2006 BMW 5-Series
ROVANIEMI, FINLAND- Look through the ranks of the top drivers in rallying and Formula One and you'll find a disproportionate number of Finnish names in pretty dominant positions.
Whether they're behind the wheel of fast, low-slung open-wheel racers or juiced-up hatchbacks designed to carve through the countryside at insane speeds, Finns seem to be particularly adept at driving fast.
What makes this so? A lot of it has to do with the country's unique climate and topography. Finns spend much time driving on snow and ice, and the car control that they develop from a young age translates well to motorsport, whether you're racing on tarmac, gravel or snow.
Finland's wide-open spaces encourage fast driving and youngsters grow up dreaming of following in the footsteps of Mika Hakkinen, Tommi Makkinen, or the guy sitting beside me right now, Tino Aaltonen, son of Monte Carlo Rally winner Rauno Aaltonen.
We're sliding around on a frozen lake, Tino and I, in a 2006 BMW 530xi, equipped with intelligent xDrive, BMW's all-wheel-drive system.
Centred around an electronically controlled multi-plate clutch, this optional system 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 – xDrive 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 rigidly link – the front and rear axles to provide the stability and driving performance. This means the 530xi is a terrifically stable and balanced car, even in the snowiest conditions.
Tino keeps his foot to the floor most of the way around the track (in subsequent attempts to do the same, I spin often). The sedan powers out of corners like a champ, with just a bit of wiggle from the tail to remind you that you're driving a BMW.
Unlike other all-wheel-drive systems I've tried, this one strives 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 (Dynamic 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 – this Bimmer feels stable and composed as you rocket toward the horizon.
The increased velocity stems from a revised range of engines being introduced in the 5 Series for the 2006 model year.
The base engine is now a 3.0-litre inline-six, cranking out 215 hp in the (curiously misnamed) 525i. A similar engine, but with many changes to the intake and other auxiliary systems, is fitted to the 530 and produces 255 hp.
Both powerplants, like the unchanged 4.4-litre V8 motivating 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, 5 Series sees many other changes 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; 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. Standard on the 530i are a CD player with MP3 capability and adaptive swivelling headlights.
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.
Intelligent xDrive, which is essentially rear-biased until you need the extra traction available at the front wheels, goes a long way toward making the all-wheel-drive 5 Series models feel even more like the BMWs they are: sharp, poised driving machines that now perform even better in adverse conditions.
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 AWD privilege.
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 handling and performance.
One wonders: if Tino and his compatriots had had such technology in the past, would the Finns be such a dominant force in motorsport today? Laurance Yap, a freelance journalist (yap @ mac.com), prepared this report based on travel provided by the automaker.