by: BMW NORTH AMERICA - The fastback 2014 328i xDrive GT is actually a sporty hatchback with a tremendous amount of cargo space.I know this may sound like a strange thing for an automotive writer to say, but I've never been particularly impressed by BMWs until now.

I've driven many different models by the German manufacturer over the years, from older 2002s and Bavarians to the newest two-seater sport cars, sedans and SUVs. I've always thought each was well designed and engineered, but I never considered them the best in the world — as their fans proclaim — especially considering their premium prices.

So I was unprepared for the 2014 328i xDrive GT. It may not be the Ultimate Driving Machine, as the slogan goes, but its a damn good one, made more remarkable by everything you get for the suggested retail price of $55,500 — distinctive styling, a gorgeous interior, a powerful twin-turbocharged 2.0-liter inline 4, all-wheel-drive, practicality in the form of a large hatchback AND all the M Sport goodies, such as special alloy wheels, a responsive Sport eight-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode, huge disc brakes and much more.

But the 2014 328i xDrive GT is actually more than the sum of its parts. On road performance is never anything short of exhilarating. The twin-turbos spin up so fast that you'll won't ever wish for more cylinders. And with five ride settings to play with — ECO PRO, COMFORT, SPORT and SPORT+ — you can tailor every drive to fit your mood. An auto-stop feature increase fuel economy, but can by bypassed in the Sport mode.

At first glance, the exterior proportions of the 328i xDrive GT look a little odd. The nose is strictly high-performance BMW, with a huge lower opening nicely offsetting the upper twin oval grill. But the rear quarters swell just when you think they should taper, then the long fastback sweep let's you know this is not a sedan or even a so-called four-door coupe. It's a genuine large hatchback, the kind that went out of style in the 1980s, despite their practicality. Lifting the hatch reveals an enormous amount of cargo space, more than enough for all the golf clubs and luggage for a weekend or longer getaway.

Some reviewers have compared the 328i xDrive GT to a crossover, like the Honda Accord Crosstour or late Acura ZDX. It's much better designed than either of those two vehicles, however, which have always been considered ugly ducklings.

The inside is also impressive. We've always thought the interiors of German cars were designed by machines programmed for efficiency, not people who care about the impressions of the occupants. But the interior of the 328i xDrive GT is well balanced, with enough organic shapes to assure you that real people thought about it. Metal mesh trim pieces remind you this is a performance car, too.

Although the 328i xDrive GT is loaded with advanced technology, an easy-to-use knob on the console simplifies access through the dash-mounted digital screen. I was surprised by the lack of a back up camera in our test model, however, since I've become accustomed to them in even the cheapest cars. To get one, you have to order the optional $950 Driver Assistance package, which includes a rear camera, front and rear parking proximity sensors, active blind spot detection and side- and top-view cameras.

Longtime BMW loyalists will undoubtedly scoff at my enthusiasm for this particular model. But when you drive a new vehicle every week, you quickly realize how competitive the automotive business has become. Every BMW model is directly challenged by comparable products from Audi and Mercedes. Cadillac has upped its game to the point that its vehicles must be considered, too. All four are facing threats from lower-priced but well made models by the Japanese luxury brands of Acura, Infiniti and Lexus. The South Koreans are now making serious inroads into the luxury performance market. And even non-luxury manufacturers — good old Buick, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Ford, Honda, Nissan, Toyota, Volkswagen and so on — are offering cars that would have seemed remarkably sophisticated just a few years ago.

Standing out in today's automotive world is harder than ever. For me, the 2014 BMW 328i xDrive GT is one of the few cars that does that.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: 328i xDrive GT

• Manufacturer: BMW.

• Class: Midsize car.

• Layout: Front engine, all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five-door hatchback.

• Engine: Twin-turbocharge 2.0-liter inline 4.

• Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

• EPA estimated city/highway/mileage:

• Price: Beginning at approximately $43,000 ($55,500 as tested).

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