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2004 New Car Review: BMW X3 3.0i Automatic

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Twenty years ago I looked at a very special BMW for sale. It was a custom replica of a 1600ti, the predecessor to the 2002 sedan that put the Bavarian company on the US enthusiast map, and then into wider acceptance. It had just about every hot-stuff Alpina part possible. But this little rocket had a few drawbacks from my standpoint at the time. I did a lot of backcountry camping, rock climbing, and fly-fishing at the time, and so any vehicle I would buy had to at least be capable of being driven on a moderately-maintained unpaved road without suspension, radiator, or oil pan damage. Four inches of ground clearance, competition suspension, and magnesium alloy wheels didn't fit into that particular vehicular habitat, so I passed. (And have regretted it ever since, but that's another story.)

In those days, BMWs didn't go into the backwoods. Now they can, and do. The X5 ``Sport Activity Vehicle'' has been a major success for BMW, so it should come as no surprise that the SAV line has been extended with the new X3. The new junior X-wagen follows the same paradigm of versatility with sporty driving character that made the X5 a success, but in a slightly smaller size and with only six-cylinder power. Think of it as relating to the 3-Series as the X5 relates to the 5-Series. But don't think of the X3 as small.

Externally it is only an inch and a half lower, and four inches shorter, mounted on a wheelbase only an inch less than the X5. Interior volume is a mere cubic foot and a half less, and the X3 actually has two cubic feet more cargo space. BMW has learned a few things about design and space efficiency in the four years since the X5's introduction, and it shows.

Two X3 models are offered, the X3 2.5i with a 2.5-liter engine and the 3.0-liter X3 3.0i. Unusually for the class, but not for BMW, a six-speed manual is standard for both, with a five-speed automatic available. All-wheel drive, in the form of BMW's new ``xDrive'' system, is standard equipment on all X3s, and in standard equipment levels they are comparable to the 3-Series.

A week with an automatic X3 3.0i showed why it is a sport-activity, not sport-utility, vehicle. It's as simple as activity versus utility - an SUV gets you to the sport, an SAV provides a sporty driving experience on the way to activity. Sports car handling is a BMW specialty, and it shines through the X3's extra weight and height. Add comfort and good space, and the X3 makes a great all-year, all-road BMW.

APPEARANCE: With even one quick look, there is no doubt as to the X3's parentage and position. Its lines and proportions are ``son of X5,'' with post 2003 7-Series styling updates. It's a tall, chunky two-box design with the hood sculpting, twin-kidney grille, passenger cabin shape, and the rear brow spoiler familiar from the X5. While it is shorter than the X5, the X3's wheelbase is nearly as long as the X5's, for shorter overhangs. The complexly-shaped headlight covers (with round headlights beneath, of course) and strong, angular shoulder line and side character lines are from the newest BMW style. Black plastic lower bumpers, wheel arch trim, and side sills contribute to the rough-and-ready look, and should keep body damage from minor brush or shopping cart incidents at bay. Medium-low profile tires on alloy rims complete the sport-activity look.

COMFORT: The X3's greatest advance over the X5 is in space efficiency. As noted, although it is very slightly smaller in total interior volume, the X3 has more cargo space with the rear seat folded. And, at all times, it makes better use of the space it has than does the X5. It's considerably larger than the 3-Series wagon. Interior styling and appointment are pure BMW, in basic black with contrasting aluminum trim on the door handles and console. A simple, functional dash features easily-read instruments in a shaded pod in front of the driver, a thick-rimmed, leather-covered steering wheel with audio and cruise controls that is manually adjustable for tilt and reach, and a center stack with navigation, audio, and climate systems. Firmly-padded, bolstered power-adjustable sport buckets in front and a spacious 60/40 split-folding rear bench provide comfort for five, although the center rear position is best used for short distances (as in most such vehicles, or sedans for that matter). My test car had the ``Premium Package'' of options, which includes the ``panorama glass moonroof.'' It's pricey, at $2,550, but highly recommended if your driving takes you to any area with spectacular overhead scenery. With large tinted glass panels over both rows of seats, all occupants get a premium view. Don't forget the sunscreen. Cargo space and access are also very good, and useful storage spaces are found in the doors, front seatbacks, and console. The battery lives under the cargo floor, while the space-saver spare is located under the rear, truck-style.

