The improved all-wheel drive BMW 120d xDrive might just be the most complete family hatch yet conceived. Jonathan Crouch explains why.
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.
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.
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 uprated 190bhp turbodiesel four-cylinder engine that's now a tad quicker off the line than the standard 120d. The sprint to 62mph takes 6.8 seconds on the way to a 138mph 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 - with that car's usual issues. One consequence of running a transmission tunnel through what has been a rather compact hatch has been rather compromised accommodation. That hasn't really changed too much. The 1 Series is still a bit more cramped in the back than something like a Golf. Nevertheless, the cabin is a good deal better looking than most rivals, with a revision to the dashboard minor controls. Both the air vents and the controls for the radio and the automatic air conditioning now feature chrome surrounds, while the radio and automatic air conditioning keypads are now set against high-gloss black panelling. There's also a standard freestanding, 6.5-inch Control Display. Choose the optional Professional Navigation system and a bigger 8.8-inch display is fitted. Like all 1 Series models, this one is optionally available with a 40:20:40 split rear seat backrest: folding one or more of the sections allows boot capacity to be increased in stages from 360 to 1,200-litres.
The exterior styling of this car is a bit neater than it was in the pre-facelift version, especially at the front. For the first time, full LED headlamps with low and main beam have been added to the options list, with Adaptive LED headlamps a further option. These follow the path of the road ahead, and also adapt their beam according to the type of road and conditions at any given moment. At the rear, revised tail lamps with a familiar BMW 'L' shape design also adopt LED tech.
Market and Model
The 120d xDrive comes only in five-door form in the 1 Series Sports Hatch range and carries a price tag of nearly £28,500, £3,000 more than the cheapest five-door 120d with 2WD. In other words, it's hardly inexpensive. Still, that looks reasonable value for money given that a rival Audi A3 Sportback 2.0 TDI quattro S Line with only 150bhp will set you back only around £600 less. 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 65.7mpg on the combined cycle and the xDrive gets 62.8mpg, a reduction of around four per cent. Emissions climb from 114 to 119g/km. That may mean increased road tax costs that you'll have to add 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.
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, let's see. 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 62mph and can seat five - just. If there's a more capable hatchback sold on the UK market, I'm still to think of it.