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