2004 BMW X3
By Ann Job of MSN Autos
Don't tell BMW that Americans are buying and driving bigger and ever more brutish sport-utility vehicles.
The German automaker is going the other direction, introducing a new SUV, the X3, that's slightly smaller on the outside than its X5 SUV and has much the same styling.
Based on a modified BMW sedan platform, the X3 comes as a five-door hatchback with standard all-wheel drive.
Powered by a choice of six-cylinder engines, the X3 sits up some from the road for good visibility, but has a lower center of gravity than you'd expect and a suspension that works to reduce body roll so drivers can enjoy spirited BMW road performance.
Best of all, with a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, around $31,000, the X3 is at least $10,000 less than BMW's X5.
"The X3 is probably the vehicle that will bring us the most new customers of any new car we've introduced" in recent years, said Tom Purves, chairman of BMW of North America.
Specifically, BMW hopes to lure younger families looking for SUVs or crossover vehicles priced from the high $20,000s into the high $30,000s.
Rugged off-roading not planned
"If the trail to your house in the woods has some rough stuff, there's no problem with the X3," Rich Brekus, manager of product planning and strategy, assured me. "But if you want to crush boulders, you should get yourself a Hummer."
Certainly, the X3's all-wheel-drive system, called xDrive, can help provide improved traction when needed.
It uses electronics to manage how torque is distributed among the wheels via a multi-disc clutch.
The X3's xDrive—I wish BMW would find a different letter than "x" to use—doesn't have a really low gear for rugged off-roading.
Instead, this vehicle is tuned not just for traction but for improved, stable driving dynamics for which BMWs are famous.
For example, in typical BMW fashion, 60 percent of the driving torque during normal driving is always sent to the X3's rear wheels to help give a rear-wheel-drive bias. (BMW officials insist that front-engine/rear-wheel-drive vehicles provide the ultimate driving experience.)
The X3's torque, or power, can be redirected amongst the wheels, depending on what sensors are telling the system about steering angle, how each wheel is rotating, the vehicle's lateral acceleration and rotation around its center, as well as whether the brake pedal is depressed.
So the 40 percent of the power going to the front wheels can increase or decrease, when circumstances require, in just tenths of a second. And if necessary, the electronic stability control system can layer in its participation, too, to reduce engine power and/or brake a wheel and help a driver regain control.
The system's operation isn't noticeable in regular driving.
In fact, I had to get the back end of the X3 to break free for the start of a skid, on a dirt road, before I really felt the system working.
Impressively, the all-wheel-drive system then tucked the rear end back in with careful power management. I noticed that as this quick and efficient response occurred, I had just started to change the direction of my steering to counter the skid. The wily xDrive beat me to it.
Later, when the system noticed I was getting farther out of line during another maneuver, the stability control system came in to slow the vehicle momentarily.
Note, though, that stability control and all-wheel drive can't save a driver who's really gone beyond the limits of sanity, or physics.
No mean machine
Many also want something that's classy and upscale, rather than hulking and intimidating.
So the X3, with its traditional BMW kidney-shaped grille in front and driver-oriented interior, won't be mistaken for anything but a BMW.
In fact, it might be confused with BMW's first SUV, the X5.
Dimensions are surprisingly similar. The X3 wheelbase is not quite an inch shorter than the X5, and the X3's overall length is just 4 inches shorter. Oddly, cargo space at the back of the vehicle is greater in the X3 by 2 cubic feet than it is in the X5—71 cubic feet in the X3 vs. 69 in the X5.
BMW officials said they're not concerned that someone shopping for an X5 will wind up deciding on the lower-priced X3, instead, but I'm not so sure.
This is especially true if the shopper is looking for six-cylinder power, which is available in both the X5 and the lighter-weight X3.
Odds and ends
The tester had the upscale, 3.0-liter inline six cylinder engine mated to a six-speed manual transmission.
Note that few SUVs of this size are offered with a six-speed manual.
The engine, which also is used in the new BMW 5-Series sedan, generates 225 horsepower and 214 lb-ft of torque at 3500 rpm in silky smooth fashion, but premium unleaded is the required fuel.
I didn't test the entry-level engine—a 184-horse 2.5-liter inline six cylinder with 175 lb-ft of torque. But the heavy weight of the X3—more than 4,000 pounds—was well managed by the larger engine.
The six speed had a satisfying feel, and I was surprised at how much engine power came on when I was in sixth gear and starting a easy mountain grade. There's a good amount of power to be found via every gear here, and you don't always have to downshift to get it.
Fuel economy rating for the manual transmission model with 3.0-liter engine is only 17 miles a gallon in city driving, though. This is the same city rating as a Ford Explorer with two-wheel drive, six-cylinder engine and automatic transmission.
There was wind noise in the X3 at highway speeds, and this was on a model that had roof rails only, not the crossbars.
The optional panorama roof gives even back-seat riders a nice view up to the sky. But note the roof opens just halfway.
The clumsy and often-lambasted iDrive interior control knob that's in some other BMWs isn't in the X3, thank goodness.
The ride can convey a good number of road bumps to passengers, even when the vehicle doesn't have the optional, stiffer, sport suspension.
The X3 is not exactly a quiet ride, either, as I could hear the engine readily when I pressed the accelerator.
Buyers should watch how many extras they put on the X3 because prices can soar into the upper $30,000s quickly.