BMW brought serious sportiness into the sport utility vehicle field when it rolled out the midsize X5, which it dubbed a sports activity vehicle. Early in 2004, BMW launched the X3, which is a smaller version of the X5. Powertrains in the X3 were similar to those in 3 Series sedans.
Audio systems became MP3-compatible for 2005. An automatic transmission was a no-cost option for the 3.0i, which got new chrome-plated vertical grille slats and a standard dual-panel Panorama moonroof.
The X3 2.5i equipped with a 2.5-liter engine has been discontinued for the 2006 model year. The X3 3.0i gains body-colored bumpers. The Sport Package includes full body color on side skirts and bumpers, plus a new three-spoke sport steering wheel. Window trim and a twin kidney-shaped grille are chrome-plated.
BMW's xDrive "intelligent" all-wheel-drive system permits fully variable distribution of torque from front to rear. Up to 100 percent of engine torque can go to either axle, as needed. Dynamic Stability Control aids in stabilizing the vehicle in difficult situations. Hill Descent Control helps even if the ground is loose or slippery.
The X3's styling is similar to that of the X5, but on a slightly smaller scale; the X3 weighs 600 pounds less. Design cues include a fresh interpretation of the Hofmeister kink — a bend behind the rear side windows that distinguishes BMWs — and a distinct version of the automaker'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.
BMW promotes the "youthful, sporty ambience" of the five-passenger cockpit, which features familiar analog gauges. A navigation system is optional. Leatherette upholstery is standard, and leather is optional.
Under the Hood
Only one engine is available in 2006 models: a 225-horsepower, 3.0-liter inline-six. It mates with either a six-speed-manual gearbox or a five-speed Steptronic automatic transmission.
Side-impact airbags are standard for front occupants and optional for rear passengers. Side curtain-type airbags, which BMW calls its Head Protection System, protect occupants in the front and rear. Dynamic Stability Control includes traction control with engine and brake intervention.
Smoothness is the X3's top attribute. Beyond its all-wheel-drive talents, the X3 is simply enjoyable to drive; it performs with grace and ease. Even if its offroad capabilities are modest, the X3 outperforms typical SUVs.
Automatic-transmission operation could hardly be better. It downshifts so masterfully on long upgrades that you don't feel gear changes. The manual gearshift works with comparable 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 it sounds strained at higher rpm.
Even on a gravel washboard road, the X3 rides reasonably well. On smoother terrain, the ride becomes nearly blissful. Steering effort inspires confidence. BMW's xDrive performs admirably, though there's occasionally a slight tendency to slide sideways when pushing hard on loose surfaces. The seats are amply cushioned and supportive in the roomy interior.