First Drive: 2006 BMW 530xi
Rovaniemi, Finland, is a frozen city at the Arctic Circle where only the steel-hearted survive. Well, and Santa Claus, according to the local tourism bureau. Although we never ran into ol' Saint Nick, Rovaniemi was the perfect location to sample the new all-wheel-drive 2006 BMW 5 Series, which will go on sale this spring.
The all-wheel-drive 5 Series is the latest in a gaggle of new all-wheel-drive premium sedans. For decades, well-to-do car buyers in snowy climates have had only two choices, an Audi with quattro and a Mercedes-Benz with 4Matic. But now other premium brands are on to the all-wheel-drive trend. Cadillac made sure the new STS had it for 2005. And the Infiniti M35 and Lexus GS 300 are onboard for 2006.
And now BMW will make its xDrive all-wheel-drive system a $2,000 option on both the 525 and 530 sedans, and standard on the late-arriving 5 Series wagon, which will be sold only in the 530 flavor.
No V8, but More Power
Although there are no current plans to install xDrive on the V8-powered 545i sedan, there's little reason to worry about the six-cylinder AWD models feeling underpowered, as both the 525 and 530 feature the new 3.0-liter magnesium/aluminum engines first seen in the 2006 BMW 3 Series. For the 525xi, that means 215 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque. On the 530xi, there's 255 hp and 220 lb-ft of torque.
The rear-drive 525i and 530i also get the new engines. Either way, you'll have your choice of a six-speed manual gearbox or a six-speed automatic with Steptronic. The xDrive system adds about 170 pounds to the cars' curb weight and a couple tenths of a second to their 0-60 times — BMW estimates a manual-gearbox 530i can sprint to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds, while a 530xi can do it in 6.6. The difference is greater on the 525 models — 7.3 seconds on the 525i versus 7.9 on the 525xi. Fuel economy is affected as well, with 21 city/29 highway estimates for rear-drivers and 20/27 for AWD models.
A few of the main roads in Rovaniemi had been plowed and sanded, which gave us an opportunity to sample the new engine in the 530xi. Although the jump in horsepower is what you'll read about, we were more impressed by the extra low-end torque, which made the manual-shift testers easy to launch.
A sport package will be available, and you can even get 18-inch wheels if you want them.
What Makes It Winterproof
The 5 Series borrows xDrive from the X3 and X5 sport-utilities. The system is electronically controlled and uses a multiplate clutch for infinite variation in the front/rear power ratio. The system works hand-in-hand with BMW's Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) system, using data taken from the yaw rate and steering angle sensors to adjust the distribution of power.
Further, when DSC takes corrective braking action on a single wheel, torque is automatically redirected to the wheel opposite it. This means the BMW 530xi can keep moving even if only one wheel has traction.
The Ultimate Ice Driving Machine
All of the 530s we drove wore non-factory winter performance tires (no studs). On public roads covered with packed snow and ice, the combination of xDrive, DSC and snow tires made the car basically unstoppable.
But it wasn't until we took a few dozen laps around an ice track that we understood why the 530xi would make a fantastic winter car for an enthusiast.
To accommodate drivers of varying skill and guts, DSC now has three modes. In between "completely on" and "completely off," there's a "Dynamic Traction Control" setting that scales back the intervention without taking away the safety net. This mode worked best on snow-dusted ice: It lets the 530xi's wheels spin enough to let you have your fun while gently stepping in to realign the tail. Skidding is still a possibility if you go into turns too hot, but the car's electronics keep you out of most other trouble in a manner that builds you up rather than beats you down.
Switch off the stability control altogether, and the advanced driver is left with a responsive and predictable ice-driving machine. If there's any traction to be had, the xDrive system sniffs it out.
With a self-satisfied wink in Audi's direction, BMW threw a few unexpected extras into the all-wheel-drive 5 Series. Both Hill-Start Assist and Hill Descent Control are standard in case you need to conquer the Grim Reaper's driveway. There's even a Trailer Stability Control feature that uses the brakes to keep trailers hitched to the 530xi from swaying out of control
in the event that an owner takes advantage of the car's 4,410-pound tow rating.
We doubt many buyers will ever need these curiosities, but we know plenty who will be delighted by the prospect of driving a BMW 5 Series that smirks at Old Man Winter.