But over the last 20 years, the German automotive company has experienced massive growth by building handsome, high-quality people movers — sedans, at first, and then SUVs. While one still sees plenty of M- and Z-Class pavement peelers out there, the L.A. roads are host to more sporty sedans and the seemingly ubiquitous X Series luxury utility boxes.
So, what's a 328i xDrive Sports Wagon? It may be the best of both BMW worlds — a sporty grand touring station wagon loaded with luxury appointments, but tough enough to take home the soccer team.
The new and improved 2016 version has upgraded suspension and steering features to sharpen the handling, reduce roll and improve stability. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine now has a sportier gear to play in — a new Sport Plus gear that gets higher revving and the most dramatic performance out of the eight-speed gearbox.
But at its heart, this car occupies that space somewhere between sturdy and stodgy.
A bit thick-bodied, and sitting quite low, this Sports Wagon offers less visibility than some drivers will want. That low center of gravity — and the car's wide, square wheelbase — plant it securely to the pavement. While that makes the 328i a little balky around town, it prepares it well for the open road.
This car loves the freeway, where its German autobahn roots come into focus. Above 50 mph, wearing the standard Pirelli Cinturato tires, the 328i becomes a grand touring car disguised as a runabout for soccer moms and dads — or, given the price tag, lacrosse moms and dads.
BMW gets a lot out of this small engine. It has a very wide power band that starts with a nice low torque at around 1250 rpm and produces strong motion past 6000 rpm, with no drop-off in power as you approach redline.
It holds the road beautifully, and made me long to be making my wintry way up Highway 395 to Mammoth, or somewhere else with the kind of rough weather in which this car excels.
The interior has a private club feel to it: soft surfaces, lush materials. The ride is quiet, with more tire and road noise than engine rumble. A mix of old and new technologies, it has a push-button start and electronic gear selector, but an old-fashioned hand-activated parking brake.
The version I drove came with some special amenities. The "Driver Assistance" package included a rear-view camera. The "Driver Assistance Plus" package offered blind-spot detection and side- and top-view cameras. A lighting package, priced at $800, brought automatic high beams.
It also came with other extras, including keyless entry, an upgraded navigation system as well as heated seats (front and rear) and steering wheel.
That's how a $42,000 car becomes a $57,000 car.
The model I drove also included a head-up display that lighted the inside of the windshield with my speed and the posted speed limit. For a busy Los Angeles driver, this seemed like a wasted opportunity. Why not post the distance to the nearest Starbucks, or the location of the nearest fellow 328i driver? Is there a Tinder for cars?
It also included headlights that swivel from side to side as the steering wheel turns, throwing light into dark corners. This technology may have been introduced on the 1948 Tucker Torpedo, and then discarded, but it still works for me.
The basic 328i Sports Wagon comes with amenities, too — some good, some debatably not so good. The multiple-adjustment seating is extremely comfortable. Also standard are auto-dimming mirrors, a moon roof, active cruise control and automatic climate control.
But it also comes with run-flat tires, which as the name suggests will allow you to keep driving a flat tire — all the way to the dealership, where you will be charged a huge fee to replace the unrepairable run-flat tire.
The 328 Sports Wagon also comes in a less-expensive version, with a smaller engine, that runs on diesel — a vehicle not affected by the "defeat device" scandal that has plagued diesels made by VW and Audi.
Every car is the perfect car for someone, and this is a great car for the right customer. But who is that? BMW doesn't sell very many of them and says 90% of the S Class vehicle sales are in the sedan category.
Further research provided by BMW showed Sports Wagon sales "were approximately 4% of the total BMW 3 Series sales" in 2014, and were expected to be about the same in 2015.
Spokesman Dave Buchko said, "In spite of the relatively low numbers, we continue to offer them because we know these are customers who would generally not consider a BMW [SUV] as an alternative. People who have them love them."
The anecdotal evidence supports that. Several people I met while driving the 328i said things like, "I love that car, but I never see them." Two friends said they had tried to buy Sports Wagons when their kids were younger but were told by the dealers they were hard to come by.
So, the 328i xDrive Sports Wagon? Given its weight and heft, it's probably better for someone driving carpool than racing for pink slips. At $50,000 plus, it may be a little rich for the starting-out family. But that smallish rear passenger compartment is crying out for a car seat.
2016 BMW 328i xDrive Sports Wagon
Times' take: A station wagon with sex appeal
Highs: Sturdy, strong on the highway
Lows: Stodgy, stiff around town
Vehicle type: Four-door, five-passenger, hatchback wagon
Base price: $43,645
Price as tested: $57,620
Powertrain: 2.0-liter four-cylinder twin-turbo gas engine
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Torque: 255 pound-feet
Zero to 60 mph: 6 seconds