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The Car

8 Jun 2004

RATHER than being greeted as another major achievement from the house of BMW, the arrival of the X3 cross-over wagon seems to have instead prompted further media debate about the company’s new model direction.

"The worst car BMW makes right now," was the groin crunching assertion of authoritative British weekly Autocar.

"This is one of Munich’s least convincing new models in years. BMW can do better than this," wrote Wheels' Europe editor Peter Robinson after his first drive.

That’s hardly the reception BMW would have been wanting for the second member of its sports activity vehicle (SAV) family, arriving five years after the highly successful X5 was launched.

Coming on the back of the debates about BMW’s styling direction, the iDrive controller and various other brush fires that have sprung up in their wake, such negativity is probably something that the company is getting more used to.

For all the media gnashing of teeth about the quality of X3, it seems very much to be the right vehicle at the right time, pitching into the heart of the booming category labelled cross-over, soft-roader, SUV, all-terrain wagon etcetera.

Initial X3 sales are strong in Europe and in Australia more than 250 orders have been placed despite the car not going on sale until June 26. That accounts for about one quarter of the stock that will turn up here this year.

The X3 forms the middle portion of an impressive three-model expansion plan from BMW in 2004. The 6 Series is already here while the 1 Series small car arrives late in 2004.

X3 is slightly smaller and slightly cheaper than the X5 but adopts the same philosophy of being a high-riding wagon with five seats, all-wheel drive, moderate off-road ability and more on-road charisma than usually sloppy SUVs have – hence the SAV acronym.

The X3’s pricing stretches from $65,300 to $74,600, pitching it into the heart of the prestige and luxury segment, directly tackling the likes of the Honda MDX, Lexus RX330 and the Volvo XC70 and XC90.

But this is a red-hot centre of model action, so there are many other less obvious rivals to consider. Some entry level Mercedes-Benz MLs are in the same price (and size) band while the luxury versions of the new locally-built Holden Adventra and Ford Territory cross-overs are bigger and cheaper.

If you’re in the market for BMW’s beaut inline 2.5 or 3.0-litre 24-valve six-cylinder engine you can only get it cheaper in one car, the 325ti three-door hatchback

And there is competition from within the BMW ranks too. Just $7000 separates X3 and X5, while the 320i wagon is surely going to fall under some pressure.

And if you’re in the market for BMW’s beaut inline 2.5 or 3.0-litre 24-valve six-cylinder engine you can only get it cheaper in one car, the 325ti three-door hatchback.

X3 will initially be sold in Australia with those two six-cylinder engine choices – the 141kW/245Nm 2.5 and the much-loved 170kW/300Nm 3.0. The 2.5 is mated to a choice of six-speed manual and five-speed auto with sequential manual changing, while the 3.0 gets the auto only.

BMW claims the manual 2.5i will reach 100km/h from standstill in 8.9 seconds, the auto in 9.8 seconds. The 3.0i reaches 100km/h in 8.1 seconds. Official combined ECE (European) fuel consumption claims are 11.2L/100km for the 2.5i manual, 11.9L/100km for the 2.5i auto and 12.1L/100km for the 3.0i.

Completing the drivetrain is BMW’s new xDrive all-wheel drive system developed with Magna Steyr, the company that also builds the car at its factory in Graz, Austria.

The heart of xDrive is an electronically controlled multi-plate clutch that uses the data gathered by the car’s DSC (Dynamic Stability Control) sensors to vary drive infinitely between front and rear axles. There’s no low range gearing, but Hill Descent Control is offered for gnarly descents.

Underpinning all this is a new car-like monocoque platform which employs MacPherson strut front suspension similar to that utilised by the X5, and a multi-link rear-end from the 3 Series AWD sold in Europe. Ground clearance is claimed to be 201mm.

Brakes are ventilated discs all round with additional grip support provided by the usually array of acronyms. Steering is by rack and pinion and standard rubber is 235/55 R17s.

All the mechanical hardware and software is wrapped up in a body that incorporates the traditional BMW cues – the roundel, kidney grille, two twin headlights and the latest take on the Hofmeister kink (or kick, depending on where you went to school) – as well as some of design boss Chris Bangle’s more controversial lines.

Inside it is also new but familiar. The instrument pod evokes the Z4 as does the centre console, which is angled in toward the driver in typical – but not universal – BMW style.

There are plenty of storage pockets, while interior space is about the same as X5 and the luggage compartment is actually a tad bigger. Go figure.

Standard equipment includes 10 airbags, multi-function leather-wrapped steering wheel with cruise control, 17-inch alloy wheels, roof rails, rain sensor and automatic headlight control, fog lights, climate control air-conditioning, on-board computer and CD radio. The 3.0i alone gets leather trim.

Being a BMW there is no shortage of expensive options. How about $6990 for sat-nav and a television, $3300 for a ‘Panorama’ sunroof or $1700 for metallic paint?

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