The Detroit News's view

BMW’s X3 falls short as upscale SUV

Mercedes-Benz once was known, in Europe and North America, primarily for its luxury sedans. Then the Stuttgart, Germany-based automaker started expanding, into station wagons, then sport utility vehicles, even minicars.

Arch-rival BMW has followed a similar, albeit slightly different tack in broadening its product range beyond the superb sports sedans on which it built its reputation.

In recent years, Munich, Germany-based BMW has moved upstream, with the purchase of Rolls-Royce, and downstream, with the acquisition of Mini. The Bimmer brand umbrella now encompasses a wide range of vehicle types and body styles, sedans, coupes, wagons, even a new convertible.

But BMW isn’t content to stop there. Pretty soon, the automaker will be producing families of vehicles in four distinct sizes, beginning with the small 1-2 series, progressing through the 3-4 series, then the 5-6 series and finally the range-topping 7-series (the old 8-series coupe was scrapped two years ago).

The BMW stable is being expanded to include a variety of non-traditional styles, beginning with the X5, which the automaker prefers to call a “sports activity vehicle”.

Within two years, the company plans to launch a new V-series range of high-roof vehicles that are more akin to minivans. And, of course, there will be high-performance editions of nearly everything, wearing the ubiquitous M-series label.

In the meantime, BMW has already begun fleshing out its X-range with the new 2004 X3, a smaller sibling to the X5.

The X3, which goes on sale in early 2004, shares some of its running gear, not to mention its compact dimensions, with the familiar 3-series range. And just as the X5 resembles a 5-series wagon on steroids, so, too, does the X3 look like an over-inflated companion to the smaller 3-series wagon.

Its price tag, however, is anything but compact: The basic X3 2.5i, which is powered by a DOHC 2.5-liter six-cylinder engine, is priced at $30,995, which includes a $695 destination charge.

The more powerful X3 3.0i, with its twin-cam 3.0-liter six-cylinder and considerably more standard equipment, has a sticker of $36,995. The latter model is priced exactly $4,000 below the least-expensive X5 3.0i.

Curiously, the X3, at least on paper, doesn’t seem that much smaller than the X5. It’s only four inches shorter overall, and key dimensions such as wheelbase, width and length are all within an inch or two of the X5. The X3 actually has a slight edge in cargo volume, although overall interior space is pretty close between the two vehicles.

Even more curiously, the X3 feels much less substantial on the road than the specs book would suggest.

That’s due in part to its considerably lighter weight, around 4,000 pounds for the base model, compared with 4,600-plus for the X5, and the smaller engine lineup.

That weight savings shows up in odd ways. The doors, for instance, feel much lighter, almost tinny, in fact, compared with the overly heavy doors on the X5. And the X3 is quite nimble, an adjective rarely used to describe the X5.

Both variants of the X3 come with BMW’s new xDrive all-wheel-drive system and can be equipped with either a ZF six-speed manual gearbox or a five-speed Steptronic automatic with clutchless manual-shift capability.

Seventeen-inch wheels and tires are standard on both models, with 18-inch rims optional. Antilock brakes and dynamic stability control are also standard.

Despite gas-pressure shocks at all four corners, some occasional impact harshness is noticeable, especially in winter on Michigan.s notoriously pitted roadways.

Although the variable-assist steering feels precise and responsive at highway speeds, the X3 is surprisingly difficult to park, requiring more turns and maneuvering than it should for a v hicle this size.

On the road, the X3 doesn.t feel particularly quick, a function of both its mass and the all-wheel drive.

Engine choice will make a difference, too. The 2.5-liter is rated at 184 horsepower and 175 pounds-feet of torque, not much better than the 2.5-liter V-6 on the rival Land Rover Freelander.

BMW.s 3.0-liter inline six is a bit stronger, delivering 225 horsepower and 214 pounds-feet of torque, about the same output as on the 3.2-liter V-6 that powers the Volkswagen Touareg.

In the X3 2.5i with five-speed automatic, the 0-to-60 sprint takes more than nine seconds. With the larger 3.0 engine and six-speed manual, the same run can be done in about 7.6 seconds.

Fuel economy is not much better than average. Both engines manage an Environmental Protection Agency highway rating of 25 miles per gallon with the manual transmission, but with the automatic, the city rating is 18 mpg on the 2.5-liter and drops to 16 on the 3.0.

The new xDrive system deserves a quick mention. Essentially, it delivers most of the engine’s torque to the rear wheels, with some split to the front wheels. As road conditions require, more torque can be transmitted to the front wheels to enhance traction. The xDrive system has been adapted to the 2004 X5.

Curiously, BMW has elected not to equip the X3 with another bit of advanced technology, the controversial iDrive system. Enthusiasts already have heard and read plenty about the iDrive, which controls audio, climate, navigation and other key vehicle functions via a single oversize rotary dial/push button.

On the X3, these same features are controlled mainly by more traditional push buttons and dials, although BMW still makes basic functions, like controlling the navigation system, more complex and difficult than they need to be.

The engineering department in Munich could probably use some help from a human factors specialist in figuring out how to make the cockpits of its vehicles far more user-friendly than they are currently.

The X3’s cabin is even more unrelentingly Spartan than usual for BMW. The vehicle we tested was done in the usual monochromatic black, only partially relieved by some weirdly patterned matte-metal trim on the doors and around the transmission shift lever.

Fortunately, the interior can be livened up with dark maple/sycamore or light birch wood trim.

On the safety front, both the X5 and X3 are fitted with a flat-tire warning system, plus side air bags and side curtains for front-seat occupants. Side air bags for rear occupants cost extra.

Another quirk of this would-be luxury vehicle is the lack of heated seats, although there are plenty of other amenities, from power windows and keyless entry to air conditioning and CD player.

Is the X3 3.0i worth $6,000 more than the base 2.5i? You decide.

For the extra dough, you get the larger , more powerful engine, as well as such standard features as rain-sensing wipers, front fog lights, automatic headlamp control, power front seats, automatic climate control, lighted visor vanity mirrors, front and rear reading lamps, cruise control, leather-wrapped steering wheel with fingertip controls and tilt/telescope column, plus a four-function onboard computer.

For additional money, BMW offers some high-zoot gadgetry on the X3, including adaptive headlamps that turn with the steering wheel, as well as front and rear park distance control, which warns of obstacles when backing up or maneuvering into a tight space.

Overall, the X3 elicits mixed emotions. The vehicle, which is assembled in Austria by Magna-Steyr, is built to the same exacting world-class standards as every other Bimmer. It is more lithe and nimble than its larger sibling, but feels smaller on the inside.

In a head-to-head price comparison between the X3 3.0i and the Volkswag n Touareg, I’d give the nod to the VW, which feels roomier and more substantial, and has a stunning cabin to boot.

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