BMW – Caught On The Back Wheel

Two Driven Wheels Good. Four Driven Wheels Better. BMW challenges its own orthodoxy.

BMW 5 Series G30 – image :

The rest of Europe might or might not care but, on one thing, the UK Brexiteers were right. BMW needs us. Or maybe we need them since our appetite for The Ultimate Driving Machine is unabated. BMW sells as many 5 Series saloons in the UK as in Germany, though there the estate now dominates, and the UK market has been looked at very carefully when developing the next 5 Series that arrives here in February.

36 years ago Audi brilliantly established themselves as the 4WD car people. Although they have nothing in their range that stands out in the way the original coupe did, ‘quattro’ still says more than any of the many names and acronyms for 4WD systems from other manufacturers. And Audi has curated it well, ensuring that their quattro cars are friendly to the average driver, offering no nasty surprises to the clumsy.

Of course that is why, in the land of the old-school petrolhead, much as the interior trim might get grudging approval, there remains a suspicion that Audi has gatecrashed the premium league, and that they will never be accepted since they refuse to make proper cars with the rear wheels driven. Likewise those chancers at Ford who tried to pass off a stunted Mondeo with a bit of wood on the dash and 4WD as a Jaguar. They didn’t get that one past the bar-room experts, even if they did advertise it swanning around in the snow.

But, today, the demographic of the cars we buy in the UK is no longer dominated by European males of a certain age, but includes people who, if they even notice which wheels are driven, were brought up in a world of Gran Turismo, Renaultsport hot hatches and the glory days of BTCC racing. Also, in the end, both Mercedes and BMW had to concede that some markets had weather that was extreme enough to make 4WD a significant benefit and, for a long time, they have offered their 4-Matic and xDrive on selected mid-range models.

Not that BMW felt it worth offering it on anything but their SUVs in the UK for a long time. But things have changed and, with the arrival of the new 5 Series, every model sold in the UK will be available with xDrive as an option and BMW are getting us ready for a change in our attitude to what it is that makes a Driving Machine truly Ultimate. Even that ideal of four-door, tail-out entertainment, the M5, is to be offered with all its wheels driven.

BMW's original 4WD, the 1985 325iX - image :
BMW’s original 4WD, the 1985 325iX – image :

Down on his cheese ranch, Alex James gives another Woo-Hoo as yet another royalty cheque drops through the letterbox and Blur’s Song 2 gets yet another outing on a TV ad. This time it’s from BMW as a variety of xDriven models drift gracefully though rain, mud, sand and snow. To the uninitiated, BMW’s new advertisement suggests that we ‘Get Out There’ to a whole new world of extreme driving.

Where once we trod carefully, now we can regain our lost youth and slip and slide as much as we want and xDrive will look after us. But, excellent though I’m sure xDrive on the new 5 Series will be, the advantages of four-wheel-drive are frequently misunderstood or misrepresented, and that’s pretty much the case here.

Rally drivers love it because they can put a few hundred horsepower into the wheels mid-corner and come out of it pointing, within a tolerance of 45 degrees or so, in the right direction. Rally drivers are very skilful. We less skilful can benefit on the public road. I can floor the throttle of my Audi S6 whilst still on a wet roundabout and not embarrass myself in the way I might in a rear-driven BMW or a front-driven Audi.

I can take a 4WD Fiat Panda past that BMW M5 that dismissed me so loftily on the lower reaches of an Alpine climb as though it is standing still – actually it is standing still, its fat sports tyres spinning uselessly in the snow. Because friction is friction, and tyres are tyres and, although I’ve quite enjoyed owning a 4WD car, if I was driving in the snow and you were to offer me the option of 4WD or Winter tyres, but not both, I’d take the latter.

TV ads offer us a load of fantasies, and few of us really fall for them wholeheartedly. BMW’s own website is, in fact, quite detailed about xDrive and makes no rash promises at all. It is surely worth them offering it since it is another box to tick on that endless options list that ends up almost doubling the price of that BMW that, at first, seemed surprisingly affordable.

Will the punters choose it and think it makes them invulnerable? I really enjoy driving in the rain and snow, but I’m always aware that nasty surprises are a lot closer than under normal conditions. For many people, the real-world advantage of 4WD in a snowy area will most likely be found in negotiating an unswept car park, rather than powering round an icy bend. Likewise, on a wet corner in December, circumspection with the throttle and maybe Winter tyres will be better, and certainly cost-effective, alternatives to xDrive.

