By Charles Dubow

Fast and chiseled, BMW's new 5 series wagon will turn heads, but its high price may scare away some buyers.

During the summer, the Hamptons are as full of beautiful cars as they are of investment bankers and celebrities. It is practically impossible to crawl through traffic on Route 27 or park along Southampton's Main Street without spotting a gorgeously restored vintage Rolls-Royce, a sparkling Aston Martin V12 Vanquish or a lithe Lamborghini Murcielago. And Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs, Jaguars and Range Rovers are so ubiquitous that one barely even notices them.

Unless of course they are so novel that even the most automotively jaded Hamptonite stops and stares. And even asks a few questions.

That was our experience driving the brand-new 2006 BMW 530xi Sports Wagon. Whether at the beach or in town, the car, which went on sale in June, attracted a lot of attention, usually from people who began by saying, "I've got a 2006 7 series?" or "How does it compare to my S-Class?"

There are several reasons for all the curiosity. For one thing, even though it released the sedan in 2004, BMW has not sold a 5 series wagon in the U.S. since 2003, so the appearance of any new BMW after such an absence is still significant to aficionados. For another, unlike the previous wagon, the new version has been redesigned by BMW's Chris Bangle ? the architect behind the rethink of the 3, 5 and 7 Series ? and it looks seriously cool.

Bangle has not only made the new 5 series wagon larger; he has also given it definition. The front boasts sculpting that resembles the kind of chiseled pectoral muscles found on Batman's body armor. The body is long yet powerfully athletic, avoiding any comparison with the majority of soft, bland family cars currently on the road.

Interestingly enough, if there is one wagon the 5 series resembles, it is the very successful and very macho Dodge Magnum, introduced in 2004 by DaimlerChrysler, parent company of BMW's longtime archrival Mercedes-Benz. While the 5 series is not as bulked up as the Magnum, the two share a broad-shouldered similarity that serves to reinforce the fact that both cars are a blast to drive.

They also underscore the point that as soaring gas prices continue to threaten SUV sales, carmakers are going to become increasingly mindful of the importance of wagons. After all, with a few tweaks and embellishments, a wagon can offer much of the same appeal as an SUV ? roominess, power, all-wheel drive ? without sacrificing a car-like ride or lower fuel consumption.

BMW is not the only German luxury automaker that is rethinking its wagons. Like the 5 series wagon, the Audi A6 Avant has also been on hiatus ? the last year was 2004 ? and a completely redesigned 2006 model is due in the showrooms any day now. Considering that in the late 1990s, when the SUV craze was cresting, many industry experts were prophesying the death of the wagon, the arrival of a strong new entrant such as the 530xi gives a good indication of where the industry will be heading in the future. Or at least where it ought to be heading.

There is a great deal that is new about the 2006 Sports Wagon. In fact, when comparing it to the 2003 525i, it is clear that BMW has put in a lot of time and money thoughtfully redesigning the 5 series. Both have been well spent.

There are several changes that stand out: First, as mentioned on the previous page, the sculpted bodywork; second, the introduction of the same terrific 3.0-liter, 24-valve, 255-hp, six-cylinder engine found on the new 3 series; the new xDrive all-wheel-drive system that comes standard on X5 SUVs; a throttleless Valvetronic valve train; a six-speed manual transmission; and a longer wheelbase. Plus a raft of other goodies such as Bluetooth-enabled wireless technology, a panoramic moon roof and the oft-maligned iDrive onboard controls system.

To begin with, the Sports Wagon is quite beautiful both inside and out. The lines of the handsome bodywork are echoed in the interior. The dashboard offers standard wood trim and intelligently placed controls that are easy to operate. Even the iDrive, which plagued us the last time we drove a BMW ? the 760Li ? seemed more refined than we remembered. (Although that could simply be our becoming accustomed to it.)

But we did have a few quibbles about the interior. To begin with, the seats, like most of BMW's traditionally narrow seats, are less comfortable than in a Mercedes-Benz. This, of course, is explained by the company's performance-based heritage, where stiffer seats provide drivers with better feel for the car and the road beneath. For passengers in a station wagon, however, such conformity to custom could have been mitigated by a little extra padding.