SAFETY: In addition to structural integrity and crumple zones, the X3's ``Intelligent Safety and Information System'' (ISIS), a decentralized computer network, coordinates deployment of front, side, and head-protection airbags.

ROADABILITY: The EPA considers the X3 to be a ``Special Purpose Vehicle'' - a light truck. That's as close to ``truck'' as it will ever get. The X3 is the BMW interpretation of a ``crossover vehicle,'' on the large end of compact in size - a higher, sturdier, reinforced unit-construction car with fully-independent suspension (of BMW's usual dual-pivot strut front, multilink rear design) and all-wheel drive. On the plus side, eight inches of clearance and a clean underside with light-duty skid plates are mighty handy when dealing with with the curbs, gutters, steep driveways, chuckholes, bumps, and road debris that populate American roadways. The new ``xDrive'' all-wheel drive system utilizes electronic control of a central multiplate clutch, with logic input from the stability control system to determine the best front-to-rear torque split for the current situation for optimum traction in slippery or dry conditions. Like most crossovers, the X3 is meant for all-weather driving on pavement and improved dirt and gravel roads, not for serious off-road adventure. The X3 is 630 lbs lighter than the X5, but does weigh 500 lbs more than the AWD 325xi wagon and has a higher center of gravity. So it's not quite as responsive as a 3-Series sedan or wagon, with more apparent body motion because of its height, but it is better-handling than other crossover SUVs. For high vehicle, it has excellent road manners, and a very high comfort level, both helped by the good chassis rigidity. The standard suspension tuning is firm but strikes a fine balance between sporty driving and comfort, and, naturally for a BMW, a sport package is available. If it doesn't get around corners like an M3, the X3 is happy on roads and in conditions where an M3 would be expensively stranded.

PERFORMANCE: BMW's lovely, lively 3.0-liter inline six does an admirable job under the hood of the X3. The specifications are good, with 225 horsepower at 5900 rpm and 214 lb-ft of torque at 3500 rpm, but they don't tell the whole story. An inline six-cylinder engine is inherently well-balanced, for smooth, quiet operation. ``VANOS'' variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust camshafts and a dual-resonance intake system give it good low- and mid-range power in addition to a strong top end, and allow it to work very well with the optional five-speed automatic transmission, with which my test car was equipped. The standard six-speed will please the enthusiasts, but expect the automatic to be the most common choice. It suits the X3's personality well, with smooth, quick shifting and ``Steptronic'' manual mode. The engine's torque characteristics work well with the automatic, with Steptronic mode necessary only for entertainment purposes. First gear is very low, which should be helpful on steep unpaved roads and in other low-traction conditions. Hill-descent control also helps at that time, at low speeds. Acceleration is far better than the norm for crossovers, with 0-60 in less than 8 seconds, and powerful four-wheel antilock vented disc brakes stop it securely.

CONCLUSIONS: With agility on pavement and the ability to deal happily with less-than-perfect roads and weather, the X3 is the BMW for the driving enthusiast whose interests are not totally urban.

2004 BMW X3 3.0i Automatic

Base Price $ 36,300
Price As Tested $ 43,445
Engine Type dual overhead cam 24-valve aluminum alloy inline 6
Engine Size 3.0 liters / 182 cu. in.
Horsepower 225 @ 5900 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 214 @ 3500 rpm
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Wheelbase / Length 110.1 in. / 179.7 in.
Curb Weight 4067 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower 18.1
Fuel Capacity 17.7 gal.
Fuel Requirement 91 octane unleaded premium gasoline
Tires P235/55 HR17 Pirelli Scorpion
Brakes, front/rear vented disc / vented disc,
Suspension, front/rear independent double-pivot strut / independent multilink
Ground clearance 8.0 inches
Drivetrain front engine, all-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 16 / 23 / 19
0 to 60 mph 7.9 sec
Towing capacity 3500 lbs.

Titanium silver metallic paint $ 475
Premium package - includes: panorama glass moonroof, auto-dimming rearview mirror, leather upholstery, lumbar support $ 2,550
Navigation system $ 1,800
Privacy glass $ 350
Destination charge $ 695