BMW has long enjoyed a reputation for building luxury vehicles that are a blast to drive. The company's well-known ad slogan, "The Ultimate Driving Machine," represents one of the few cases where the product actually lives up to the marketing hype. BMW's 3 Series has long been one of our favorite sport sedans (and coupes, for that matter) and constantly ranks at or near the head of its class anytime we conduct a comparison test. The X5 SAV ("Sports Activity Vehicle") is likewise top-rated in the premium midsize SUV class. Now with the X5's new and less expensive baby brother, the X3, BMW is looking to gain an even bigger share of the ridiculously popular SUV market.
Actually, the X3 is not much smaller than the X5; its wheelbase is just one inch shorter and overall length is only four inches less than that of the X5. But with a curb weight that's around 600 pounds lighter than the X5 3.0i, the similarly powered X3 3.0i holds an inherent advantage in terms of performance and handling. Maximum cargo capacity is 71 cubic feet while its maximum towing capacity stands at 3,500 pounds.
The X3 comes in two versions; the 2.5i, which refers to the vehicle's 2.5-liter inline six-cylinder engine (184 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque), and the 3.0i (225 hp and 214 lb-ft from a larger inline six), which is what we drove. In addition to the more powerful engine, the 3.0 also adds more luxury features, namely dual power front seats, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, adjustable cargo floor tie-down rails, automatic climate control and a trip computer. Our tester was loaded with nearly $7,000 in options, bringing the bottom line to $43,445. Since we conducted our road test, however, BMW has added its "BMW Assist" feature (similar to the OnStar telematics system) to the Premium Package, which has bumped up the price another $750.
With crisp, 5 Series-inspired lines, the X3 is, for the most part, a handsome 'ute. But as we would expect with any Bimmer designed under the reign of Chris Bangle, there are a few rather strange design elements. The mismatched taillight treatment is an obvious continuation of BMW's bizarre rear-end design direction. As with the Z4 and 7 Series, the trunk lid (in this case the hatch lid) looks as if it came from another vehicle. And what's with the unpainted bumpers? That downmarket look screams "entry-level." Even a $20,000 Kia Sorento has color-keyed bumpers, not to mention privacy (deep-tint) glass as standard that BMW charges $350 extra for. Oh, and the silver paint on our X3 was $475 extra how does the salesman tell that to a customer with a straight face? Unfortunately, it seems to be common practice among the high-end German automakers to charge extra for certain metallic paints. And while we're complaining, how about including some cross bars for the roof rails, so it can actually be used as a roof rack without scratching up the roof?
To a man (or woman, as the case also was), we thought the X3's cabin just wasn't up to BMW standards. We know this is an SUV and maybe BMW was going after a rugged look, if the coarse texture of the dash top is any indicator. Or maybe company designers were going for an elephant hide look, but in any case, you could probably exfoliate the bottom of your feet on it, if you were so inclined. We also would have preferred the genuine wood trim to the aluminum accents of our test vehicle (buyers have a choice with the Premium Package) that have a hokey dot-matrix pattern on them. Offsetting these gripes somewhat are soft and handsomely stitched covers for the door and console lid armrests and a huge dual-pane sunroof that offers a lot of open air for the occupants.
We had no complaints about the seats, either. In typical BMW fashion, the firm chairs offered ideal back, under-thigh and lateral support for big and small folk alike. A nice bonus is the four-way power lumbar adjustment for the driver and front passenger. The backseat offers virtually the same legroom as the X5 (though shoulder room is a little tighter) and a large fold-down center armrest that has a hidden storage compartment and built-in cupholders.
As comfortable as the second row is, however, getting out of those comfy seats can be annoying due to the X3's rocker panels. They jut out from the body and almost always bumped the back of our passengers' legs while they were exiting the vehicle. Another annoyance was the navigation system. Our attempts to find a local restaurant were thwarted; it's just not user-friendly like the systems found in Lexus and Acura products. Save yourself the 1,800 bucks and buy a good atlas.
With 225 horsepower and 214 pound-feet of torque, the 3.0-liter inline six isn't going to make for impressive locker-room bragging. But somehow BMW engines always seem more powerful than their conservative output figures suggest. Evidently those German horses are strong steeds this engine, whether it's in a 330i sedan or even the pudgy X5 SUV, gets up to speed swiftly and sounds great doing so. Equipped with the five-speed "Steptronic" automatic gearbox, our X3 ran to 60 mph in eight seconds and unreeled the quarter-mile in 16.2 seconds at 87.6 mph. For a 4,000-pound SUV, these are more than respectable numbers. BMW claims that the manual transmission version (a six-speed for both engine applications) will beat the automatic's times by about a third of a second.
Still, a few of us felt that the X3 was a little soft in terms of jumping off the line, but once it's rolling it quickly hits its stride and surges forward. Passing power is excellent, as the transmission was quick to drop down a gear or two to allow the X3 to catapult past freeway laggards.
