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First drive: BMW tries again with re-rated X3

Midlife crisis: Three years on and BMW's X3 comes in for more changes inside than out.

X3 facelift arrives on cue as middleage catches up with BMW's underwhelming baby SUV

19 Dec 2006

BMW has given the E83 X3 a facelift, featuring revised styling, new petrol engines with upgraded gearboxes, and a revamped interior. Starting from $65,900, prices rise by between $500 and $1500.

Stylistically, the X5's smaller brother boasts a blink-and-you-will-miss-it front-end makeover, comprising a larger ‘Kidney' grille, a reshaped (and now mostly body-coloured) bumper including larger foglights, and different headlights with new reflectors behind clear glass.

Similar changes have occurred on the X3’s posterior, with the larger indicator lenses incorporated in the LED tail-lights being the most obvious change. The latter’s light-display intensity varies with brake force, to help minimise rear-end collisions.

Owners of the outgoing model should immediately recognise the alterations wrought inside, which is now finished in ‘high quality’ materials.

Addressing one of the most often damned aspects of the previous version, BMW describes the X3’s plastic surfaces as having gained a ‘high-class texture.’ The instrument panel has been redesigned, the steering wheel is now of a three-spoke variety, the centre console, seats and roof lining have been revised, and the door-mounted bins are now more volumous.

Bluetooth connectivity has been made standard across the three-pronged X3 range, with fresh nomenclature in the petrol-powered models to reflect the new, lightweight and efficient R6 engines on offer.

The old 2.5i has been ousted for the 2.5si, powered by an all-new, 2.5-litre Valvetronic in-line six-cylinder engine producing 160kW of power at 6500rpm and 250Nm of torque from 2750rpm – representing a 19kW and 5Nm improvement respectively.

One of the most obvious differences between the old and new engine is torque accessibility. In the 2.5si, the torque maximum tops out at several hundred rpm lower than before.

In new 3.0si guise, the gains are even greater over the outgoing X3 3.0i, with 200kW at 6600rpm (+30kW) and 315Nm from 2750rpm (+15Nm) available to the driver.

Unusually for an SUV, the X3 3.0si’s version of this naturally aspirated 3.0-litre Valvetronic in-line six-cylinder engine – also used in every other BMW model – is the most powerful, beating the 130i and Z4 3.0si units by 5kW and the 330i and 530i by 10kW.

Carried over is the diesel engine launched in the 3.0d model in December 2005, delivering 160kW of power at 4000rpm and 480Nm of torque at 1750rpm, courtesy of its Variable Turbine Geometry (VTG) turbocharger and common-rail injection arrangement.

The petrol units join the 3.0d in offering the ZF six-speed automatic gearbox with BMW’s Steptronic sequential shift function (previously they employed a five-speed automatic gearbox), while the only manual on offer is a six-speeder unit on the 2.5si.

Sadly, the 3.0sd turbo-diesel model, introduced elsewhere in the world, and powered by BMW’s trick new VTT Variable Twin Turbo system, is a likely no-show in Australia, as it has not been homologated for this – or any other – ‘hot-weather’ market vehicle.

With 213kW and 580Nm of power and torque on tap, the 3.0sd can hit 100km/h from standstill in 6.6 seconds, compared to 7.5 seconds (3.0si), 7.9 seconds (3.0d), 8.5 seconds (2.5si) and 8.9 seconds (2.5si auto).

On the fuel-economy front, the 3.0d is still king with 8.6L/100km recorded using the EU average methodology, compared to the 2.5si manual’s 9.9L/100km (auto: 10.1L/100km) and 3.0si’s 10.3L/100km figures – although the petrol duo do benefit from a 15 per cent improvement in this area.

Interestingly, all models are speed limited to 210km/h.

Keeping the X3 on the straight and narrow is an updated version of the xDrive permanent all-wheel drive (AWD) set-up that debuted with the series, and has since been adopted by later versions of the X5.

BMW says that xDrive is up to five times faster reacting than similar drivetrains found on rival luxury AWD models.

In fact, it now also boasts faster reaction times with the DSC Dynamic Stability Control device that it is networked with, as part of BMW’s Integrated Chassis Management device that also oversees other engine control systems.

