Excellence continued

The BMW X3 is slightly smaller than the popular X5.

When BMW announced plans to build a sport utility vehicle, it was assailed by critics who feared that the German builder of highly regarded sport sedans was caving to market forces and diluting the brand.

But the X5 lived up to BMW’s reputation for performance and prestige, and has been highly successful. That was four years ago, and BMW now has a new SUV, the compact X3, that is slightly smaller, more carlike and less expensive than X5.

As the X5 is a sibling of BMW’s 5-series sedans, X3 is akin to the smaller 3 series, BMW’s most popular line. X3 is certainly not a mini doppelganger of X5 but a vehicle with an entirely separate style and image.

Starting at $31,000, or $11,000 less than the cheapest X5, X3 has a lower roofline and sleeker styling, set up as a “crossover” vehicle that blends the qualities of SUVs and passenger cars.

BMW calls X3 a compact SUV, but it’s not compact in the sense of Toyota RAV4 or Honda CR-V. It’s more along the lines of Toyota’s midsize Highlander. Just four inches shorter than X5, it rides on a substantial 110-inch wheelbase with a spacious interior and accommodations for five.

Most importantly, X3 drives like a BMW, with much of the same spark and maneuverability as the 3-series automobiles. Though the ride is softer, befitting its role as family transport, and it lacks some of the aggressive edge of the X5, the latest BMW fulfills its mission without damaging BMW’s reputation.

Notch up another winner for BMW, whose affluent buyers now have yet another choice.

What it is

A new SUV for BMW, blending practicality, style and performance.


X3 comes with two versions of BMW’s familiar inline-six engines, a 2.5-liter producing 184 horsepower and a 3-liter with 225 horsepower. These are the same aluminum engines found in BMW’s 3-series cars, including the Z4 sports car.

The test SUV was equipped with the 3-liter six, a gutsy and enjoyable engine that provides plenty of pull for this two-ton vehicle. Power is soft off the line but gains muscle as engine speed builds.

The bigger engine comes at a $6,000 premium over the 2.5 liter, though that includes a bunch of additional features and upgrades.

Both models and the latest X5 are equipped with BMW’s new xDrive all-wheel-drive system that’s designed to improve handling on dry road as well as provide traction off the highway or in mud, ice and snow. The system operates as a rear-wheel drive but continuously feeds torque as needed to the front wheels through a complex electronic system and multiplate clutchX3 should not be confused with a tough off-road warrior, however. It’s low ground clearance and carlike suspension makes it suitable for rough dirt roads or muddy trails, but leave boulder-hopping to the Jeep guys. Or the X5, wh ich is better set up for back-country expeditions.

X3 comes with either a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission. The tester came with automatic, which was kind of an expensive option at $1,275. It shifted flawlessly.


Not as crisp handling as the X5 or BMW automobiles, X3 feels stable but sedate in cornering maneuvers and lane changes. The rack-and-pinion steering and four-wheel disc brakes are very responsive.

The front suspension is unique to X3 for improved ride and handling, and the chassis feels very stiff and solid.

X3 comes with significant high-technology features to improve drivability and safety. The overall system is called Dynamic Stability Control, which includes electronic brake-force proportioning, antilock braking, wheel-brake action for stability in corners, Hill Descent Control for steep off-roading descents and a function to improve trailer-towing stability.


Eas ly recognizable as a BMW, with a lower, leaner look than X5.


The interior has BMW’s usual sturdy feel, with a nicely laid out dashboard and supportive seats. It’s surprisingly roomy, front and rear, with a decent amount of luggage room in back.

The look is pretty conservative, though, compared with the futuristic interiors of many new SUVs and minivans.

There were a host of convenience and safety features on the test X3 including standard computer system, eight-way power seats and automatic climate control. There was an optional premium package that included a panoramic glass moonroof that spanned but front and rear seats, with the glass sliding open over the front.


Base price for the 3.0-liter model is $36,300, with the test X3 including the premium package with the panoramic moonroof, leather upholstery and upgraded interior trim, $2,550; a sport package of 18-inch alloy wheels, sport steering wheel, sport suspension, sport seats and special exterior trim, $1,500; automatic, $1,275; a cold weather package of heated seats, heated headlight washers and ski bag, $750; titanium silver metallic paint, $475; privacy glass, $350; and shipping, $695.

The total of $43,895 makes the X3 fairly exclusive and pushes it well into X5 territory.

Bottom line

A practical and stylish compromise between car and SUV for well-financed families.

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