The Steptronic automatic gearbox offers pilots a choice of three modes: normal, sport and manual shift. We found the sport setting the best, as it kept the turbine-smooth straight six on its toes by holding gears longer and downshifting quickly. The manual-shift function was disappointing; there was a noticeable delay on upshifts between when we bumped the lever and when the gear change took place.
Be warned, the X3's track star athleticism comes at a cost. Against EPA estimates of 16 city and 23 highway, we averaged just 17 mpg in over 300 miles of mixed driving. Of course, we didn't have to exploit the Bimmer's performance and maybe we could have averaged 19 with a light foot. But what's the point of driving a BMW if you're not going to enjoy it?
Braking performance was simply superb. A firm yet easily modulated pedal is connected to a quartet of ventilated antilock disc brakes that allowed our test driver to record a sub-118-foot stopping distance from 60 mph. An impressive number for a sport sedan (a 330i we tested took just under 117 feet), let alone a two-ton SUV.
On a twisty road, the X3 once again reminded us of a 330i. Although there was a little more body roll than we expected, it didn't seem to hurt the handling or fun quotient. The X3 always felt utterly composed, whether running 'round a freeway on-ramp or making quick transitions through the favored twisty two-laners of this writer. The all-wheel-drive system, dubbed "xDrive", is invisible in operation. Power distribution is continuously adjusted according to conditions. Most of the time it's biased toward the rear wheels, but when slippage is detected, the front wheels take up the slack. As we noted in our First Drive of the X3, when maneuvering at low speeds, the Bimmer operates in a rear-drive mode so that the front wheels don't bind up when the steering is cranked all the way. This means that you won't hear any funny noises or feel resistance when you're pulling into a tight parking spot.
Speaking of steering, it's trademark BMW, meaning precise with ideal weighting and excellent feedback through the meaty wheel. Mounted on handsome double-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels, the 235/55 Pirelli Scorpions had plenty of grip on pavement, wet or dry. But with their low-profile sidewalls and street-oriented tread, they're obviously not meant for serious off-road ventures.
Before we got this X3, we'd heard (and read) about how harsh the ride was. But that criticism was invariably directed at X3 test vehicles that had the optional Sport package, which includes stiffer suspension calibrations as well as even lower-profile (50-series) performance tires. We drove a non-Sport X3 on our First Drive and had no complaints, so we purposely scheduled that version for this road test to see if our opinion would remain so after living with the SUV for a week. Most of the time and over most bumps, the X3 delivered a firm but comfortable ride. But certain situations, such as when running over expansion joints on the freeway, can make it feel as if the wheels are bolted right to the frame. It should be noted that our vehicle was an early-production unit, and we've been informed by a BMW rep that the X3's suspension has since been recalibrated (on non-Sport versions) so as to be more compliant over sharp impacts.
Ultimately, the big question surfaced: "If you were going to spend $40,000-plus for a sporty midsize SUV, would you buy this X3?" Anyone who wants BMW performance in an SUV, who can go easy on the options and who doesn't mind a cabin that's not as luxurious as some much cheaper SUVs should be pleased with the X3. But were it us shopping, it wouldn't be such a knee-jerk reaction; we'd have to add at least two other vehicles to our test-drive list. One would be another premium-brand, sporty SUV the comparably priced but more generously equipped Infiniti FX35. And the other is something you probably wouldn't expect us to mention here the $11,000 cheaper yet still well-built and thoroughly enjoyable Subaru Forester XT (please hold off on the snickering and irate letters until you've actually driven one).
System Score: 7.0
Components: An AM/FM receiver and single CD player comprise the standard audio system in the X3. The simple faceplate features an easy-to-grasp on-off/volume knob and a lack of extraneous buttons makes it easy to select presets or adjust the tone and speaker biases. Six preset buttons along with three FM modes allow 18 FM stations to be preset, a great feature for folks (like us) whose musical tastes are all over the dial. A 200-watt amplifier sends the sound to an array of 10 speakers, including a pair of subwoofers.
Performance: Highs are generally crisp, unless the volume is really cranking at which point they start to lose their clarity. With 10 speakers, we expected more distinct separation. At rocking volume levels, snares lack snap and cymbals don't crash with enough conviction. And considering that this system has two subs, the bass although not exactly muddy didn't come through as tightly as we would have liked.
Best Feature: Steering wheel-mounted controls.
Worst Feature: Lack of tuning knob.
Conclusion: A decent system for listeners who don't consider themselves audiophiles. Those who do and like their music loud and clear may be disappointed and should consider the optional ($675) Harman Kardon system with its 10 upgraded speakers (which also includes two subwoofers) and 500 thundering watts of power. The HK system that BMW uses in the Mini Cooper made our list of Top 10 Sound Systems in Cars Under $30,000 for 2004, so we'd expect this system to supply equivalent aural joy. John DiPietro
Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says: This is undoubtedly one of the least impressive BMWs I've driven in a long time. And I say this not because of any predisposed animosity toward SUVs. In fact, I find sport-utility vehicles practical, comfortable and well suited to the family-hauling duty they're typically used to perform.
