Conventional wisdom would have it that a driver who smiles, as he is handed the keys of a BMW
3 Series in a snowstorm, must be mad.
Yes, I still vividly recall cursing a previous road test 3 Series as it refused, point blank, to move either forward, or backward on a fairly modest covering of the white stuff .
But, the reason for my smile this time is that this BMW 320i sported an xDrive badge on the boot.
Yes, after an absence of 18 years, BMW has brought a four-wheel-drive saloon back to the UK market. There have been four-wheel-drive BMWs in other European and world markets in the intervening years, but BMW did not offer this option for UK market. Inevitably, this has left BMW at something of a disadvantage when competing with arch-rival Audi.
Who knows how many potential BMW owners have been tempted away to enjoy the added safety and security of quattro four wheel drive? There is one right here. I owned BMWs in the 1990s, but a move to the country persuaded me that four-wheel-drive was a necessity, not a luxury – and not just for snow, but for greasy B roads as well.
The weather gods must have been intrigued to test the xDrive’s ability too, because the snow kept falling. By the morning there was a fair accumulation.
On the way to a 9am meeting I had to battle my way along B-roads that were filling in quite rapidly with drifting snow and, at my destination the car park – although it had been ploughed – was filling up again with sticky wet snow.
I would have no confidence that a rear-wheel-drive 3 Series would have tackled this snow and, if it had, it would have been a rather more concerning and fraught journey. By contrast the BMW 320i xDrive felt remarkably unphased by the snowy ruts and never gave a moments concern about getting stuck.
As it was, the only difficulty the BMW 320i xDrive appeared to have was with low speed manoeuvring in the car park’s wet snow. It stalled a couple of times as snow built up under the wheels. I wonder if the stalls were caused by the clever electronics being a tad over-zealous in locking a spinning wheel? Whatever it was, the couple of parking stalls was an insignificant problem and did not detract from the impressive ability to cope with the white stuff.
In normal conditions, 60% of the power on the xDrive goes to the rear wheels, which maintains something of BMW’s tradition for rear wheel drive as offering the best poise and balance.
The clever bit is that this rear power bias can be switched – using information from the ABS and stability control system – in just a tenth of a second. In extreme, all of the power can be diverted to either the front, or the rear wheels if one end of the car loses traction. The system can also brake individual wheels to help regain control.
The fact that the BMW 3 Series can now take on the Audi A4 quattro at its own game is the icing on the cake.
The cockpit and controls are up to the usual high quality we have come to expect from BMW. The driving position is good and comfortable and works well (setting aside my personal dislike for indicator stalks that revert to the central position). You get the chance to tune the car for your style of driving, thanks to the switch on the centre console, meaning you can choose a more relaxed or slightly more sporty style. Even in the latter, the ride quality is good – even cosseting.
While there is no pretence about this model being particularly sporty – it is as much a pleasure to drive on give-and-take B roads as it is cruising on dual carriageways. Even when the horns do come out, the BMW 320i xDrive just takes it all in its stride.
The only niggle I have about the controls is the gearchange. Rather than slotting through the gears with ease, it felt a little ponderous and notchy. Perhaps this is the justification you need to treat yourself to the auto gearbox (as pictured below)?
The two-litre engine, on the other hand, is notably smooth and refined. It puts out 184 bhp, giving the 320i xDrive SE a 0-62 mph time of 7.4 seconds (just 01.seconds faster than the auto version). Combined fuel consumption is 41.5 mpg and carbon dioxide emissions are 152 g/km, putting the 320i xDrive in Band G for UK road tax.
The price of the BMW 320i xDrive SE is £27,400. At £1,535, that makes the price of the xDrive four-wheel-drive remarkably similar to the extra that Audi charge for their quattro variants.
For those whose driving takes them away from the motorway, onto wet, greasy B roads, or who may have to tackle occasional snow and ice, it is likely to be money well spent.