What is it?
It's a 3-series with all-wheel drive. It’s 18 years since BMW last offered an all-wheel-drive saloon (the E34-series 525iX) in the UK. Now xDrive is finally available on the 3-series saloon, hooked up to BMW’s 181bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine. The main engineering modifications are a transmission shaft running forwards, sending drive to the front wheels, and heavily modified double wishbone front suspension.
In normal conditions, 60 per cent of drive goes to the rear wheels. But information from the ABS and the stability control system can be used to shift 100 per cent of the torque to either end in just one tenth of a second. Individual wheels can also be braked to prevent the car from losing control.
What is it like?
Fundamentally, the 3-series remains a superb car for Britain’s roads. Still compact enough and blessed with a cocooning cockpit, the 3-series’ innate balance and measured responses have been taken to another level with the addition of permanent four-wheel drive.
The conditions encountered during our test could not have been better to put the 320i xDrive through its paces: darkness, lashing rain, standing water and narrow, undulating roads. While it could not be described as super-agile, the xDrive can driven hard on demanding roads with surprising ease. The engine is smooth and refined and has an impressively linear mid-range urge. In the cut and thrust of British driving, it is a better unit than the classic naturally aspirated straight six.
With the suspension set to Sport, body control on the worst B-roads is first rate, while the ride remains surprisingly compliant. It is also very easy to place the car, even at speed, in rapidly changing conditions. The excellence of the steering is especially impressive considering the front wheels are now driven.
This combination of real-world speed and exemplary body control is taken to another level with the extraordinary grip and stability delivered by the all-wheel drive system. There is never any sense of when, or how, it is working, just an enormous confidence in the ability of the car to pull out of bends on hard acceleration, as well as remaining unruffled by standing water and poor surfaces. Even when driven in anger, this is a very calm car to pilot.
The only slight complaints are the control weights – the steering is enjoyably meaty but the clutch heavy – and the gearshift action, which, despite being very clean, is long and slowish. Ironically, the optional eight-speed automatic gearbox, with closer-spaced ratios, would better suit the xDrive’s ability to maintain cross-country speed, shifting far more quickly than a mortal driver.
Should I buy one?
Personally, I’d buy the entry-level SE model and add an automatic ’box, adaptive suspension and sports seats for a £30,000 car that will endlessly reward the thoughtful driver.
BMW 320i xDrive M Sport
Price £30,400; 0-62mph 7.4sec; Top speed 144mph; Economy 41.5mpg (combined); Co2 159g/km; Kerb weight 1554kg; Engine 4 cyls in line, 1997cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 181bhp at 5000rpm; Torque 199lb ft at 2500-4500rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual