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 further. The estate Touring, the M3 and the ever-increasing range of packages meant there has always been a version to suit.
Then there’s the xDrive model. You won’t spot any external differences bar the additional 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 like the regular saloon with enhanced traction.
Available with the 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine, the 320i xDrive is not short of power. The four-cylinder unit offers up a handy 184bhp and 270Nm of torque, fed to all four wheels through a choice of the six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic gearbox. But from behind the wheel, initially at least, you’ll be hard-pressed to notice anything different — which of course is the whole point.
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 in comparison with the standard two-wheel drive car, feeling brisk rather than hugely rapid.
In less than favourable conditions the extra traction of the 320i xDrive comes into its own. You can deploy all the available power pretty much at will and the drive will be distributed amongst the wheels with the most grip. In normal driving 60 per cent of the power goes to the rear wheels, but this can switch to 100 per cent towards the front or rear if conditions demand it.
Purists may be concerned that this goes against the BMW philosophy as all its cars have rear-wheel drive, and have since the start, but this is no less a sporty 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 sand slicked 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 modest, and is not much more than 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. However, despite its virtues, AWD grip is pointless on our bone dry roads for most part of the year.