Car reviews - BMW - X3 - 5-dr wagon range
Out-handles other soft-roaders, plenty of space, engine characteristics
Room for improvement
Weight dulls performance edge, styling divisive
8 Jun 2004
By BRUCE NEWTON
THE first thing that becomes apparent as you walk around an X3 is that it looks better in the metal than it does in the photos.
The long bonnet and rear overhang, upward rake of the window line and the extensive use of black cladding around the bottom edges of the car just don’t seem to gel on the page.
But in three dimensions it seems to fit more comfortably in its skin. There are still jarring notes like the way the headlights and tail-lights and the indicators don’t actually fit together seamlessly or how so much cladding is used at the front of the car that it gives it a rather bulky, packaged look.
The second impression comes when you swing in behind the steering wheel. Yep, simple and clean, effectively efficient, firm and comfortable seating. This is a BMW.
The only letdown in a thoughtful cabin is the cheap pop-out drink holder on the passenger side of the dash, which was broken within minutes of the drive starting. It is clumsy, poorly designed and requires a rethink.
Head for the back seat and there’s a shock. While the cockpit is very much driver-oriented and therefore has a cosy feeling, there’s wide open spaces back here. Masses of head, leg and elbow room and a seatback that is tilted just a degree or two. There’s no doubt that it feels more spacious and comfortable than an X5.
Move to the luggage area and you’ve got a minimum 480 litres or a maximum 1560 litres with the second row seats folded almost flat. The rear door rises up in one piece with no separate opening glass, which is disappointing.
Hit the road in the 2.5i manual and there’s that familiar woofly sound from the classic I6 engine, as smooth and eager as ever. But it’s obviously working hard to deliver against the 1740kg kerb weight.
The X3’s not slow, you just tend to have to work the somewhat notchy gearbox quite a lot to keep the powerplant stirring beyond 3000rpm and therefore in the meat of the torque band. You find yourself in third gear a lot as the road climbs steeper and the overtaking opportunities become short and sharp.
There’s no doubt the chassis has been given the once-over by BMW. The X3 may not be the ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’, but it certainly puts any of its mid-size cross-over rivals to shame.
The steering is a bit wooden but the turn-in is sharp and the car sits flatter than you would believe a long-travel suspension wagon should.
The other neat trick is it manages this stability without destroying ride quality. Sure, it’s firm, but it is also compliant, with more suspension noise than actual shock penetrating the cabin.
Courtesy of xDrive, there is grip aplenty and we can say that emphatically courtesy of a drive program that took us into the wilds south of Launceston in Tasmania. Snow was thick on the ground, mud, gravel and ice in abundance. Biting cold wind and some rain just added to the mix.
In other words, just the combination you’d encounter on the way to the ski lodge - and the X3 accounted for it with ease. The limits of adhesion came down to the tyres and throttle application rather than xDrive itself.
The only word of caution here is that we did not go truly off-road. No big climbs or descents, no underbody-scraping culverts or glutinous bogs to contend with.
Jump out of the 2.5i and into a 3.0i and the first impression is unsurprisingly of more urge, although not overwhelmingly so. In this particular car, fitted with a sports suspension upgrade, the ride was that little bit firmer and the handling a tad tauter.
It was not all good news though, because in this particular car the accelerator pedal had a dead spot for the first few centimetres that made for a sort of turbo lag, while there was a strange droning noise on part throttle.
This was put down to the exhaust pipe extensions that were part of the car’s $3000 sports package, which also includes 18-inch low profile wheels and tyres, a bodykit and interior upgrades. Closing the sunroof certainly muted but didn’t quite eliminate the noise. More work needed there.
So where does all that leave us at the end of a long day’s drive? Certainly not at the point of dismissing the X3 as a pretender in BMW clothes.
The problem more seems to be that these types of vehicles are not in the traditional BMW bailiwick. They’re heavy, slow and cursed with a high centre of gravity that works against handling purity.
Flick your way through the current BMW line-up and X3 would not come close to the top of too many favourites lists. But, look at the offerings from rivals in this class and its quality suddenly looks a whole lot more impressive.
If only we were offered the choice of the 3.0d turbo-diesel that blesses the X5 range. No qualifications on that - we fancy that would be an X3 really worth getting to know!
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