This morning, November 19, the temperature in Prince George is -20 C. My test car, a 2014 BMW 328 X-Drive (all-wheel-drive) diesel, has been parked outside and is covered in a dusting of snow.
It must have been a shock to the vehicle's system. Instead of Vancouver restaurants and shopping malls, here it is up north, going toe-to-toe with 4x4 pickups in a much harsher environment.
No problem. The diesel engine starts immediately. I put the seat heater on high and ease onto the street, which is more hockey rink than pavement.
The 3 Series BMWs are my Goldilocks cars, just right in size and configuration. The 7 is way too fancy, the 5s are a bit big. Getting back behind the wheel of a 3 Series is like having dinner with an ex-girlfriend with whom there was no messy break-up. There is the reminder of all the good things, as well as what has changed.
I had thought this review would be all about the motor. But, given weather and road conditions, it was the X-Drive, and the overall balance of the vehicle, which were really put to the test.
The diesel is a turbocharged four-cylinder, making 180 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, all of which translates to ample power for everyday driving. Before heading into the mountains, I took the car to our airport advanced-driving-school base for a few higher speed runs. At 140 kph the car was still accelerating steadily, with the diesel murmuring in the background like a ship's engine below decks. Stability was excellent.
Maxine at BMW sent an email which ended with "let's hope for snow." But I'm not sure she meant the 30 cm of white stuff that I encountered as I crossed the Coast Mountains and headed into British Columbia's interior. While BMW had fitted the car with winter tires, they were a bit wide for optimal snow traction. Nevertheless, the car was remarkably sure-footed, even when I had to cross those nasty piles of snow that collect in the passing lane.
BMW biases its all-wheel-drive slightly to the rear, though ultimately drive goes to the wheels with most traction in slippery conditions. The 60/40 torque split results in more neutral handling than front-biased AWD systems.
The trip north provided a reminder of why BMW's 3 Series cars are held in high regard by knowledgeable drivers. Steering was accurate, the suspension supple yet firm enough, and the car had a great inherent sense of direction and stability. The measure of a first-rate road car is the sum of all the design elements working harmoniously.
My drive included bumps, gravel and snow as well as dry highways. While some testers have complained that this 3 Series has become too soft, the suspension tuning is just fine for most circumstances. What impresses on the test track doesn't always translate to driveability in day-to-day use.
The manual mode of the eight-speed automatic gearbox is handy, even if it only gives a modest degree of extra control to the driver. Amongst major manufacturers, GM does this better. With many GM vehicles, including the Cruze, the driver can run the engine to redline without causing a computer-generated upshift. In North America, we can't get a manual gearbox with the diesel or with X-Drive.
Things I didn't like on the BMW were the red rear turn signals (instead of amber), the lack of rear fog lamps, which have been mandatory in Europe since 1992, and no headlamp washers. The headlights themselves were excellent.
Chances are anyone who appreciates a driver's car will like the 3 Series -- it really is that good. There's more snow falling, and I'm looking forward to the drive home.