd, with a squinty version of BMW’s twin-kidney grille and a streamlined, scalloped fuselage.

Compared with the former model, the Sports Wagon has grown 3.5 inches in length and almost 2 inches in wheelbase. The BMW’s track, or the space between the opposing wheels, is 1.2 inches wider up front and 1.6 inches in back. The result is nearly an inch more of legroom in the back seat and an 8 percent increase in cargo volume, to 53 cubic feet.

For all of a wagon’s advantages over SUVs — reduced weight, better aerodynamics and mileage, generally superior handling — its relatively low roofline remains the biggest practical demerit. BMW’s X3 crossover SUV can fit 62 percent more gear behind its second row and nearly 20 percent more overall. That includes taller, bulkier items — furniture, bicycles, boxes — than the wagon can swallow.

Yet the new BMW makes the most of its modest dimensions. The redesign, which includes more high-strength steel, carves out a larger hatch opening. The load floor is lower to the ground, too, for easier lifting of cargo.

A power tailgate opens via the remote key or an interior button. If you order the Comfort Access feature, the tailgate swings open when you wiggle a foot under the rear bumper, a useful hands-free feature first offered by Ford.

The rear seat folds flat in a 40-20-40 arrangement, making it easy to haul, say, four sets of skis for four passengers. The cargo area gets four tie-downs, a 12-volt outlet and coat hooks. With run-flat tires eliminating the spare, there’s extra space under the floor; in a clever touch, the retracting rear luggage cover detaches for storage below deck when it’s not needed. A rear-view camera with a 360-degree top-down view, part of a $1,900 Driver Assistance Package, made it a breeze to park without scraping the pretty 18-inch alloy rims on the curb.

Figuring there’s no sense importing myriad models to satisfy a tiny cult of American wagon enthusiasts, BMW offers only xDrive all-wheel-drive versions with the excellent eight-speed automatic transmission. So there’s no rear-drive version, no manual transmission and no 335i variant with its turbocharged 300-horsepower in-line 6.

What BMW does offer is gasoline and diesel engines whose performance and mileage are unmatched in its field. The 328i gets the two-liter turbo TwinPower 4 with 241 horses and 258 pound-feet of torque. That gas-burning wagon hustles to 60 mph in six seconds, with the free-revving brio and wall-to-wall torque that’s a signature of this remarkable motor.

Stand outside, and you’ll hear the engine’s tick-tick idle and direct-injector noise, but the uncouth behavior disappears once the car is under way. The same can’t be said for the standard engine stop-start function, which restarts the car at stoplights with an intrusive shudder.

The 328i is also rated at 22 mpg in town and 33 on the highway, and that’s no fooling. Set to its EcoPro mode, the BMW actually indicated 35 mpg over a long 60 mph cruise — commendable economy for such a strong, relatively spacious car.

Premium fuel, of course, is required.

That Eco Pro setting saves gas by softening the accelerator response, selecting higher gears and dialing back the power to systems like the heated seats and climate control. Drivers can select Comfort and Sport settings as well.

As in other BMWs with this small-caliber engine, the wagon sipped responsibly even when my driving was anything but. Hammered from New York to Boston in a convoy with a Corvette and two German sedans, the BMW still returned 30 mpg.

A truly miserly wagon master can opt for the diesel version, the 328d xDrive, which starts at $43,875, a reasonable $1,500 premium over the gasoline-sipping car. The 328d’s two-liter turbodiesel — with 180 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque — is rated 31 mpg city, 43 highway. (The same diesel engine in the rear-drive 328d sedan achieves 32/45 mpg.)

Nor is the diesel wagon a slouch in acceleration, moving from a standstill to 60 mph in 7.7 seconds.

BMW says the new wagon’s structure is 10 percent stiffer. Ride quality, even with the run-flat tires, is smoother than Robin Thicke at a Ladies’ Night.

Yet there’s a growing chink in the BMW’s once-impregnable armor. This is the softest, spongiest 3 Series I can recall, with too little feedback from the electric power steering. The steering is accuracy itself, and the BMW will still fly through curves. But on initial flights, neither the car nor the driver gains the confidence you expect from this handling benchmark. Opting for the $1,000 Dynamic Handling Package, which adds variable sport steering and a stiffer M sport suspension, should help firm the flab. But let’s hope that the coming 4 Series coupe can provide a template for BMW to get the 3 Series back on the fun-to-drive track.

As ever with BMW, if you get the options, the options get you. Savvy dealers will invite prospects to luxuriate inside models with Sport Line, Luxury Line, Modern Line or M Sport Line packages, which run from $2,200 to nearly $4,000. That still leaves many more option packages to dither over: Lighting ($900), Cold Weather ($950), Driver Assistance Plus ($1,900), Premium ($2,200) and Technology ($3,150). I scoured BMW’s online configurator for the Money Saving Package, but couldn’t find it.

From a $42,375 base, an exploding pińata of options blew the window sticker of my 328i test car to $55,900. Even the gray metallic paint added $550.

That’s a lot of money for a compact wagon, even one as resplendent and advanced as the BMW. Perhaps that’s why bearded software developers in Silicon Valley are still fond of German sport wagons: They can actually afford one.