- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 10, 2004

BMW has added to its SUV (pardon me, SAV) stable with the all-new X3 active lifestyle five-door vehicle. The X3 is powered exclusively by six-cylinder engines while its older sibling, the X5 which was introduced four years ago, draws motive power from either a six-cylinder or V-8 engine.

There are two versions of BMW’s smooth, powerful inline six-cylinder motor designated for the X3: a 184-horsepower, 2.5-liter in the X3 2.5i; and the more desirable 3.0 liter powering the X3 3.0i, which generates 225 horses.

The basic engine architecture for each is shared with BMW’s M54 motor. Both models mate their powerplants to a standard ZF Type H six-speed manual gearbox, with a five-speed automatic shifter with Steptronic optionally available. When equipped with the 3.0-liter engine and manual transmission, the X3 will scoot from zero to 60 mph in a respectable 7.6 seconds.

Granted, the X3 SAV isn’t on a performance par with BMW’s sport wagons, but it really isn’t fair to make that comparison, because the two categories of vehicle have different mission statements. True, both sport wagons and the SAV share objectives in terms of providing spirited driving characteristics and a higher degree of functionality and versatility over more traditional sedans in the same series, but each appeals to a decidedly different driving style, usually under wide variances in driving conditions.

Despite its initial impression of compactness when compared to the X5, the X3 is, in reality, not all that much smaller than the X5. Both the freshened X5 and new X3 incorporate BMW’s new xDrive all-wheel drive and traction-control system, featuring variable torque split as needed with quick adaptation to changing driving scenarios. Torque is always transmitted to the rear wheels with the xDrive system, and most of the time, to all four wheels. This results in a controlled transmission of turning. The torque split between front and rear wheels is steplessly variable, controlled via a multidisc clutch that may be fully open, fully engaged or at any level of partial engagement in between.

Normal driving conditions equate to a torque split of 40 percent front to 60 percent rear. The system is integrated with the new DSC (Dynamic Stability Control).

In terms of its visual appearance, the X3 is unmistakably BMW with its heritage-related styling and design cues. At a casual glance, it looks very much like the X5, while from my perspective at least, it seems better proportioned overall — it presents in essence, a more focused and definitive design, whereas the X5 has come across more on the order of a steroid enhanced 5-Series sport wagon since its inception. The X3 tends to offer a fresher expression and interpretation of what a BMW SAV should reflect.

The X3 evokes a youthful, enthusiastic image, while catering to a functional and practical level of versatility. The interior is both roomy and appealing with an array of options and accessories to suitably personalize it to one’s individual tastes. There are cargo floor tracks for installing systems that are appropriate for your brand of preferred recreational goodies. Other safety and security features and equipment don’t go begging with this vehicle either.

I was afforded the opportunity to pilot the X3 3.0i around BMW’s Performance Center track, where it belied its SAV status and likened itself more to the aforementioned sport wagon category. Later, I was able to experience an X3 3.0i with six-speed manual transmission for a longer period.

The base sticker was set at $36,300 but rose to $41,045 after adding 18-inch Y-spoke alloys and performance tires, the power glass panorama roof, heated front seats, xenon adaptive headlights, Sirius satellite radio prep, metallic paint charge and destination and handling charge. It is of course possible to spend considerably more by fully loading the X3 with every available option, but the test vehicle seemed quite satisfactory as tested.

The X3 sits on a wheelbase that is shorter than the X5, but despite that fact, the X3 actually boasts a larger cargo area. There is no high-tech iDrive system to be found on the X3, a point that many will consider with high praise.

The 3.0i inline six makes sweet music indeed with plenty of get-up-and-go, while snicking through the gears is smooth and forgiving, as one enjoys the pleasing engine and exhaust notes. Ride quality is on the firm side, but not objectionable at all.

The X3 exhibited its prowess both on and off-road with aplomb. Bottom line, I liked the X3 3.0i very much — even more than the X5 to be honest. It offers the same level of driving enjoyment and capability and at an appreciable savings.

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