No, my concerns with the X3 center around the fact that it fails to measure up in two vitally important categories that typically place BMWs a step above the competition namely overall build quality and the look and feel of the interior materials. Pull the door shut on the X3 and it slams not with a solid thunk, but a hollow clank that sounds more like a Chevy Tracker than a $40,000 upscale sport-ute.
Once situated, you begin to notice that although the overall design is sharp and engaging, the materials used to execute the look are hardly the stuff of BMW legend. The dash can barely be called soft-touch material and even the center console plastics lack the kind of texture found in a 3 Series sedan. But the final nail in the coffin for me was the toggle switches for the dash-mounted navigation display. Unpainted and unlabeled, you can't help but stare at them and wonder what early '90s minivan they were pulled out of. It's a disturbing sight, and no matter how much I enjoyed driving the X3 (it's a sweet performer), I couldn't get over those dull gray eyesores staring me in the face. It's not a terrible SUV by any means, but it's not quite up to BMW standards, either.
Road Test Editor Erin Riches says: I love BMWs. Neither the 3 Series nor the Z4 could ever do much wrong in my eyes, and while I don't really like the way the 5 and 7 Series sedans look, I certainly like the way they drive. And the X5? Well, that's a great vehicle, too, aside from the fact that it gets terrible gas mileage for a car-based SUV. With that in mind, I was prepared to like the X3 as well. Unfortunately, I found that I could not. "Dislike" is too strong a word, but suffice it to say that this is one BMW I will not fantasize about owning.
Even without the Sport Package, our X3 was probably the best-handling small SUV I've ever driven. Moderate body roll surfaced in the corners, but underneath that there's lots of grip. Ride quality is not so good. If the pavement is smooth, the ride is smooth. But if there are expansion joints, bumps and ruts, the suspension hops up and down, transferring too much of the action to the cabin. I still don't know what to make of this. Sport-tuned 3 Series cars don't do it. The X5 doesn't do it. Compact SUVs with shorter wheelbases, like the Ford Escape, don't do it. Power, at least, is more than ample, as BMW's 3.0-liter inline six is well suited to the weight of the X3 (about 4,000 pounds). Low-end pull isn't the greatest, but letting the motor rev is as gratifying as ever.
The interior of the X3 did not impress me. Yes, the seats are supportive and comfortable, but elsewhere the compromises that come with building a smaller SUV that has to fall into a competitive price bracket are readily apparent. Materials quality is acceptable, but except for the leather upholstery, none of the surfaces looked or felt high-grade enough to be worthy of a 3 Series car. When I gingerly attempted to pull the cargo cover closed, I pulled out the whole flimsy unit. The doors shut with a clatter. And the bumpers are unpainted black plastic hardly the look I'd want on a $40,000-plus vehicle. Instead, I'd spend about $27,000 on a turbocharged Subaru Forester XT with monochromatic bodywork, a smoother ride, even quicker acceleration and comparable interior room.
"The X3 is quite fun to drive, has nimble and responsive handling, confident acceleration and powerful braking. One feels safe and in control of their driving environment. I enjoy the large moonroof, but I think that BMW should step up to the plate with the interior and include amenities (such as) a little wood on the dash, a HomeLink garage door system, an alarm system and an in-dash 6 CD player. Spartan Teutonic is really not that chic anymore ." DFLerner, March 5, 2004
"The X3's performance is outstanding, as you would expect from any BMW. However, the interior materials are definitely subpar for a BMW and come nowhere near to matching the X5's much nicer and more expensive interior. Overall, I feel like the car isn't as solid as an X5 (the doors are lighter, it also feels much lighter when you drive it), although it handles very well. For $48,000 fully equipped, you should definitely get more quality for your money, but it is a good vehicle. The xDrive AWD system is phenomenal and finally brings BMW's system to the level of Audi's quattro. The power transfer capabilities help tremendously in aggressive driving situations. Quality, without a doubt (needs improvement). The interior of the vehicle (has too much) hard plastic. It really doesn't feel like a mid-$40K vehicle, and BMW should have done a little better in this regard." jaredfeiger, Jan. 10, 2004.
"Went from a 325 to the X3 and, boy, am I disappointed. The ride is atrocious I could have saved myself the money and bought a Ford Explorer. It bounces around the street so much that I don't feel in control at all and that sense of control is what BMW is supposed to be about. It rattles all over and the interior design is not consistent with a $40,000-plus vehicle. It shows no originality (unless you count rain-sensing wipers!) seems to be just a hodgepodge of the 3 Series and an X5 and it doesn't work! BMW should be ashamed of this one. I would suggest that one spend another $10K and get an X5." dchris935, March 13, 2004.
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