Published on Saturday 20 September 2014 21:00
Ten Second Review
BMW does an Audi and offers a compact executive model with all-wheel drive. You have to wonder what took them so long, so accomplished are the fantastic 3 Series xDrive saloon and Touring variants. With all-weather ability, exemplary grip and composure, it's surely only a matter of time before we see more of these.
BMW does an Audi and offers a compact executive model with all-wheel drive. You have to wonder what took them so long, so accomplished are the fantastic 3 Series xDrive saloon and Touring models. With all-weather ability, exemplary grip and composure, it's surely only a matter of time before we see more of these.
BMW is a manufacturer that's traditionally sold its 3 Series on the strength of its perfect rear wheel drive balance and butter-smooth six-cylinder powerplants. Here, for the first time in the UK, is a 3 Series with neither of these attributes. What's more, it might just be the best 3 Series you've never driven. The 3 Series xDrive line-up features a choice of saloon or estate bodystyles and 184bhp 2.0-litre turbo power in either petrol or diesel form (320i or 320d), plus a 258bhp 3.0-litre six cylinder 330d diesel variant.
Suddenly Audi has reason to look a bit nervy. Its much-vaunted quattro drivetrain has given it a sizeable niche in the compact executive sector in which its A4 competes, but now BMW is looking to cash in. On first acquaintance, this sixth-generation 3 Series looks right straight out of the box.
Forget everything you thought you knew. In this country at the very least, the BMW 3 Series has always been a rear wheel drive thing. Now that's changed. The 320i petrol and 320d diesel xDrive models pack a 184bhp punch from their 2.0-litre turbocharged engines. Either way, that's good enough to get from rest to 62mph in around 7.5s on the way to a top speed of just over 140mph. Should that be insufficient, there's a six cylinder 258bhp 330d diesel variant that manages 5.3s and 155mph. Whichever of these you choose, power is transmitted through either a standard six-speed manual 'box or an optional eight-speed auto to each corner.
Get under the car and you'll spot the transmission shaft that sends drive to the front wheels, plus there's a significantly modified double wishbone front suspension. In normal conditions, some 60 per cent of drive is directed to the rear wheels, with the remaining 40 per cent going to the fronts. The stability control and anti-lock braking systems work in concert to decide how much torque should be sent to which axle and all of the torque can be directed to either end of the car in just a tenth of a second. What's more, individual wheels can also be braked to retain stability. It's a typically BMW piece of solid engineering.
Design and Build
Whether you choose the saloon or the Touring estate bodystyle, from the outside, there's not really too much of a clue that this is an all-wheel drive car. Eagle-eyed spotters will notice the badging but otherwise this is the very acme of discretion; pure 3 Series simplicity. This sixth generation model benefits from a far stiffer body and a longer wheelbase than its predecessor (now 2,810mm, an increase of 50mm on the previous model) and wider tracks (by 37mm at the front and 47mm at the rear). If you increase overall length by 93mm, with the wheelbase growing by 50mm, you have, in effect, lengthened the overhangs, but the sleight of hand of BMW's designers suggests otherwise.
Like all 3 Series models, this one gets a very driver-focused dashboard. The complex moulding for the dash with merging surfaces and multiple layers is a departure from the simpler architecture in the E90 3 Series and the centre console is now angled at seven degrees towards the driver. The iDrive controller and the 6.5" display monitor which accompanies it are arranged centrally, within equal reach and view of both front occupants. What is immediately apparent to all who enter the 3 Series saloon is that materials quality and attention to aesthetics has been given a good deal more attention. Here is a car that looks like it's been to stylist rather than had the cabin signed off by an engineer.
Market and Model
Prices start at around £28,000 for a petrol 320i xDrive SE saloon, which is just over £1,500 on top of the price of the ordinary rear wheel drive version. You'll need another £1,000 or so if you want the Touring estate. Budget from around the £30,000 if you want a diesel 320d xDrive, with a premium of around a further £5,000 for the six cylinder 330d versions.
This is all based on base SE trim, but you can pay more and get yourself the more focused M Sport model that will doubtless appeal to the hard chargers, I think the definitive version though, might just be the more softly suspended SE variant, which can deploy its traction even better, paired with the excellent eight-speed auto transmission. Either way, asking prices look reasonable value when put up against rival Audi A4 2.0TFSI or 2.0 TDI quattro variants. The Audi's a bit more powerful but the BMW counters with a gearbox that's smoother and better suited to this class of car.
Between these two bookends of the range, you'll find Modern, Luxury and Sport variants. Even the SE gets 17-inch five-spoke alloy wheels, automatic air-conditioning, Bluetooth, BMW Professional radio with 6.5-inch colour screen and iDrive, keyless starting, USB, a multi-function leather steering wheel, cruise control and automatic boot opening.
Cost of Ownership
We've traditionally looked to BMW to demonstrate a clear class leadership when it comes to efficiency, but in the case of the 3 Series xDrive, we're not really seeing it - at least in the case of the 320i petrol version. Yes, 43.5mpg from a car this quick and capable is extremely good, as is its 159g/km emissions figure and its excellent residual values. Problem is, Audi will sell you an all-wheel drive A4 with 30bhp more that emits exactly the same levels of carbon dioxide and will likely pull in even better residuals. Sure, you'll pay more for it and it can't quite crack the same fuel economy as the BMW but it'll show it a clean pair of heels on the motorway on-ramp. As such, the 320i xDrive earns praise from us but not the usual unqualified recommendation.
So how much is that all-wheel drive chassis costing you in terms of efficiency when compared to a rear-wheel drive 320i? It amounts to a 1.3mpg and a more significant 12g/km penalty. That could be enough to deter a few company car users and have them pestering their fleet manager for a set of winter tyres instead. Or perhaps for a diesel 3 Series xDrive model. The 320d variant manages 57.6mpg on the combined cycle and from 128g/km of CO2, while the 330d returns 52.3mpg and 142g/km.
There's plenty to admire about this all-wheel drive BMW 3 Series xDrive model. It's quick, poised, efficient, well equipped and eminently practical. It makes a fantastic ownership proposition as a one-car fits all solution. While it's possibly not the most exciting vehicle you'll have ever parked your posterior in, some miles spent behind the wheel may well convince you that in terms of sheer utility and depth of design it may well be the best.
It faces some tough opponents, most notably in the formidable shape of the Audi A4 quattro. Whereas BMW are relative newcomers at this game, Audi has form and it shows. What's more, the xDrive also has to demonstrate its superiority over its rear-wheel drive sibling. Does it do enough to convince? There's a maturity and polish to this car that means it never loses its composure or forces you to adapt to it. Is that the mark of a great car? After some time spent considering it, I think it just might be.