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What is BMW xDrive?

If you're shopping for a BMW you'll have noticed that most models are available with xDrive – but what is it, and is it worth paying extra for? Find out in this handy guide.

BMW xDrive is the name given to the German brand's all-wheel-drive system. It's been around since 2003, and is now available on all BMW models to improve grip in slippery conditions. In this guide we'll dig deeper to find out how it works, as well as the pros and cons of choosing an xDrive BMW.

How does BMW xDrive work?

xDrive is an all-wheel-drive system that can intelligently send power to the wheels that need it the most when the going gets slippery. Traditionally, BMW models have always been rear-wheel-drive – that is to say, the engine powers the rear wheels alone. 

While this tends to make BMW cars feel sporty to drive, it means they struggle to put the power down when it's wet, cold and slippery – simply because the rear wheels don't have the weight of an engine on top of them to push them into the road for more grip.

This problem is fixed in xDrive models, which can send all the engine's power to all four wheels simultaneously. xDrive uses the car's stability and traction control systems to detect wheel slip and then quickly send engine power to whichever wheel has grip on the road, hopefully avoiding a slide and getting you on your way safely. xDrive uses an electronically controlled clutch to divert power between the car's four wheels, and it changes which wheels are getting the power very quickly.

Is BMW xDrive a four-wheel-drive system?

BMW xDrive
BMW's first xDrive system, released in 2003

xDrive is an example of an all-wheel-drive system, as opposed to a four-wheel-drive system. The difference is that a four-wheel-drive system uses a transfer case to send an equal amount of power to all four wheels – which is great for off-roading, but rubbish for on-road handling – while an all-wheel-drive system (like xDrive) can automatically vary the power it sends to each wheel using a differential instead of a transfer case. This makes it a much better solution for dynamic road cars.

How good is BMW xDrive? What are the benefits?

It's very good, and getting better with each generation. xDrive was first introduced on BMW's 'X' range of SUVs: the X3 and X5 being the first to show it off. Since then it's been rolled out across the entire BMW range, and while it doesn't turn a BMW M3 into an off-roading monster, it does allow the taller SUVs to tackle reasonably tricky off-road conditions.

2024 BMW 5 Series Touring xDrive in the snow

The most useful benefit of xDrive for most drivers is that it allows for more confident handling in the wet, allowing you to accelerate harder without feeling the rear tyres twitch and slide as you might in a traditional rear-wheel-drive BMW.

In recent years BMW has even fitted xDrive as standard to its performance models, such as the M3, M4, M5 and M8. These M models get a specially tuned version of xDrive which helps these 500hp+ sports cars shoot off the line without much wheelspin, while also feeling exciting in corners, with more power being sent to the rear wheels than the front ones. In some M models you can disable the drive to the front wheels entirely, leaving you spinning your rear wheels for some traditional BMW drifting. On a race track only, please.

What are the downsides of xDrive?

There are two. Firstly, a BMW model with xDrive costs more than one without (although some models are only available with xDrive), and secondly they will use slightly more fuel than a two-wheel-drive model. 

What BMW models are available with xDrive?

All of them! You'll find xDrive options on everything from the small BMW 1 Series to the traditional 3 Series and 5 Series, all the way up to the huge 7 Series. And naturally you'll find xDrive options on the X1, X3 and X5 SUVs too.

BMW xDrive FAQs