Although these days there is a continued big move towards higher-riding all-wheel drive SUV-style vehicles, there's still room for a lower-slung all-paw wagon.
Subaru obviously knows that with its wagons, all of which are all-wheel drive. In the luxury market Audi has dominated in this regard with its range of quattro wagons.
The primary differences between all-wheel drive SUVs and wagons are their ride heights and handling abilities.
As sophisticated as the latest SUVs are, they still have ground clearances of 200mm or more, and their higher-riding stances mean there can be some uncomfortable body roll when the vehicles are being pushed along.
Not so with the all-wheel drive wagons - and that's why such product as the Subaru Legacy wagon and the Audi A4 Avant are such good drives.
And now, BMW has joined the fray with arrival of an all-wheel drive version of its 3-Series Touring.
The model is identical to the rear-wheel drive Touring introduced earlier this year, with one major difference - it features BMW's xDrive. This brilliant electronic all-wheel drive system is already a feature of all the German marque's SUVs on sale here such as the X1, X3 and X5 but this is the first time we've seen it in a more standard vehicle.
In fact it's the first time in 25 years that all- wheel drive has been available in any BMW wagon or sedan in New Zealand since the late 1980s when BMW NZ imported a handful of E34 series 525x models.
This time around there is a trio of xDrive Touring models. Entry model is a 2.0-litre petrol- powered 320i, followed by a 2.0-litre turbodiesel 320d and a 3.0-litre turbodiesel 330d. Prices range from $83,800 through to $112,500.
All-wheel drive is a natural fit for the BMW 3-Series anyway because its rear-wheel drive configuration means the xDrive system's transfer case can be conventionally located.
Not only that it is electronic, which can react to vehicle inputs in mere fractions of a second - almost to the extent that it is proactive instead of reactive. Enter a fast bend, climb a hill at speed, drive over a different surface, threaten to move into oversteer or understeer situations, and xDrive will notice the change and immediately transfer drive torque to the axle with the best traction.
This all happens within an amazing 200 milliseconds, which means that even before the person behind the wheel notices a change has taken place, the BMW's behaviour will have been stabilised.
In normal driving conditions the xDrive splits the engine torque 60:40 in favour of the rear wheels so the 3-Series Touring's trademark rear- wheel drive feeling is retained. But the system is capable of delivering nearly 100 per cent of the car's power to just one axle if required.
Not only that, but xDrive can also transfer the drive torque from side to side. It does this by co- ordinating with the BMW's dynamic stability control and its subsidiary function, traction control.
Now, all of this xDrive technology is an excellent fit with BMW's range of SUVs. In the 3-Series Touring it could be said the fit is even better because its transforms an already athletic vehicle into something very special.
To prove that, last week BMW New Zealand sent a group of journalists off on a journey across some of the North Island's most challenging terrain. It all started with an evening tour on several tarmac racer roads through the King Country, followed the next day with a drive through even more challenging unsealed roads around the famed Gentle Annie route between Taihape and Napier.
Of couse being a wagon with a standard vehicle's ground clearance - lower if the car has optional M Sport suspension and wheels - the xDrive Touring isn't the sort of car you'd take over really rough terrain. But it quickly proved to be a very capable vehicle on unsealed roads. This was particularly the case when the BMW's standard Driver Experience Control was used to its fullest.
At the touch of a button, the driver can use this electronic system to select Eco-Pro, Comfort, Sport or Sport-Plus settings which adjust powertrain, steering, throttle and Dynamic Stability Control settings to suit what is required.
Journalists quickly discovered that Sport-Plus was the best setting to handle the corrugations that often develop on unsealed roads. This was because in this mode the car's dynamic stability control only kicks in at a very late stage, and this delay meant a longer availability of the engine torque to the all-wheel drive system.
As a result, it was a fleet of filthy-dirty BMW 3-Series xDrive Tourings that eventually arrived at Napier, wearing coats of Rangitikei mud as their badges of honour for a journey accomplished in very impressive fashion.
And the 3-Series Touring is also a practical car. Whereas the sedan has 480 litres of boot space, the Touring has 495 litres of luggage room with all seats in use, and this can be increased to 1500 litres when the 40:20:40 split-fold back seats are folded down.
All three xDrive models are powered by BMW's TwinPower turbodiesel and petrol engines and all models are fitted with an eight-speed automatic transmission with auto stop/start installed as standard.
Thanks to various fuel-saving technologies, the 320d xDrive Touring returns a fuel consumption figure of only 4.7 litres per 100km, while the 330d offers 5.1 L/100km. The petrol-powered 320i's average consumption is 6.5 L/100 km.
All models are fitted standard with six airbags and the dynamic stability control that includes ABS, brake assist, cornering brake control and traction control.
The new BMW 3-Series is athletic enough in rear-wheel drive sedan and Touring forms, but these xDrive versions take their capabilities up to another level. For the well-heeled enthusiast they will prove well worth the extra few thousand dollars more they cost over their rear-drive equivalents - little wonder BMW NZ is forecasting they are likely to account for at least half of all Touring sales.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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