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Story and photos by Laurance Yap
Rovaniemi, Finland – Look through the ranks of the top drivers in rallying and Formula 1 and you’ll find a disproportionate number of Finnish names in pretty dominant positions. Whether they’re behind the wheels of fast, low-slung open-wheel racers or juiced-up hatchbacks designed to carve through the countryside at insane speeds, Finns seem to be better at driving fast, in general, than anyone else.
What is it that makes this so? A lot of it has to do with the country’s unique climate and topography. Finns spend an awful lot of time driving on snow and ice, and the car control that they develop from a young age from all of this practice translates well to motorsport, whether racing on tarmac, gravel, or snow. Finland’s wide-open spaces encourage fast driving, and a long history of top racing drivers coming from the area mean that youngsters grow up dreaming of following in the footsteps of guys like Mika Häkkinen, Tommi Mäkinen, or the guy sitting beside me right now, Tino Aaltonen – son of Monte Carlo Rally winner Rauno Altonen.
We’re sliding around on a frozen lake, Tino and I, in a new BMW 530xi, which features a new variation on BMW’s all-wheel-drive system, called xDrive. The system, centred around an electronically-controlled multi-plate clutch, continually modifies the flow of power between the front and rear axles.
While still a “reactive” system – unlike Audi’s quattro, which splits torque evenly between the front and rear under regular conditions – the BMW system can react to traction losses within milliseconds, often in less time than it takes to turn a wheel. In extreme cases, it can completely disconnect, or even rigidly link, the front and rear axles to provide the necessary stability and driving performance that you would expect of an all-wheel-drive BMW.
In practice, what this means is that the 530xi is a terrifically stable and balanced car, even in the slickest and snowiest conditions you can imagine. Tino keeps his foot to the floor most of the way around the track we’re driving (in subsequent attempts to do the same, I spin amusingly and often). It powers out of corners like a champ, with just a little bit of wiggle from the tail to remind you that you’re driving a BMW. Unlike other all-wheel-drive systems I’ve tried, it tries very hard to give a balanced, rear-drive feel, allowing you to use the throttle to steer the car in a bend; you need to be pushing very hard indeed for the standard-fit DSC stability control to intervene, as the car’s electronics attempt to balance its handling through xDrive before resorting to braking a single wheel to mitigate under- or oversteer. Fitted with appropriate snow tires – which make any car handle and stop better, no matter what wheels are driven – it is amazingly stable and composed off the line, all four wheels hooking up with no drama as you’re rocketed toward the horizon.
One of the reasons you’re rocketing towards the horizon more quickly now is a revised range of engines that are being introduced in the 5-series for the 2006 model year. The base engine is now a 3.0-litre, 215-hp unit fitted to the (curiously misnamed) 525i. A similar engine, but with many changes to the intake and other auxiliary systems – you can’t just “upgrade” from the 525 – is fitted to the 530 and produces 255 hp. Both engines, like the unchanged 4.4-litre V8 fitted to the 545i, now feature BMW’s proprietary Valvetronic technology, which does away completely with the throttle body and offers not only improved performance but also impressively upgraded fuel efficiency.
Aside from the new engines and the availability of AWD, there are many other changes to the 5-series for 2006. Two wagons, a 525xi and a 530xi, are now available, and come exclusively with xDrive. All models now come standard with servotronic power-assisted steering; and improved Dynamic Stability Control that incorporates hill-start assist, brake assist for panic stops, automatic brake drying in wet conditions, and other cleverness. The interior on all models has been upgraded with better trim around the air conditioning controls, a CD player with MP3 capability, and adaptive swivelling headlights are now standard on the 530i. Of course, the usual array of BMW options is available, including a premium package whose heated seats and steering wheel are a huge boon in cold weather.
I’ve always been a fan of BMWs, particularly because their sporty character derives so much from the rear-drive nature of their chassis dynamics. And while I’ve also always been a fan of all-wheel-drive as a principle, some of the company’s earlier offerings with four driven wheels – which had a fixed torque split of 38/62 – have felt less lively and alert than their fine-handling rear-drive counterparts. XDrive, which is essentially rear-biased until you need the extra traction available at the front wheels, goes a long way towards making the all-wheel-drive 5-series models feel even more like the BMWs they are – sharp, poised, stable driving machines that happen to now perform even better in adverse conditions.
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The 2006 5-series range goes on sale in late spring. No pricing has been announced yet, but expect the 530i’s base price to increase to reflect its more powerful engine and fuller feature content, with the 525i sliding in below where the old 530 left off; if previous experience with all-wheel-drive BMWs is any indication, expect to pay about $3,000 extra for the privilege of all-wheel-drive. Though I’ve always believed that rear-drive is more than adequate with a good set of snow tires, xDrive manages to substantially increase the 5-series’ safety net without compromising its handling and performance.
Tino, being here on BMW’s behalf to teach us about xDrive, is understandably enthused by the stability and performance that the system offers. One wonders that if he and his compatriots had such technology at their disposal in the past, whether the Finns would be such a dominant force in motorsports today.