2004 BMW X3 First Drive

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (2)
  • Comparison
  • Long-Term

2004 BMW X3 SUV

(3.0L 6-cyl. AWD 6-speed Manual)

Finally, a True 3 Series Killer

Both much anticipated and eagerly awaited, it seems like an eternity that we've been waiting for BMW's X3. After all, it's been four long years since the introduction of the X5, and that vehicle has been such a roaring success that it doesn't take a rocket scientist to guess that a smaller, cheaper version, based on the 3 Series sedan, would be an easy sell.

After all, not everybody can pony up the $40,000-plus needed for the larger X5. Besides, the X3 is the (semi) off-road equivalent of BMW's 3 Series, the automaker's signature sedan and most probably the strongest nameplate in the entire luxury segment. But, as much of a slam dunk as that would seem to be, there is much pressure on the X3 to perform. Coming off some controversial remakes of popular models (the 7 Series and Z4), the X3 has to be an unabashed hit, both in the handling department (where everybody, by and large, expects no less than another home run) and styling (where consistent praise has been hard to find recently).

For the latter, the X3 is likely to avoid the barbs thrown the 745i's and Z4's way. Yes, the front bumper is a little overdone, with perhaps a little too much Pontiac-like cladding, but from all other angles the X3 is a sweetheart. The side view is especially appealing, as is the rear. Even at the front, the cladding is not so bad on darker models — only in stark contrast with lighter hues does the dark plastic seem over the top.

Not even the slightest quibble need be applied to the X3's handling, however. Despite the high expectations that come with attaching the flying propeller logo to any vehicle, the new X3 still surprises those expectations with amazing prowess. Although this will no doubt produce cries of heresy among the BMW faithful, I prefer the handling of the X3 to that of even the much lauded 3 Series sedan. In fact, this is the first time I've ever preferred the handling of an SUV to the sedan it is based on. Nonetheless, while driving over 50 miles of the most sinuous switchbacks I have ever seen above the Spanish coastline, the X3 scampered, slid and sped through hairpin after hairpin after hairpin; never once putting a wheel wrong, never once fading its brakes, barely even causing its DSC electronic stability program to chime in.

Much of the credit goes to BMW's second-generation xDrive all-wheel-drive system, which the company claims is much more sophisticated than the original. Where the X5's system has a fixed front-to-rear torque split, the X3 can transmit 100 percent of its power to either the front or rear wheels, and any combination in between, thanks to a multiplate-clutch center differential. BMW says that by monitoring the DSC's yaw sensors, xDrive can decide to deliver more torque to the front if it senses oversteer or to the rear wheels if understeer is present. That it can do this seemlessly, midcorner, with no discernible feedback to the driver is amazing. That it does so better than BMW's own 330xi puts it in a class of its own.

Body roll is so well contained that I initially thought the test vehicle was equipped with BMW's optional sport suspension. In reality, the tester was the base 3.0 model with standard suspension, 17-inch wheels and 235/55R17 radials. Its steering is so precise and its turn-in is so immediate it seems a waste of time and ride comfort to opt for the stiffer suspension.

Comparisons with the previous best-handling SUV — BMW's own X5 — leave the bigger vehicle breathless. The X3 feels so much lighter, is so much more agile and handles transitions so much easier that it is in a different league and, consequently, is the new best-handling SUV available.

The X5, and a few other SUVs, still manage superiority in the engine department, though not as much as I initially anticipated. The X3's engines are by now familiar — the base version is powered by a 2.5-liter, DOHC inline six with 189 horsepower while the top-of-the-line version gets the 225-hp, 3.0-liter six. Unlike previous generations of BMW sixes, which were all revs and little torque, these latest versions boast double-VANOS, which is BMW's way of saying that both intake and exhaust camshafts are fully variable.

