By Curt Wilson:
A semi-voluntary job-related change of location had left me at an impasse. I moved from Las Vegas, where a day below 40ºF is a rarity—snow is an outright calamity—to Washington, DC, where pothole-ridden streets are common and surprise snowstorms in April aren’t much of a surprise. This is all-wheel-drive country, and my previous E92 and F80 M3s equipped with R-compound tires wouldn’t make it far on these snow-and-ice-laden roads.
In addition to the terrible driving conditions, the real-estate contrast between the two cities meant that I had a serious garage-space problem at my price point; the golden days of a daily beater and a garage-queen show car were over—I would have to combine project and daily cars. My family had grown to two kids and a large dog, which meant my new AWD project daily needed to be versatile and have plenty of hauling space. Was this the life change that would finally bring my sports/show-car days to an end?
Unwilling to accept a total departure from enthusiast cars, I formed a list of initial options for my new project; the list included BMW’s 330xi Touring and 440xi GC, the new Audi S5 four-door, the Mini Clubman S, Audi’s Allroad, X1, and VW’s GTI sport wagon. I must admit that the draw to Audi was very strong this time around, and had they offered an S4 Touring, I might have made the switch. The S5 was an interesting new model, but something about the rear quarter panels and the way they made the rear wheel wells look disproportionately small ultimately turned me away.
After weeks of test drives, I had narrowed my decision down to the 440i xDrive Gran Coupé and the 330i xDrive wagon. Fall programs greatly favored the F31, so I made the decision to pick up the new Smash Wagon project!
Over years of modifying BMWs, I recall my initial mindset of caring only about cheap speed. This mindset manifested as pride in my ability to make my car, an ’07 335i at the time, as fast as achievable with as little investment as possible; it had nothing to do with the fact that I was a young professional on a budget (it did).
As I matured, my salary matured with me, and I found myself able to afford more expensive models—with more expensive modifications. To be honest, I went overboard with my E92 M3, complete with supercharger, roll cage, and racing seats; it was incredible, but also uncomfortable and stressful to drive. When I switched to my F80, I focused on the things I liked most from my more extreme builds in the past. I purposefully left out the mods that caused stress and discomfort, like the racing seats and tweaked-out motor. Carryover items were the KW Clubsport suspension, BMW M Performance interior bits, HRE wheels wrapped in Michelin tires, and customized bits from iND Distribution.
I further refined this philosophy of no-stress mods with the Smash Wagon.
Which brings us to the first phase of my build, which I have dubbed OEM Plus Plus. This phase is comprised of M Performance front splitter, rear diffuser, side-skirt extensions, and BMW roof-rack system (with 320 roof box) for the exterior additions. For performance enhancements, I chose M Performance brake kit, DinanTronics tune, and a Dinan sport exhaust with black tips.
I’ve come to appreciate the M Performance line for a few reasons:
- All the parts are 100% OEM fitment, which equates to a guaranteed no-headache installation process.
- A lot of M Performance products are re-branded top-tier parts from manufacturers like Brembo and KW.
- While these parts are not as extreme as some other aftermarket offerings, they provide closely comparable performance and have become surprisingly affordable, especially through high-volume retailers like bmwpartspros.com.
Over a multitude of aftermarket options, I chose to go with Dinan for the performance enhancements of sport exhaust and tune. The DinanTronics tune nets an impressive 40 horsepower and 60-pound-feet bump over stock, and their sport exhaust is the perfect balance of aggressive growl without intrusive noise. Coming from the M3, I obviously was left wanting with the factory power; thankfully, the Dinan parts transformed the Smash Wagon from slouch to spirited. The B48 engine is still pretty new, and one of the first companies to come out with parts was Dinan, due to their close relationship with BMW and skilled team of engineers.
From years of experience in modding BMW motors, I have learned that cheap speed often comes with limp-home mode, boost leaks, problems at the dealership, and flame wars when troubleshooting/notifying the community of your problems. As a refreshing contrast, Dinan parts come with a limited warranty on top of your existing warranty, and typically are sold and installed at your local BMW dealer.
All of this boils down to OEM quality plus OEM fitment plus performance with no stress about warranty or compatibility problems equals OEM Plus Plus.
