Steve Schaefer, Fri, 20 Jun 2008 08:00:00 PDT
BMW enjoys an enviable reputation for its range of driver's cars. The brand promises engagement, power, precise handling, and no small amount of prestige in the bargain. And, you can always tell it's a BMW, thanks to their distinctive designs.
At the beginning of this century, BMW joined the masses in producing an SUV. But their X5 was more carlike than many BMW had no truck platform to adapt so they called it an SAV Sports Activity Vehicle.
The X3 is the junior member of the SAV team. Built in Graz, Austria, it offers a 3-series feel in a taller, all-wheel-drive package. Consisting of a single model, the 3.0si, it provides more sporting fun than conventional sport utilities and crossovers. You can even order a manual six-speed transmission, a rarity in this segment.
The six-speed STEPTRONIC Automatic is a no-cost option, and my Alpine White tester had it. As I normally do with these sequential shifting transmissions, I played with it a little and then left it in Drive. It works fine.
The X3 is motivated by a 3.0-liter inline six, as all 3-series BMWs in America are these days. The smooth-running engine puts out 260 horsepower and 225 lb-ft. of torque, moving the smiling driver from zero to 60 miles per hour in 6.9 seconds with the manual and 7.1 seconds with the automatic. That's pretty sporty for a tall wagon with 71 cubic feet of cargo space when you drop the split rear seats.
The 3.0-liter engine earns 17 City, 24 Highway miles per gallon according to the revised EPA rating system. I averaged 16.9 mpg in mixed driving. The EPA's Green Vehicle Guide gives the X3 with six-speed automatic an Air Pollution score of 7 and a Greenhouse Gases rating of 6. Those are both better than average scores. Interesting the manual transmission earns 1 mpg lower fuel economy ratings than the automatic and the Greenhouse Gases score loses a point, too. I guess the computers shift more efficiently than us humans.
The X3 feels and looks like a BMW should. It's a very solid piece with a sense of toughness and attention to detail throughout. The body design is very much in the current BMW design language, with bold lines, alternating convex and concave surfaces and plenty of sliced edges. Of course, it wears the twin kidney grille up front, although those kidneys have become flatter and flatter over the years.
Inside, the bowed out dash panel looks like the one the 3-series sedan, and the black matte surfaces feel right and familiar. Sporting drivers will appreciate the thick steering wheel with thumb notches, along with buttons for the audio and speed control systems. I liked the way the door grab handles looked like twisting straps frozen in place. This now not-so-new BMW look is becoming more fully realized, but it shook up some BMW enthusiasts when it first arrived on the 5-series cars.
It wouldn't be a BMW without a healthy helping of high technology. The engine employs BMW's Valvetronic system to vary valve lift significantly to make the best compromise between power and fuel economy. It offers quicker response for the driver, too.
As an all-wheel-drive car, the X3 gets xDrive, Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), and Dynamic Traction Control (DTC). The xDrive system moves torque as needed from the rear to the front wheels using a multi-disc clutch. It responds instantly to road and surface conditions. The DSC system uses sensors to detect that the car needs correction and then applies the brakes selectively and adjusts torque to remedy any problems. The DTC system, as part of DSC, delays system engagement until a higher level of wheel slip. This allows for a little more fun by enthusiast drivers.
The X3 costs $38,775, including shipping. But you don't have to stop there. My tester was loaded with option packages. The Premium Package upgrades to Nevada leather upholstery and a few handy extras like power folding exterior mirrors. The Sport Package adds a firmer Sport suspension, bumps the alloy wheels to 18-inchers, and adds a full-body aero kit outside. Inside, you get a "sport" steering wheel and "sport" seats, too. The Cold Weather package provides heated seats for the rear passengers as well as retractable headlight cleaners and more.
You can pile on the options separately, too. With things like a navigation system, premium audio, and Park Distance Control (it beeps when you approach something handy), my tester's price slid a hundred dollars past the $50,000 mark. Wow!But the fun quotient is very high, as is the impression you make when you drive this smaller BMW sports activity vehicle.