When a BMW hot hatch hits the snow
There’s a perception that it’s impossible to drive a rear-drive saloon, especially a BMW with its fat, low-profile tyres, when on snowy roads. What you don’t expect is to be powersliding a BMW across a frozen track carved in the ice and snow of an Austrian alpine valley, as the temperature gauge dips to -20 degrees.
Sliding a car can be great fun under the right circumstances and given that we were doing this in an 320bhp M135i, fun it most certainly was. But here’s the surprising bit. Slow down, point the nose of the car at the exit gate of the track and suddenly it grips, goes and drives as if somehow the tearaway hot hatch had transformed into a Land Rover with spiked tyres.
What this is, is BMW starting to treat four wheel drive as a serious sales proposition. By the end of next year, there will be 70 BMW models that can be specified with its X-Drive four wheel drive system. We’re all now familiar with the “proper” 4x4 BMWs of its X range; the X1, X3, X5 and X6 but more and more conventional saloon and hatchback models are now coming on stream with four-wheel drive as an alternative to BMW’s more traditional rear-drive.
Now that it’s been fitted with X-Drive, and in spite of the grunt (and of course when fitted with appropriate tyres) the M135i takes to snowy roads as if it were born to it. The latest iteration of X-Drive now sends 60 per cent of the engine’s power to the rear wheels and 40 per cent to the front, although the computer controlling the system can send 100 per cent to either axle if it feels the need. Thus equipped, the M135i pootles across both loose, powdery snow and tightly-packed icy surfaces with ease.
Of rather more significance for the Irish market is the new 120d X-Drive, with its low emissions and frugal engine (123g/km, 4.7-litres per 100km claims BMW) combined with all-wheel drive traction. It’s not officially confirmed as an Irish-market model yet, but BMW unofficially admits it’s a dead-cert.
If we keep getting icy winters, then the extra security of four-wheel drive is a definite temptation, but good though the 120d X-Drive is to drive, (it proved unshakeably sure-footed on a drive on winding, snow-dusted, ice-decked roads) I suspect it will only be when X-Drive comes to the diesel engined 3 Series that it will begin to gain proper traction in Ireland. If nothing else though, at least it gives BMW bragging rights when it comes to rivalling Audis Quattro system.
Already available in Ireland though is the Mini Countryman All4. You can specify all-wheel drive on your Countryman Cooper S or Cooper SD, but this was our first chance to try out the hottest of the lot; the John Cooper S Works Countryman with All4.
On the road, it feels unerringly safe and secure even with the temperature gauge hitting the bottom stop. Which means it should work fine at home when it’s frosty out. Most surprising of all is the John Cooper Works’ gentle dynamic personality. Most previous JCW Mini models have been hard-core, hard-riding hot hatches, but the Countryman version is much more pliable and in spite of 218bhp (and probably because of 1,405kg of kerb weight) it feels controllable, enjoyable and predictable. It makes little or no sense for the Irish market but it’s still a fun car.
BMW also gave us an X6 to drive on a quite gentle off-road track, proving at least that if you live in the Alps then the X6 at last starts to make sense. It’s still a very silly purchase if you live in South Dublin though. Get sense and get yourself a 5 Series Touring instead.
Definitely not coming to Ireland, at least not any time soon, is the mighty 750d X-Drive, a car with a massive triple-turbo straight-six Diesel engine and a 740Nm dollop of torque (backing up 381bhp). You would think, from that figure, that it would be an uncontrollable hooligan but it’s a remarkably capable car, remaining unruffled even on the slipperiest of roads with two-metre tall snowdrifts on either side.
On roads covered with hefty deposits of snow and ice, four wheel drive is a definite boon, and fitting such a system to a BMW takes away none of the brand’s famous driving credentials.
All of the X-Drive models we tried felt exactly like regular BMWs to drive, just with a great deal of extra traction and a broader safety margin in harsh conditions. Do such vehicles make much sense in Ireland? For now, probably not. You’re most likely best off with a conventional rear-drive Beemer and a set of winter tyres.