32 thoughts on “BMW – Caught On The Back Wheel”

  1. A full-range 4WD offer from BMW and Mercedes has been standard in Switzerland for many years now, and if I look at badges, it seems that they sell rather well here. The rule is that if you can spot a mountain of over 1500 m from your home, 4WD is compulsory.

    I don’t know how many people really make use of their so equipped vehicles. Yes, if you live in more remote places in the Alps, or if you own a cottage somewhere up there, better have this equipment. But for the few days down here in the valleys when there really is some snow on the roads, I’ve never had a problem with FWD in my twenty years of driving.

    1. In Europe, only Britain and France have neither compulsion nor recommendation regarding Winter tyres. In the past few years we’ve become more Winter tyre conscious in the UK but, unless they live in deepest Scotland there’s little incentive for many drivers. France is a hugely varied country, but I’m very surprised that it doesn’t legislate for those areas that have extreme weather.

      Isn’t the new 5 Series a disappointingly leaden looking thing?

    2. Yes, it is. I was no big fan of the F10 Five, but this GWhatever isn’t an improvement.

    3. I think people who live in those parts of France with extreme weather conditions don’t really need to be told – they already know they need winter tyres and even chains, and how to adjust their driving to the conditions. It’s people who visit those places occasionally who need to be warned.

    4. That’s what I mean. In Germany, if you’re in snowy conditions, you don’t have Winter tyres and you lose adhesion you are comitting an offence, whether you are local or an outsider passing through. In France that isn’t the case.

  2. Yesterday I had reason to be talking again about the Ulm School of Design. This car (have you shown a rejected proposal from 2008?) does not conform to what the Ulm School designers would do. I am not here asking for a complete reinvention of the wheel. Within the limitations of gradual evolution for an important model, this is not very good as it is. Overweight? Is it bulky-looking? Maybe the customer clinics gave it raised thumbs. In which case it does not matter a lot what I think. I certainly don´t aspire to a car like this. Actually I´d prefer one of the wonky GTs. Or an Insignia (naturally).

  3. I didn’t even notice that this is supposed to be a new model. They all look quite the same today. But now, if I compare it to its predecessor, it really seems that it’s going in a wrong direction. Where are the sharp, lean and sporty BMW designs we had some 20 or 30 years ago?

  4. I liked the Bangletastic 5. The next one was OK. But this is inexplicable. Not wanting to massage Herr Wagener’s ego any more than necessary but I think I’d prefer an E Class. Even the last one. Is that a vent down by the wings. Cue Giugiaro voice ‘don’t tell me they put one on the other side too’.

    1. I wasn’t a big fan of the Bangle 5 at the beginning. Not because of the ominous bootlid, but because it looked massive and overwrought to my eyes. I’d never have imagined that a mere 13 years down the road, things would have gotten much worse and I’d look back to this time with nostalgia.

    2. I can relate, Simon. I thought that boot looked like a Wartburg’s, in terms of proportions. Nowadays, whenever I look at an E60, I’m wondering where that car’s pioneering spirit went.

    3. So did (do?) I. What a fine piece of design, especially in proportion to their limited resources.

  5. BMWs are, generally speaking, not my kind of thing, but I have to say a VERY tidy E34 525i Touring has just appeared near my house, and its presence amongst the modern rubbish reinforces how well it has dated. Nothing BMW has done since could be regarded as a step in the right direction in my opinion, but I agree that this is pretty dire. Take away the kidneys and I would be hard-pressed not to nominate this as a GS300 styling proposal.

    1. The previous model looked heavy handed and a bit corpulent compared to the E60 that preceded it, but apart from that wasn’t too bad. This however is awful. Like Sean, I’d take all the Sensual Purity I could swallow without gagging over this lumpen thing. Good looking saloons will shortly become a thing of the past. I’m becoming convinced manufacturers are doing this purposely to nudge everyone towards crossovers.

  6. It’s a few years since BMW made a pretty car, eh?

    The E32 7-series introduced (I think) the wider kidney grille on the larger engined variants. That grille spread to the rest of the range quicker than your average aspirational BMW-owner can let out a Clarkson-esque “POWER!!” and has been getter steadily wider ever since, to the point where every Beemer now looks like it’s been punched on the nose.

    The face of this new five puts me in mind of somebody wearing false teeth sneering at me and the A post is simply horrid.