Besides improving fuel economy and reducing emissions, the VANOS system really fills in the 3.0-liter's low-end and midrange torque. And despite weighing a substantial 3,800 pounds, the X3 3.0i motors along quite rapidly. Even below 4,000 rpm throttle response is enthusiastic, and at high rpm it fairly sings. Acceleration is a more than competent 7.8 seconds to 62.5 miles per hour when mated to the six-speed manual transmission, while the five-speed automatic version is only 0.3 second behind. Compare that with the 7.6 seconds that the Volkswagen Touareg's 310-hp V8 requires for the same feat and you will understand the penalty paid in terms of acceleration when carrying excess weight.

Nonetheless, BMW has better technology available. The Valvetronic valve train that gives the carmaker's new 4.4-liter V8 such a boost over its predecessor would no doubt do the same to the inline six. There's probably another 25 horsepower (and a corresponding amount of torque) just waiting to be liberated in the 3.0-liter, so it's a shame that we'll probably have to wait at least a year before we see such a powerhouse. Also a shame is that we don't get the 3.0d diesel version of the X3. This is the same engine that powers the 330d with such élan in Europe. And though it can only boast 204 horsepower, its 302 pound-feet of torque means it's only 0.1 second behind the gasoline-fueled 3.0-liter to 62.5 mph.

Inside, the X3 is more typically BMW than its exterior might have you think. The same cool, crisp lines are there. Ditto for the spartan Teutonic aesthetics and clear, readable gauges. There are a few surprises, such as the swooping door grips. And BMW continues to not offer its iDrive system in any of its SUVs (yet another reason to buy an X3) though there is a DVD-based navigation system. There is also a monster 500-watt audio system with 10 speakers available as an option.

Though its wheelbase is an inch shorter than the X5's, the X3 is only an inch shorter overall. Its relatively long wheelbase translates to an interior almost as roomy as its bigger brother's. Most dimensions are also more generous than the 3 Series sedan with both front shoulder room and headroom significantly better. There is also a decent amount of space in the cargo area — 16.9 cubic feet with all seats in place and 55 when they are folded. There is enough room in the back to fit two mountain bikes, for which BMW provide an inside rack that mounts on rails in the trunk area.

There are eight airbags, not to mention antilock brakes and the aforementioned vehicle stability control. There are also a host of safety items such as Park Distance Control (which alerts the driver if something is hidden behind the X3), a tire-pressure monitor and optional adaptive headlights that swivel with the steering wheel to illuminate the inside of turns. Bluetooth technology is also available to provide hands-free cell phone operation so drivers can concentrate on what they are supposed to be doing — driving.

It's also worth noting that xDrive is programmed to aid active safety. Below 12 miles per hour, for instance, the center differential is locked for maximum traction. Above 112 mph (admittedly this being more of a theoretical advantage), the system reverts to rear-wheel drive. Additionally, whenever the computer senses low throttle inputs and large steering angles — classic parking conditions — AWD becomes RWD to prevent axle bind. And on the X3, the company's Hill Descent Control (HDC), which automatically limits downhill speeds in off-road conditions, is variable between 4 and 15 mph via buttons on the steering wheel.

What remains to be seen is how BMW prices the X3. The X5 3.0's current MSRP is $40,330. The 330xi sedan is priced at $36,550. That leaves precious little room for the X3 to squeeze into. But then, unlike most companies which price their SUVs higher than the equivalent sedans, the X5's price is about $4,000 cheaper than the new 5 Series. Could we see the X3 start in the high $20Ks (for the 2.5) with the 3.0 topping out at $33,000, undercutting even the 330i sedan? Or will BMW price the X3 higher than the equivalent 3 Series, thereby protecting the sales of its franchise player. Either way, one thing's for sure — the 330xi all-wheel-drive sedan is going to seem like a poor value if a larger, more capable all-wheel-drive vehicle is offered for nearly the same (or less) money.

Whatever the pricing, compared with the 7 Series and Z4, which have polarized sentiment, the X3 is likely to get universal acclaim. It's good-looking, performs well and handles like no other SUV available.

It's nice to see the boys from Bavaria back on their game.

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