Speaking of seats, one huge advantage the E350 wagon has over the 530xi is the presence of an optional, fold-down third row of seats. Maybe the engineers couldn't make one fit or they just decided that it went against the marque's image, but in either case it is a potential drawback. The odds are that the great majority of people who buy the Sports Wagon will be parents with children, and those children have friends, so a lack of a third row can have a real negative impact on outings to birthday parties, the beach, hockey practice, etc. Mercedes understands the point of the third row, and we wish that BMW did too.

But, wagon or not, the point of a BMW is not be driven but to drive, and here the 530xi excels. Its 3-liter, inline 6 engine puts out 255 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque, which can power the 3,847-pound wagon from zero to 60 in an estimated 6.8 seconds. The six-speed manual transmission is smooth, thanks in part to the low-end torque ? not to mention immensely satisfying to drive.

We regretted testing the 5 in the middle of July because the xDrive is justifiably famous for its ice-handling ability. Making it even better on the slippery stuff is the Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), which if one wheel brakes automatically sends the torque to the other. With its low center of gravity, the Sports Wagon would probably be a superior winter driving choice over most SUVs. The only drawback, however, is equally low ground clearance, so if you live in any area that is rarely plowed, you might wind up sacrificing your undercarriage.

Another place where the 5 falls a little short is in cargo room. While its 17.5 cubic feet of cargo room may be enough for many people, it is a little cramped, especially when compared with the 24.4 cubic feet of the 2006 E350 wagon. But in terms of front and rear passenger leg room, the two are practically identical.

Should You Buy This Car?

There is one other glaring and not so welcome change to the 2006 530xi Sports Wagon: the price. BMWs are never inexpensive, but the new Sports Wagon has a MSRP of $51,100 ? nearly $12,000 more than the $39,300 525i. This puts it at roughly the same price level as the $52,300 2006 wagon, but far above the new $46,870 Audi A6 Avant and the Mercedes-Benz E 350 and Saab 9-5 Aero SportWagon, which goes for $40,750.

This price jump is significant enough to prevent a lot of buyers who might have considered the 525i from spending the extra money on the 530xi. The thought of scaring away consumers might seem a bit risky, and BMW must be feeling very confident in taking such a bold step. After spending time in the 530xi, however, it is easy to understand their confidence.

Also, unlike most cars that can lose as much of 50% of their value within three years, BMWs have among the best residual values in the auto industry, often retaining between 50% and 55% of their original value four years after being purchased. So even though it might feel you are shelling out a lot of money to buy the Sports Wagon ? or any BMW ? in the long run, you will be glad you did the next time you go car shopping.

Nevertheless, we cannot wholeheartedly endorse the 530xi Sports Wagon, even though we really want to. Partly it is because of the absence of the third row, which just seems to be such a no-brainer that we are puzzled why BMW left one out. That, and the fact that it has less cargo volume than the E350, also bothers us. We have been big fans of the E-Class wagons and still consider them the class of the field ? from the point of view of comfort and practicality, at least. But we admired the 530xi more than we liked it. It just didn't seem that practical to us, so it begs the question of why one needs to buy a wagon at all when the superb BMW 5 series sedan offers a more thrilling driving experience and a lower MSRP.

Yet there are also many reasons to appreciate the 530xi Sports Wagon, its novelty, power and good looks being chief among them. It is highly likely that anyone lucky enough to buy one will have a hell of a lot of fun with it. One thing is for certain: The Sports Wagon, like most luxury cars, will soon become ubiquitous in the Hamptons.

Specs:

Suspension Type: Front: aluminum double-pivot suspension; rear: aluminum four-link integral suspension.

Engine Type: DOHC 24-valve in-line six cylinder; 3-liter

Horsepower: 255 @6,600 RPM

Torque: 225 pound-feet @2,750 RPM

Acceleration: 0 to 60 in 6.8 seconds (manual)

EPA Mileage: 20 city mpg/ 27-28 mpg highway