    1. In the spirit of generosity, the 1 series 2-door saloon or is it a coupe is a fine little thing. I like that. The 2006 E-92 also worked well, almost Italian (if the Italians still knew how to make a nice looking car) but then again, 2006 is now a while back.
      Can we blame the influence of the Chinese market for the ever-stranger looks of BMW and Mercedes? For all their faults, Audi are still mostly making serious and intelligently designed cars (and we can find exceptions). These days design integrity can be found in all sorts of places in part because the people who pursue it are in all sorts of places. At one point it was geographically and culturally tied. As the staff move around so freely, design integrity is not an accident of culture but a decision taken by the top management. They have to want it and to know what it looks like when it arrives. Since Chris Bangle came and went it´s been a mixed bag of mixed things in Munich. Before that: name a duff Beemer? Anyone?

    2. That’s an easy task Richard. Remember the E46 Compact? I didn’t especially like the other versions of that generation (too many parallel lines, especially in the bumpers), but they weren’t as objectively bad as the Compact.

      By the way, isn’t the Series 1 coupé called a Two nowadays? It’s not bad, I agree. It has lost some of the chubbiness of its predecessor.

    3. Although maybe the worst is over (for the present), Mercedes of recent years were distinctive if, to my eyes, incoherently clumsy. But this 5 Series is just heady-handed and very undistinguished. I know it’s a cheap and easy point, and no disrespect to Hyundai (I’m in a hurry and it’s the first thing that fitted) but …..

    1. Not sure there is anything to discuss … This new 5-series is relatively heavy handed, and just looks like the designers felt like they had to add features to distinguish it from its predecessors, rather than seek new ways of expressing the same visual impact.

  7. AWD, winter tires and remote start. None of the Germans offer remote start here unlike every other single carmaker, so one has to clear the snow off your Teutonic road weapon in -15 temps before trying to deice the doors and even get in the darn thing. Getting the windshield clear is a necessity and heating her up beforehand is a boon. Ah you Europeans don’t have much snow and ice, so RWD should suffice with snow tires. In Canada, all BMWs are AWD standard beyond M3s and so on, but that’s just changed too, I believe. Here snow is reality, there you seem to get polite dabs of it every now and then if my London 5 year experience was typical.

    1. Courtesy of the Gulf Stream, few people in England even have snow chains in the attic, let alone consider the cost of Winter tyres (though maybe they do after they’ve had that avoidable skid or braking disaster), so most don’t really need (rather than want) 4WD. In parts of Scotland it can be different and mountainous areas in Europe get a good amount of snow. You might argue that, because they don’t sprawl as much as North America, snow ploughs can do their work faster, but their needs are probably much the same as those in snowy Canada.

      Ice is a different matter. We get frosted windscreens enough. In days before de-icer, I remember my Dad pouring boiling water over his screen. Amazingly with no dire consequences. As for remote start, I suppose if it stops those people who think it’s safe to drive off with an envelope sized slit to view the World through, it’s OK, but it sounds a bit decadent to me. It still won’t clear half a metre of snow off your roof unless you keep it running all day. Does it include door lock de-icing?

    2. ‘Ah you Europeans don’t have much snow and ice’ – I beg to differ, Bill, on behalf of not just the Swiss, but the Swedes and Finns, as well. Believe me, they’ve got much snow and ice there. As do some of the southern regions here in Germany.

  8. SV: Isn’t it pretty much “a car” for the times? It suffers the same problem as the current Focus – all those features fail to add up to anything distinguished.

  9. Austria? Does it still snow there? Switzerland as well. In fairness to Bill, he´s thinking of that months long, house-deep snow that really begins somewhere east of Poland. Call it deep continental snow. I think even Scandinavian snow is somehow not nearly as horrible as this kind that makes most of central Russia and central N America not worth inhabiting (though people do live there). You have to go a bit nearer the Arctic circle to get that locked-in, lethal snow Bill has in mind.

    1. Richard. Yes, no-one disputes the long, extreme Winters of Northern America. But on a day-to-day basis, I think the image below is a bit more than a ‘polite dab’. Beneath that is my motorhome. It’s Southern Germany in January 2015 and I’d just driven there from the UK with snow all the way (Winter tyres and FWD).

    2. Richard, my christmas holidays spent with the grandparents may have been a while ago, but I can tell you that south-to-central Finland is/used to be in the grip of severe quantities of snow and very cold temperatures indeed on a regular basis. Which is one of the reasons why power outlets for engine block heaters are a regular occurrence there.

    1. The snow on the vehicle had gone within a couple of hours, but only because I cleared it off, without mechanical aid. The snow around about stayed like that for a few days. But, yes, as I said above, of course it doesn’t stay like that for weeks. However, a car doesn’t know how long the snow has been there or how long it intends staying.

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