- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2003

Being stubborn can be a positive thing sometimes, as BMW can testify. Practically alone among the world’s car companies, the Bavarian manufacturer tenaciously stuck to a rear-wheel-drive layout for its sedans and sports cars. It occasionally produced models with four-wheel drive, as with its X5 sport utility vehicle, but it never crossed the line by delivering a front-wheel-drive model.

Just about everybody else did. At one point, for example, General Motors decreed that all of its new cars would pull with the front wheels instead of push with the rear wheels. Except for its exotic NS-X sports car, Honda makes only front-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicles.

Experts testify that front drive is a better layout for the masses of motorists with average driving skills. With power to the front wheels, it means that in most cases you have traction no matter where the wheels are pointed. It works far better in snow or other slippery conditions than rear drive.

However, the advantages fade as the horsepower rises. Big engines in front-drive cars tend to jerk the steering wheel out of the driver’s hands. So for hot cars such as the Chevrolet Corvette and the Infiniti M45 sports sedan, rear drive provides better balance and control.

As cars across the spectrum have been getting more powerful over the past several years, rear-wheel drive has been making a comeback, with increasing numbers of models. Even some former front-drivers such as the Cadillac STS are converting to rear drive.

Boosting the rear-drive trend is an array of new and sophisticated stability and traction-control devices that minimize some of the disadvantages compared with front-wheel drive. But the rear drivers still can’t quite cut it for the average driver, especially now that traction control is available on front-drive cars as well.

Nevertheless, the growing trend toward high performance, with the return to rear drive, makes BMW look prescient.

There’s another trend at work as well, brought on by the SUV revolution. Many SUVs come with four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, and buyers are starting to demand that on their sports and luxury sedans as well. Some in the industry predict that, in the not distant future, all luxury cars will have all-wheel drive.

None of this has been lost on the folks at Bavarian Motor Works, who offer all-wheel drive on their entry-level 3-Series models. It’s a welcome addition, especially for anyone who has tried to back up a slight incline on wet grass in a 3-Series, traction control notwithstanding.

The test car was the 2003 BMW 325xi. The “x” is the tip-off that it has all-wheel drive. It carries a base price tag of $30,245, which puts it in the so-called near-luxury class, though it qualifies more as a sports sedan because of BMW’s penchant for all-around performance.

It’s a tidy, fairly elegant package, classified as a compact based on interior space. There’s comfortable seating for four, though the back seat is a bit tight on head and knee room. A large drive-train tunnel leaves no foot room for the middle passenger in back.

There’s an expected high level of basic equipment, including stability and traction control, antilock brakes, side air bags, remote locking, heated outside mirrors, alloy wheels, automatic climate control and a stereo with CD player. But as is the case with other European cars, there’s a long list of options that can quickly inflate the price well beyond the opening bid.

On the test car, the options included leather upholstery, a motorized glass sunroof, power front seats, bi-xenon headlights, a cold-weather group with heated front seats and headlight washers, and a package with 17-inch alloy wheels and sport seats up front. It also included $475 for the silver metallic paint job. All of this brought the 325xi’s suggested sticker price to $37,990. Of that amount, $1,750 is for the all-wheel drive, and it’s worth every penny.

Still, the total is a fair nut for a car that, despite its many desirable attributes, is not a storming performer. The engine is BMW’s sewing-machine-smooth, 2.5-liter in-line six cylinder, which delivers 184 horsepower. On the test car, it was mated to a five-speed manual transmission.

BMW delivers a higher percentage of manual gearboxes in the United States than any other company, and its expertise shows on this model. The shifter was so lacking in effort that it felt almost as if it were not connected to anything, though the throws between gears were fairly long. Clutch action was similarly light, with an easy engagement.

Although the steering wheel is offset slightly, the combination of a power seat and a fully adjustable steering wheel makes it easy to find a secure and comfortable driving position. The optional sports seats provide more than adequate support for fast driving on curving roads.

But unless you’re the type who inclines toward sedate motoring, you might want to consider the 330xi, which has a larger and more powerful (225 horsepower) six-cylinder engine. However, it costs a whopping $7,000 more than the 325xi, so maybe you’ll want to stick with sedate.

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