Car reviews - BMW - X3 - 3.0i 5-dr wagon
Extra interior space over X5, more nimble than X5, safety credentials, on and off-road handling, performance, intuitive auto, engine note, ride quality
Room for improvement
Purchase price, options prices, smallish rear seat, flimsy cabin components, interior fit and finish, questionable off-road durability, ground clearance, tall gearing, kerb weight
28 Jan 2005
By TIM BRITTEN
BMW’s "little" soft-roader, the X3, has sure copped some flack since it was launched onto the world stage early in 2004.
Some press have described it as the worst of the current crop of BMWs, while others have bagged it for its quality and its up-there pricing.
Admittedly, the new SUV (or as BMW would like to describe it, Sports Activity Vehicle) seemed at first to be a strange fit in the model hierarchy. It’s not heaps smaller than the adored X5 and in fact has a slightly larger rear load area.
And it’s true to say the X3 is hardly an entry level SUV, with asking prices starting around $65,000 and topping out at more than $70,000 for the 3.0-litre version before you even start thinking about options. And BMW buyers do think about options.
The company answers the price/size arguments by saying the car definitely fits into a smaller category than the X5. The proposition is that the cabin is smaller, and feels it. A more tightly packed BMW soft-roader.
To be sure, the X3 on first acquaintance does feel a touch more "handy" than an X5.
The X5 is hardly intimidating – at least in 4WD terms – but the X3 gives the impression of more immediacy in terms of contact with the world outside. It’s less of a burden when judging parking distances and slightly more at one with the driver.
There’s a little less interior width too – but only a little, because the X3 is a mere 19mm narrower than its big brother – and a little less all-round legroom. The rear seat is just okay.
In fact, it’s the interior, above all else, that has been most roundly criticised. Some say the quality has been dumbed down to contain pricing. If that’s the case, the dumbing down hasn’t really worked.
The reality is that the X3 isn’t the best example of German fit and finish. The basic quality is undoubtedly there, but it’s the little things that gripe.
Things like the Tonka-toy ratchet for the lid of the central oddments bin and the spindly plastic passenger-side cupholder that will break if smitten by an errant knee, which can happen easily because when open it is very much in the way of getting in or out of the car.
The grade of the materials around the dash area isn’t quite what you expect of BMW either, nor is the way things fit together.
Yet, as we said, the underlying quality is unquestioned. The car comes with the usual BMW safety credentials, including 10 airbags (dual front, side bags front and rear, front and rear head bags) and a full complement of electronic safety aids including ABS, electronic stability control, hill descent control (for off-roading) and traction control.
That’s the basic stuff. BMW also fine-tunes any errant behaviour with systems like cornering brake control and a traction control system that works on and off-road to give the X3 quite formidable abilities for a soft-roader.
The xDrive four-wheel drive system is the same as that recently adopted in the X5. Given enough engine grunt, and suitable tyres, it is able to achieve impressive stunts way beyond what you’d normally expect of a car not intended for serious off-road work.
In 3.0-litre form, the X3 has the power and the will to delve where others may hesitate to go.
But it’s not a Patrol or a LandCruiser. It lacks the toughness, the ground clearance and the crawler gearing to tackle really rugged, really steep off-road work.
Ironically, the X3 is at its best on the road. In 3.0-litre form, it has the performance and the musicality to make for an enjoyable driver’s car.
Weighing around 200kg less than a comparable X5 – although it’s still a substantial 1765kg – the 3.0-litre X3 has reasonable punch, with a claimed zero to 100km/h of 8.1 seconds. It also thrills its occupants with the sweet whine of the 170kW straight-six engine.
The 3.0-litre’s standard five-speed auto helps here too. It’s quite an intuitive shifter, slotting down a ratio if the brakes are used on downhills - although it will hang on to higher gears determinedly at times.
The manual-shift function is a reversal of that employed by most car-makers, with upshifts achieved by moving the lever forward, rather than back. Acclimatisation comes easily after a few days.
Fuel economy isn’t bad – about what you’d expect for a vehicle weighing close to 1.8 tonnes, with the official average claimed to be 12.1 litres per 100km in an urban/country mix. The test car averaged 13.5 litres per 100km over a week of driving in mainly urban conditions.
The X3’s ride, in basic form (it can be specified with a sports suspension that tightens everything up but retains ground clearance) is quite supple. The sports suspension isn’t bad either – controlled and firmish, but quite effective at absorbing sharp impacts.
The load area, as mentioned, is large and handy with a capacity of 480 litres when all seats are in place and 1560 litres when the split-fold (but not double-fold) rear seat is hinged down. Both capacities are marginally better than the X5.
The spare, just like a LandCruiser, is underslung beneath the rear floor where it’s out of the way but inclined to pick up mud and road grime.
So, what’s the verdict on BMW’s slightly smaller SUV?
Interestingly, the company makes more of how it compares with the 3 Series Touring wagon than how it rates in the prestige SUV category.
Other similarly priced SUVs, like the Lexus RX330 and Honda MD-X, are the real competition, and they generally offer a fair bit more gear for the money. But neither has a BMW badge.
The reality is that, despite some superficial flaws, the X3 is still a BMW under the skin. It sounds like one, drives like one.
But it’s still something of a challenge to accept that it’s not hugely less expensive than the almost omnipotent X5.
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