While the car's pros and cons haven't changed much, the X3 is showing its age in terms of technology features — especially when compared with newcomers that best it in both price and style.
The exterior remains the same for 2009, and the X3 retains its awkward angles, disjointed taillights and odd lower bodywork. It's not unattractive, but it sure isn't as stylish as Mercedes' new GLK350, Audi's Q5 or the new Volvo XC60, which actually turned heads when I tested it recently.
Even though it's relatively unchanged for 2009, the X3's interior remains very upscale for this segment. My test car's dark brown leather upholstery and black dashboard made for an especially classy color combination. As usual, BMW's leather is of a higher grade than you'll find in other vehicles.
The front seats are comfortable and supportive, and even the backseat isn't terribly uncomfortable. Backseat legroom overall is about average for the class, coming in at 35.8 inches, compared with 35.1 in the GLK350, 36.4 in the XC60 and 37.4 in the Q5.
The best part of the X3 is its utility. The cargo area is exceptionally tall compared with others in the class, which means you can stack things upright that you'd otherwise have to lay flat, like golf bags. The load floor is also nice and low, which makes Costco runs a lot easier on your back. The X3 bests the three models above in overall cargo room, and it only trails the Volvo when the rear seats are up.
For 2009, there's just one engine: a 3.0-liter six-cylinder that's good for 260 horsepower. It teams with either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission. All X3s have all-wheel drive. In our 2007 review, we thought the automatic's shift quality was imprecise and a bore. I also drove a family member's 2005 X3 and remember thinking the transmission wasn't the best. The 2009, however, shifted flawlessly and was much more enjoyable to drive around town. Power has never been a problem in the X3; even though we love BMW's twin-turbo six-cylinder, the X3's normally aspirated six is no slouch.
Steering is tremendously heavy and laborious, as is often the case in BMWs. While I appreciate such weighted steering in a performance car — and in the X3 when I'm driving at high speeds — I found it burdensome when navigating parking lots in this meant-for-the-suburbs SUV. That said, the steering is spot-on precise.
Ride comfort is a mixed bag. While highway driving was comfortable, the X3 hiccups around the pothole-strewn streets of Chicago and its suburbs at even the lowest of speeds. Believe it or not, this tester felt like an improvement compared with X3s I've driven in the past. I hopped into the XC60 after my X3 test week was over, and it had very similar road sensitivity. To my mind, the GLK350 is better in this regard. I haven't yet tested the Q5.
The 2009 X3 starts at $39,700 and comes standard with leatherette upholstery, eight-way power front seats, a panoramic moonroof and rain-sensing windshield wipers. There are four option packages available. The $2,800 Premium Package, which my test vehicle came equipped with, adds upgrades like leather upholstery, auto-dimming mirrors, a universal garage door opener and Bluetooth. All of this should be standard in a vehicle in this class. There are also Sport Activity ($1,400) and Sport ($2,300) packages available that add varying interior and exterior features, including larger wheels and, in the case of the Sport package, a different suspension.
Our tester also had a Cold Weather Package ($1,000) that included heated front and rear seats, as well as the optional navigation system ($1,800). The navigation system in the X3 is severely outdated and isn't operated via the company's iDrive controller. Not only is the screen hard to see in direct sunlight, but the system got one of our editors lost on a long test drive. And no, that doesn't happen often.
If you optioned out an X3 like our tester was equipped, it would have an as-tested price of $47,375, including an $825 destination charge.
The Q5 and XC60 start at $37,200, and the all-wheel-drive GLK350 is $35,900. Similarly equipped, the Q5 and GLK would both cost around $45,000, and the XC60 would come in at about $43,000. That means the X3 isn't just more to start, it's more when similarly equipped, yet it offers outdated features, like its navigation unit. The other models also have newer options like iPod integration, blind spot warning systems and more that the X3 doesn't offer.
The X3 earned a 2009 Top Safety Pick designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the agency's highest award. That means it earned top scores in IIHS' frontal-offset, side-impact and rear crash tests. All X3s have standard electronic stability control and a full complement of airbags.
As of publication, the Q5, GLK350 and XC60 hadn't been tested by IIHS.
X3 in the Market
As you can probably guess by now, the market has caught up with and in many ways passed the X3. That said, if it weren't for BMW's initiative, this segment might not even exist today, let alone offer so many robust choices; Infiniti, Acura and Land Rover also offer competitors.
While the X3's performance chops are probably better than they've ever been, that might not matter much in this segment. Buyers are looking for a certain level of luxury and features, plus mild utility and a decent price, and the X3 isn't delivering.
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