Right at Home - BMW 325iX takes on Big Bear

Writing and Photography by Riley Koidahl.

The 1986-1991 BMW 325iX is a rare bird. Built at the end of the legendary E30 body style production run, the 325iX took the already successful platform and added a viscous-coupling, Audi-slaying, all-wheel-drive system (among other upgrades, like 15” wheels, special ABS, and more). Interestingly, the 325iX was never heavily advertised during its launch, and only 5000 units came to North America, in total, from 1988-1991; 2500 to the US, and 2500 to Canada. It was thought that the 325iX was BMW’s “middle finger” to Audi, to say “we can do that too,” and based on head-to-head reviews, the BMW did just about everything better.

Nowadays, you seldom see a 325iX on the road, but if you do, it’s most likely in snow-havens like Colorado, the Pacific Northwest, or on the East Coast, where they’ve all rusted to dust. After searching for a seemingly non-existent clean iX for years, I stumbled upon the perfect find late one night on Craigslist. The only problem? It was in Vancouver, BC Canada, and I was in the US. The next morning I headed North and met the seller in another country, which went smoother than one might expect.

The seller was an iX fanatic and it showed. The car was immaculately maintained, rust-free, original paint, and included nearly a spare car worth of extra parts, including two spare sets of wheels and tires. Not only was the BMW clean, it was fully loaded with every option. The car was a 4-door with sport package (not available in the US), 5-speed manual, Diamondschwartz metallic paint, heated seats, map light rear-view mirror, and the list goes on. Needless to say, I jumped on the opportunity.

After owning the car for a couple of years, I finally had an opportunity to test its snow capabilities - something that was a major selling point for these cars when new. Originally hailing from Washington State, I have plenty of snow-driving experience, but after moving to Southern California, the opportunities are few and far between. When I heard that Big Bear got 24 inches of fresh snow in just a couple of days, it was finally time for the 325iX to prove itself.

For those that haven’t driven in snow much, there are different types, believe it or not: heavy and wet, light and fluffy, or hard and icy. The snow at Big Bear was perfect - not too wet and not too light, hovering right around 30 degrees; this translates to good grip, predictable handling, and very few deep ruts. On top of that, the highways were maintained without salt, which is a major plus if you prefer your car to remain in one piece (i.e. salt = rust). 

The first thing I noticed whilst driving up the mountain pass was the lack of general snow competence of California drivers. Even before there was snow on the ground, traffic came to a crawl, with people chaining up everywhere. It was obvious that many of these people had never driven in the snow, as I saw chains on the rear of front-wheel-drive cars and offroad-modified jeeps chaining up, all the while there was still no snow in sight. I knew that once I made it to the top, I would have to veer off the beaten path to escape this mess.

Sure enough, the backside of the mountain held miles of roads with untouched snow - quite literally a private rally course. It was here that the 325iX came to life. With it’s 63% rear wheel bias, the iX behaves much like a rear-wheel-drive car in the snow; it doesn’t plow like traditional 50/50 split cars (Subaru, Audi, etc). You can flick it around corners like it’s RWD, without the needing to grab the e-brake. 

The viscous coupling differentials work by method of "shear forces" caused by slotted plates that alternate between the input and output shafts moving through silicone fluid. As the plates move through the fluid, the shear force increases; basically, a faster movement = higher shear force = higher locking action.

This means that when one wheel spins faster than the other, the coupling smoothly engages, effectively locking the differential. When traction is regained, the differential unlocks. Because the couplings function automatically, the ABS (anti-lock braking system) still works in the snow, unlike most cars with mechanical differential locks. In fact, the ABS in the 325iX is specially designed for snow and dirt, and in my experience, it works remarkably well in both. Despite having basic all-season tires, the 325iX maintained excellent traction and predictability both accelerating and braking in several inches of fresh snow.

Because of its smaller size and excellent visibility, the 325iX quickly feels like an extension of one’s own body. The BMW maintains a poise throughout even the widest of drifts; just look where you want to go, and the car will follow. While not a “fast” car by today’s standards, the 325iX delivers a high ratio of “smiles per gallon” by virtue of its balanced composure: exceptional traction and go kart-like handling, paired with a stout motor.

The 2.5 liter inline six cylinder has enough low end grunt for hairpins, and plenty of horsepower to ring out around wider corners. BMW’s M20 motor has a beautiful, linear torque curve that allows for predictable and confidence-inspiring handling in all conditions. On snowy backroads, the 325iX sits in second gear almost exclusively, allowing the driver to focus solely on steering inputs and perfecting their slides. 

Apart from its rally tendencies, the BMW 325iX is actually quite a civilized car. A stereo, heated seats, power windows and sunroof, amongst other amenities, bring the 325iX to a level comparable with modern cars, whilst predating them by nearly 30 years (not to mention the reliability and aftermarket support of the E30 platform).

Overall, the BMW 325iX offers a rewarding driving experience for all seasons; unparalleled traction, balanced and predictable handling, excellent visibility, and best of all, it’s fun!

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