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Expert Reviews 1 of 5
By Jim Flammang
December 19, 2003
Vehicle Overview BMW brought serious sportiness into the sport utility vehicle field when it rolled out its midsize X5 for the 2000 model year. Now, BMW is preparing to launch a smaller version of the “sports activity vehicle,” called the X3. As its model designation suggests, the X3 is roughly related to BMW’s 3 Series passenger cars rather than its 5 Series. Aiming more at the youth market, BMW is placing considerable emphasis on the agility of the new model. The new X3 debuted at the Frankfurt Motor Show in Germany in September 2003 and goes on sale early in 2004.
The X3’s powertrains are similar to those in 3 Series sedans and wagons: 2.5-liter and 3.0-liter inline-six-cylinder engines that produce 184 and 225 horsepower, respectively. Either a six-speed manual or five-speed Steptronic automatic transmission may be installed. Placing the front drive shaft so that it extends through the oil sump is intended to give the X3 a low center of gravity and minimize body roll.
New xDrive “intelligent” all-wheel drive permits the infinitely adjustable, fully variable distribution of torque from front to rear. Up to 100 percent of engine torque can go to either axle, as needed. BMW claims that the system will send optimum drive forces to each axle when cornering, which minimizes both understeer and oversteer. Dynamic Stability Control is installed to help stabilize the vehicle in difficult situations. Hill Descent Control helps when driving down hills even if the ground is loose or slippery.
Exterior The X3’s styling is similar to that of the X5, but on a smaller scale. BMW advises that it combines both classic and new design features in a modern vehicle that sports “interacting concave and convex surfaces for a youthful and fresh appearance.” The X3 actually began as an xActivity concept vehicle that toured the auto-show circuit.
Design cues include a new interpretation of the classic Hofmeister kink in the rear side windows and a fresh version of BMW’s twin kidney grille. BMW says the X3’s short overhangs, short wheelbase, flared wheel arches and sloping roofline accent its dynamic character.
Options include adaptive xenon headlights, Park Distance Control and a Sport Package that features 18-inch tires on alloy wheels.
Interior BMW is promoting the “youthful, sporty ambience” of the cockpit, which features analog gauges grouped in the familiar style of the German automaker. An optional navigation system with a flip-up color monitor may be installed in the center of the dashboard. The X3 seats five people. Leatherette upholstery is standard, and leather is optional.
Under the Hood Two inline-six-cylinder engines will be available in the X3. BMW’s 2.5-liter engine in the X3 2.5i produces 184 hp. In the X3 3.0i, a 3.0-liter version generates 225 hp. Both engines mate with either a six-speed-manual gearbox or a five-speed Steptronic automatic transmission.
Safety Side-impact airbags are standard for the front occupants and optional for the rear passengers. BMW’s Head Protection System protects occupants in the front and rear. Dynamic Stability Control includes traction control with engine and brake intervention.
Driving Impressions The X3’s smoothness is its No. 1 attribute when you drive this vehicle. It performs with grace and ease in about every way. Beyond its all-wheel-drive talents, it is simply enjoyable to drive. Even if its offroad capabilities are modest, the X3 impressively reaches beyond typical SUV abilities.
Automatic-transmission operation could hardly be better. On long upgrades, it downshifts so masterfully when needed that you don’t feel gear changes at all. As expected from BMW, the manual gearshift works with expertise. Even though the clutch isn’t always easy to modulate, obtaining smooth takeoffs isn’t difficult. Manual-shift acceleration with the larger engine is eager but not record setting, and it turns tepid when trying to pass if you’re in the wrong gear. The engine is ordinarily quiet but sounds strained at higher rpm in lower gears.
Even on a gravel washboard road, the X3 rides reasonably well. On smoother terrain, the ride becomes nearly blissful. The X3 maneuvers on curves and straightaways as crisply as promised. Steering effort inspires confidence.
BMW’s xDrive system performs admirably, though there’s occasionally a slight tendency to slide sideways when pushing hard on loose surfaces. Otherwise, the system helps keep you stable through curves, functioning in a subtle, nonintrusive manner.
The seats are inviting, amply cushioned and supportive in the roomy interior. Entry and exit is easy, though the driver could bump a knee when slipping behind the wheel.