Keeping in line with the no-compromise nature of this build, I returned to a series of brands I like to call “the usual suspects” for the second phase of the project. These companies have earned my loyalty through industry-leading quality and technology and have never let me down.
Under the fenders are 20″ HRE FF04s in special-order Stone Gold, wrapped in Michelin PS4S tires, 235/35-20 and 275/30-20, mated to a KW DDC coil-over suspension. The finishing touches are iND Distribution paint-matched reflectors and a Macht Schnell racing stud kit.
The suspension industry is filled with spring companies whose products only differ by the price tag and the color of paint on the coils. BMW M Performance suspension kits are in fact KW-produced, and just painted red and blue. All coil springs come out of a very small number of metal-working factories whose main business is producing springs for the OEM factories around the EU; what sets suspension companies apart is their strut technology.
KW is one of the few suspension companies that produce their own struts in-house and have a long-running racing heritage with BMW. Despite running other brand logos on BMW DTM cars, if you look in the wheel well, you will see the iconic purple and yellow. The fact that BMW Motorsport re-brands KW products and uses their suspension in reputation-setting competition is more than enough for me to feel confident that I’m running the best!
For the F31 project I chose their DDC coil-over kit, and hit a home run. The shocks are similar to V3 in construction, but instead of the adjustable dials for stiffness, they plug directly into the OEM damping-control modules. Now I control my ride stiffness through the cockpit rocker switch, and they feel nearly as comfortable as stock in comfort mode! In sport mode, you can immediately tell the difference in feedback and stiffness when paired with the Michelin PS4S; this suspension transforms my sporty commuter to a capable road-course weapon!
Like the suspension industry, the wheel industry is full of brands that all source their products from the same few manufacturers. One important distinction is that the Department of Transportation (DOT) does not require aftermarket wheel brands to adhere to DOT standards, meaning that a large majority of aftermarket wheels do not meet federal safety standards that OE manufacturers are held to. HRE stands out because they not only have their own facility and mills for their forged wheels, but they also have chosen to ensure that all of their designs meet DOT standards—and also stringent European TUV standards as well.
But I couldn’t afford a $10,000 set of bespoke forged HREs for the wagon, so I chose their entry-level line of flow-form products, the 20″ FF04s. Flow-forming is a type of casting, and just like their forged siblings, HRE flow-form wheels adhere to all the safety regulation, but are mass-produced in Japan and imported.
HRE is also known for the wide palette of colors available for their wheels. For these FF04s, I chose a finish called Stone Gold, which has a granite-like appearance to it with a very complex texture—don’t ask me how they do it, but it looks really cool! The wheels come with model-specific aggressive offset that is perfect for the F3X with no need for spacers and no worry of fender contact.
When you look for the best ultra-high-performance tire, the search is short. Since its release in 2016, the Michelin Pilot Sport 4S has won every empirical test it has entered. Just as with my M cars, I chose to run Michelins because they are simply the best in nearly every category—well worth the extra premium, which has actually become a much smaller gap from the leading competitors lately.
The wider FF04s enabled me to fit 235/35-20s in front and 275/30-20s in therear. The increased contact, along with UHP compound, provides a dramatic improvement over the stock all-seasons (which I will still put on when snow is in the forecast). Best of all, the PS4S boots complement and further amplify the application of more power, better braking, and improved suspension.
The Touring design has always intrigued me, and I’m happy that when lifestyle changes suspended my M-car days, I was finally able to try one out. The wagon is indeed a compromise, but it fits perfectly into my needs as a cool, unique, and versatile daily driver. With the carefully selected modifications to appearance and performance, the Smash Wagon has grown much closer to being a five-door version of my previous M3s. My history of BMW ownership has been an interesting evolution from tweaked-out 335i to two unique Individual-color M3s with all the name-brand parts—now culminating in a fun OEM Plus Plus family workhorse with refined modifications. The Smash Wagon is proof that regardless of your life circumstances, there will always be a BMW model that can fit into your current definition of the Ultimate Driving Machine.—Curt Wilson
[This story has been submitted by BMW CCA member Curt Wilson of Washington, DC. Want to submit your own story? Big or small, we’d love to hear from you! BMW CCA members can submit stories by emailing email@example.com.]