BMW 3 Series xDrive gripping stuff
- Credit: Alberto Martinez
New all-wheel drive versions of the BMW 3 Series bring sure-footed driving pleasure in all weathers, says Matt Joy of the Press Association.
BMW's 3 Series has always been a car for all circumstances – fun to drive but practical and comfortable too, and over the years the range has expanded to widen the net still further. The estate Touring, the M3 and the ever-increasing range of diesel offerings meant there has always been a version to suit.
Now there's another side to the 3 Series story – the xDrive model. Four-wheel drive versions outside of the sport utility vehicles have been available in Europe since the 1980s but, due to the complexities of right-hand drive conversions, never made it to the UK. That's changed with the 320i xDrive.
You won't spot any external differences bar the badging. The 3 Series is as handsome and clean-cut as ever, with the slimmer nose giving it a more purposeful look. But this is no pseudo-SUV, it is designed to be just as the regular saloon with enhanced traction.
Launched with the 2.0-litre turbo petrol version, the 320i xDrive is not short of power. The four-cylinder unit has 184bhp and 199lb.ft of torque, fed to all four wheels through six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic gearboxes. But from behind the wheel, initially at least, you'll be hard pressed to notice anything different – which of course is the whole point.
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The manual gearbox operates just as slickly as before, the clutch is smooth and has no extra weight although it is above-average in that respect, so from the driver's perspective there's nothing extra to worry about. This is four-wheel drive as an enhancement to performance and safety, not in order to climb mountains, so there are no differential locks or unusual buttons that require your attention.
The 2.0-litre turbo engine almost doesn't feel like one at first either. It is torquey, but not at diesel levels, so it pulls cleanly and smoothly right around the rev range with a muted engine note to go with it. It also stands very close comparison with the standard two-wheel drive car, feeling very brisk rather than hugely rapid. But that's only a bone-dry road.
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In less than favourable conditions the extra traction of the 320i xDrive comes into its own. You can use all the available power pretty much at will and the drive will be distributed among the wheels with the most grip. In normal driving 60% of the power goes to the rear wheels, but this can switch to 100% towards the front or rear if conditions demand.
Purists may be concerned that this goes against the BMW philosophy as all its cars have rear-wheel drive and have done so since the start, but this is no less a sports saloon than any other 3 Series. It steers as sweetly as the standard car despite the slight increase in weight at the front with the additional hardware.
And in many respects it allows you to enjoy all the 3 Series characteristics more of the time. Pressing on out of a greasy bend would have the traction control light flickering away, where in the 320i xDrive it simply grips hard and accelerates. Such surety is enormously reassuring, so much so that it's easy to forget about it and simply get on with enjoying the drive.
The price premium is a modest £1,500 or so, which stands comparison with other items on the options list such as a top-grade sat-nav or audio system. But neither will contribute as much to your safety and driving pleasure, and unless you have your heart set on oversteer out of every bend this is a smart way to specify your 3 Series.