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Published on Monday 24 November 2014 17:45

Ten Second Review

The all-wheel drive xDrive version of BMW's impressive 120d brings added grip without affecting economy and emissions too badly. You'll have to decide whether the price premium is worth it, but it's undoubtedly a more capable car than its rear-wheel drive counterpart.


Background

Those of you with longer memories might well recall the fad for all-wheel drive saloons and hatches that kicked off in the mid-Eighties on the back of the success of Audi's quattro. At that time, almost everyone was selling a four-wheel drive model. Ford Sierras, Peugeot 405s, Mazda 323s, Lancia Deltas, Vauxhall Cavaliers, Renault 21s - you could buy them all with power going to all four corners. You could even buy a BMW, the 525ix, although like Mercedes, BMW seemed largely content to let Audi have this part of the market - in this country at least - and wait to see if four-wheel drive was something that would go away.
In large part, the craze died. Tyre technology improved, front suspension designs became cleverer and traction control systems became more refined, together meaning that powerful front wheel drive cars could be developed that would manage their grip adequately. But BMW quietly developed its own four-wheel drive models sold to Europeans who didn't want a slithering rear-wheel drive car on their snowy roads. Four-wheel drive models accounted for over a third of BMW sales in 2012 and the enthusiastic take up of the 320d xDrive prompted BMW to offer us its little brother, the 120d xDrive. Winter just met its match.


Driving Experience

The key piece of engineering underneath the 120d xDrive is not dissimilar to the system found in an Audi A3. The 120d xDrive uses a multi-plate wet clutch rather than a Torsen differential and this will send 60% of the engine's torque to the rear wheels and 40% to the fronts. When it detects wheel slippage, up to 100% of the drive can be sent to either axle within one tenth of a second. BMW has modified the rear suspension to accommodate the modest weight increase of the four-wheel drive mechanicals but the company claims that this has been done to offer a common feel between the cars rather than to differentiate the driving dynamics of the xDrive model.
Under the bonnet, there's the same 184bhp turbodiesel four-cylinder engine that's now a tad quicker off the line than the standard 120d. The sprint to 62mph takes 7.2 seconds on the way to a 140mph maximum, the traction benefits negating the 40kg weight gain. The extra grip of the xDrive will mean you'll accelerate more cleanly in wet conditions and as long as you adjust the stability control system accordingly, you'll also be able to make pretty good progress on snow as well. Just remember that all-wheel drive gives you better acceleration on low-friction surfaces but it can't deliver more lateral grip or braking power. Consider investing in some winter tyres to get the best from this car.


Design and Build

The xDrive model wears its added capabilities very lightly. Only a small badge gives the game away. Other than that it's much like a standard 120d, but this means that there's no real accommodation penalty as the car already had a transmission tunnel running through the cabin. In essence then, you're looking at exactly the same recipe as any other second generation 1 Series variant. If your experience of this entry-level BMW model range is limited to the first generation version, you'll find this design 83mm longer, 14mm wider and 30mm longer in the wheelbase than the car it replaced. This means that rear-seat passengers benefit from a further 20mm of legroom. In addition, there's a good deal more storage space, with large front door pockets, two cup holders on the centre console and a roomy glove compartment. There's 30-litres more luggage space compared to its forerunner, taking the total to 360-litres. Fold the 60/40 split rear seats flat and this can be increased to a maximum of 1,200-litres.
Build quality seems to have improved as well with the introduction of the MK2 1 Series, with more substantial plastics used throughout. BMW's much-improved iDrive system now features a higher definition 6.5 inch flat screen. The shark-nosed exterior styling takes a bit of getting used to, but most would agree that the profile now looks a lot cleaner, with the banana curve of the old car's sills being straightened while the rear end is a good deal more muscular with tidier detailing.


Market and Model

With a real world price tag of just over £25,000, the BMW 120d xDrive looks very reasonable value for money. By contrast, an Audi A3 Sportback 2.0 TDI S Line with only 148bhp and front-wheel drive will set you back around the same amount. Mercedes-Benz might well weigh in with an A-Class rival but for the time being at least, BMW seems to have a good run at this market. Our recent run of terrible winters has seen winter tyre sales soar and with SUV sales still buoyant, there's plenty of room for a sporty option that still offers great fuel economy.


Cost of Ownership

The penalties for the weight and added frictional losses of the all-wheel drive system of the 120d xDrive aren't actually all that great. The standard rear wheel drive 120d returns 62.8mpg and the xDrive gets 60.1mpg, a reduction of around four per cent. Emissions climb from 119 to 123g/km, which has the effect of lifting the car from a £30 road tax rate to a £100 one and also lifts it up a band for company car tax. Therefore, you'll need to add the increased road tax to the premium of around £1,500 for the all-wheel drive mechanicals when calculating the whole life cost of the car.
Still, you might well claw almost all of that premium back when the time comes to sell. The xDrive offers a distinctive edge over other 1 Series models and also acts as an alternative to those ubiquitous Audi A3s.


Summary

The BMW 120d is an impressive enough vehicle in rear-wheel drive form and the xDrive all-wheel drive chassis adds quite a lot of additional capability without compromising the car's feel. As for what might be some of your potential worries, well.. The steering wheel isn't about to become corrupted by unmanageable torque-steer and the car isn't going to become a doggedly understeery handful. In fact, in most road conditions you'll not notice the all-wheel drive system. It's only when the going gets slippery that it comes into its own. Teamed with a decent set of winter tyres, the 120d xDrive would make a brilliantly discreet tool for winter driving fun. Yes, that's right. Winter can be a time to enjoy your car if you're properly equipped for it.
Aside from the traction advantage, you're still getting a car that can average better than 60mpg yet has the ability to nudge under seven seconds to 60mph and can seat five - just. If there's a more capable hatchback sold on the UK market, I'm still to think of it.



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