BMW's compact SUV, the X3, has sparked a parade of competitors from Acura to Volvo, all seemingly aimed at convincing shoppers too rich for a Honda CR-V that, yes, there is a $40,000 alternative.
The aging X3 stays fresh for 2007 thanks to a zippier engine, a new automatic transmission and modest styling changes. Some shoppers may be put off by the new transmission, which muffs its way through slower speeds, but between the masterful handling and high-quality cabin there's enough to like to justify the price.
New & Improved, Sort Of
An updated 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine goes under the hood. Packed with BMW's latest innovations, the engine churns out 260 horsepower and 225 pounds-feet of torque — a 15 percent increase in horsepower over the 2006 X3's engine (hence the change in name from X3 3.0i to X3 3.0si).
A six-speed automatic transmission replaces last year's five-speed automatic; a six-speed manual is also available. Courtesy of the new drivetrains, gas mileage is up between 1 and 3 mpg over the 2006 X3. All-wheel drive is standard.
The engine is potent, starting off with adequate power and coming on much stronger at higher revs. Unfortunately, it's hamstrung by the problematic transmission. The automatic in my test car repeatedly bogged down in lower gears, offering premature shifts before the engine could hit its stride. In stop-and-go driving, it made for awkward starts followed by sudden bursts of unsolicited power. The transmission's Sport Mode, which holds gears for longer periods, mitigated this a bit, but its higher-rev shifts sometimes felt unnatural and strained.
BMW says the transmission is a "learning" one that modifies its behavior depending on the type of driver behind the wheel. Still, even after several of us had driven it — at times attempting to train it — the response remained erratic and not to our liking. The transmission's hiccups may not be common to all X3s, but if you test-drive one make sure to pay close attention to acceleration smoothness from a complete stop.
On the highway, the drivetrain's performance is somewhat better. The transmission can downshift two or three gears to deliver powerful, if high-strung, passing power. It takes a good prod on the gas pedal to get there, though, so onramp acceleration may seem anemic at first.
Built for Curves
Like BMW's cars, the X3 offers top-notch road manners. Some may find the steering wheel too difficult to turn, but its heavy rotations render spot-on directional control. The meaty steering wheel has minimal numbness when pointing straight ahead — a place where responsiveness goes slack in many vehicles — and the setup yields more road feel than many cars, let alone SUVs, impart.
The suspension is tuned for handling, so the ride can feel brittle at times. The payoff comes on curvy roads, where body roll is minimal. Cornering over rough surfaces reveals an impressively flat ride, with the 17-inch wheels glued to the road. Many SUVs and even some cars come undone over the same surfaces, skittering sideways as their wheels dance over each bump. The optional Sport Package, which wasn't on my test car, includes bigger wheels and a tighter suspension. Expect even better cornering but a harsher ride.
The X3's brakes are surefooted at their limits, though the pedal is on the grabby side. After a week's driving, I had grown used to it and was able to make smooth stops.
Just as BMW's compact 3 Series ranks below the midsize 5 Series, the five-seat X3 sits in the shadow of the larger X5. The styling clearly says BMW, but it's the multi-paneled look of earlier models and it's beginning to show its age.
At 179.9 inches long, the X3 is slightly shorter than its closest competitor, the Acura RDX. Similarly priced midsize SUVs, like the Lexus RX 350 and Lincoln MKX, are substantially bigger both inside and out. Click here to see how the X3 measures up.
Inside, the X3 masks its compact dimensions well. The driver's seat, which comes with standard eight-way power adjustment, has lots of travel in all directions. Combine that with the telescoping steering wheel and there should be adequate room for drivers of all sizes. Leatherette (vinyl) upholstery is standard. Judging by the sumptuous leather seats in my test car, it's worth the extra cash to get real cowhide. The headrests and side bolsters are well-padded for comfort over extended trips.
Legroom and headroom in the backseat are adequate, though a prominent center hump means passengers can't spread their feet out. The upholstery for the three-seat bench feels much less padded than the stuff up front.
Thanks to the large expanse of side and rear glass, outward visibility is excellent. After a few hours behind the wheel, I had a good feel for where the X3's four corners were. The optional front and rear parking sensors seem like overkill, but they do provide an extra layer of bumper preservation.
The X3's dashboard uses a great many materials. It's a risky gamble, given the chance of ill-fitted seams, but BMW pulls it off; I couldn't find an unsightly gap anywhere. Materials quality is commendable, with soft-touch surfaces extending into the footwells and leather wrapping the armrests.
A few features proved frustrating. The optional navigation system is a bear to use — even without BMW's much-maligned iDrive system. The center console box ratchets open and shut in noisy motions sure to awaken sleeping passengers. The auxiliary jack for MP3 players is mounted on the back of the center console, facing the backseat. That makes for a long reach for drivers.
Neither the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety nor the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has tested the 2007 X3. Standard safety features include four-wheel-disc antilock brakes, traction control and an electronic stability system. The brakes include a Brake Drying system that resists water buildup during wet weather. BMW's Brake Fade Compensation, also standard, aims to maintain the same braking feel during situations like long downhill stretches, which can slowly cook the components.
In back, standard adaptive brake lights are supposed to reduce rear-end impacts by illuminating a larger section of the brake lights during hard braking to warn following drivers. Up front, optional adaptive headlights can swivel several degrees during turns to illuminate oncoming bends. At lower speeds, additional parking lights illuminate nearby corners when the steering wheel is turned hard to the left or right.
Six standard airbags include side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags for both rows. Side-impact airbags for the rear seats are optional.
All five seats have substantial head restraints, though the middle one in back doesn't extend; its fixed height is about 2 inches too low for my 5-foot-11-inch frame. Child safety provisions include Latch child-seat anchors in the outboard rear seats, as well as top-tether anchors for all three positions. Parents, take note: The seat-embedded anchors have plastic covers, and they don't pry off — or clip back on — easily.
Features & Long-Term Ownership
Starting at $38,000, the X3 comes standard with vinyl upholstery, power front seats, automatic climate control and a dual-pane panoramic moonroof. Options include leather, heated front and rear seats, a navigation system and a premium stereo. According to Cars.com's Total Cost of Ownership tool, it will cost an estimated $18,610 beyond the purchase price to own an X3 for five years. The RDX's five-year ownership cost totals $18,142.
X3 in the Market
At $38,000, the X3 starts substantially higher than its nearest competitor, the Acura RDX. Save for its problematic transmission behavior, the BMW offers a more buttoned-down driving experience than the Acura. For some, that's worth every penny.
As BMW surely knows, the X3 can't sit on its pedestal forever. Land Rover's entry-level LR2 is on the way, and so are the Audi Q5 and Volvo XC60. If the X3 is to remain a desirable car, BMW will have to fix a few things so buyers need not weigh the good against the bad — because there will be plenty of very good alternatives soon.
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