14 center imageDSC also works more efficiently and effectively with the brakes than before, since it now primes them for emergency stop situations by sensing how quickly the driver’s foot lifts off from the accelerator pedal.

It also periodically applies the brakes to wipe away the film of water that can accumulate on the discs in the wet, while a BFC Brake Fade Compensation device applies extra braking when sensors detect that the brake pads are beginning to lose their ‘bite’ due to heat build up.

The revised X3 also gains a DTC Dynamic Traction Control button on the dashboard that allows the driver to switch off it off independently of the stability control for what BMW calls "... more spirited driving without the traction control safety net intervening." Another stability control innovation is its TSC Trailer Stability Control software that – once a trailer or caravan is connected – can counteract the undesirable swaying effects that towing such things can bring.

As before, xDrive’s torque distribution is variable between the front and rear axles, ranging from the everyday 40:60 front-to-rear application, to 100 per cent rear-drive according to conditions, for better traction, stability and dynamic performance.

Up to 100 per cent torque distribution to the front wheels is possible in certain situations as well, while a differential lock function occurs when xDrive brakes a spinning wheel where necessary.

On the subject of electronic driving, security and safety aids, BMW’s ASC-X Automatic Stability Control and Traction, ABS anti-lock brakes with DBC Dynamic Brake Control, ASC Automatic Slip Control, CBC Cornering Brake Control and HDC Hill Descent Control add to the X3’s alphabet soup of acronyms. Dual front and side airbags are also included, along with side curtain head-level airbags, while the tyres – which remain non-runflat, since this-generation X3 was not developed to use them – are rated 235/55 R17s, ensconcing 17-inch alloy wheels on all models.

Save for a minor suspension tweak believed to improve the model’s oft-criticised ride quality, virtually everything else of the X3 remains much the same as before.

It is based on a variation of the E46 3 Series platform that also underpins the current Z4 sports car range, this means a double-joint thrust-rod spring-strut front suspension and a rear suspension made up of a central pivot spindle with a trailing arm and double wishbones (based heavily on the design found in the four-wheel drive version of the E46 330iX model never sold in Australia), while the steering system is a power-assisted rack and pinion set-up.

At its January 2004 launch in Australia, the X3 was criticised for being too close in size to the current (E53) X5.

However, the new-generation E70 X5 – due in the second quarter of 2007 – will grow significantly in size, compared to the current vehicle (by approximately 60mm in width, 165mm in length and 110mm in wheelbase length) and, presumably, in price.

So BMW Australia hopes to snare SUV buyers put off by the new X5’s upsizing, and that the revisions made to the new X3 are enough to improve on the current model’s 91-unit average monthly sales it currently achieves.

Stiff competition is coming in the shape of the all-new Land Rover Freelander II, due in the middle of 2007, along with the facelifted Volkswagen Touareg, the second-generation Honda MDX, and, in early 2008, the arrival of Audi’s still-secret Q5, the compact SUV it will pitch directly against the compact BMW.

By then, Lexus will have also released the third-generation RX, while Mercedes-Benz’s much-rumoured MLK – conceptually thought to be virtually identical to the X3, and based on the next-generation C-class – is also expected to have hit the streets.

Over 280,000 X3s have been sold globally since the model debuted at the 2003 Frankfurt motor show.

Last year – the X3’s first full year on sale in Australia – BMW sold 1212 units, after shifting 915 in 2004.

In 2007, the company is forecasting at least about 1000 sales, which is about what BMW will offload for 2006.

However, according to outgoing BMW Australia managing director Dr Franz Sauter, it will be "... very disappointing if (we) do not sell 20 per cent more X3s in 2007 than this year." His confidence is bolstered by the X3’s palpably better petrol-engine performance and efficiency and more generous standard equipment levels, which have been met by relatively modest price rises.

Around half will be made up of the 3.0d, with 35 per cent slated for the 2.5si, and the remainder set aside for the 3.0si. Less than five percent of buyers are expected to choose the manual 2.5si.

As before, all versions of the vehicle are built at the Magna Steyr plant in Graz, Austria.

2007 BMW X3 pricing:
2.5si $65,900
2.5si (a) $68,500
3.0si (a) $73,900
3.0d (a) $75,900

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