Think of an all-wheel-drive BMW and there’s a strong chance you’ll think of the X5. Yet BMW’s first ever all-wheel-drive system was fitted to a 3-series back in 1985. It never came to the UK; nor, for that matter, did the three generations after that. That’s all changed with the new 3-series, which is now offered with BMW’s xDrive all-wheel-drive system.
To give xDrive its toughest test imaginable, we drove a 330d xDrive Touring from the UK to Solden in Austria, a renowned ski resort that also hosts BMW’s winter driving programme. In a fit of skewed logic, we decided to combine Solden’s two attractions, driving our 330d xDrive up a ski slope while capturing our exploits on video.
What's so special about BMW xDrive?
xDrive debuted on 2004’s X3, replacing the permanent 38/62% torque split of previous models with a fully variable split that feeds through a multi-plate wet clutch. It also uses the ABS and stability-control systems to monitor traction and channel power side-to-side. In normal conditions the system sends 60% of torque to the rear wheels and 40% to the front, but in extreme circumstances it has the flexibility to send 100% to either axle, reacting within 100ms to the changing conditions.
So, how did xDrive cope with its toughest test?
Combined with winter tyres, xDrive proved subtly fantastic on the sodden autobahns and slushy twists and turns of the Fernpass, feeling much like a rear-wheel-drive system with the added safety blanket of imperious traction.
But it was on the snow-packed, entirely deserted roads above Solden that you could really feel it working, an unmistakable rear bias in most conditions shifting quickly to the front when traction became severely limited. It made the 330d fun because you could slide it between snowbanks, but also reassuring in that if you kept on accelerating, you’d ultimately feel the power move to the front and pull you out of trouble in a straight line.
To be honest, I suspected we’d been a little too ambitious when I first walked up the ski slope in deep snow. It’d have been a bit embarrassing to turn back, though, so I positioned the 330d at the bottom of the slope, selected Manual mode and turned off all the stability control to stop the electronics prematurely cutting the power.
We bounded across the slope’s run-off area in second gear, bouncing in and out of ruts that hindered our speed. At the bottom of the slope I changed to third, reasoning that using a higher gear and leaning on the torque would yield better results than a lower gear and lots more wheelspin. It did, and for a while the 330d and I simply powered up the vast incline at such a rate of knots that my main concern became getting back to the bottom safely.
Does this xDrive adventure end in tears?
As the speed began to slow, I knew I needed to arc the car round and point it down the hill – no way was I going to run out of steam and slide backwards! It was then that the severity of the slope really hit me – I could see nothing but snow when I looked out of the side window, and the angle felt so steep that I seriously wondered whether another rut might tip the car over. Thankfully the surface was smooth, and I pointed the 330d’s nose down the slope as the ABS pulsed beneath my foot.
All the while the 330d maintained its speed rather than gathered it, which still felt a bit scary, but the small run-off at the end of the slope was all that was required to bring everything fully under control. It was, without doubt, the daftest, most impressive thing I’ve ever done in a car.
If xDrive can cope with that, it can certainly cope with a typical British winter.