2004 BMW X3 3.0i
Photo: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

by Haney Louka
Photos by Grant Yoxon and Paul Williams

For those of you expecting the sports sedan of SUVs, I’m sorry to disappoint you: the X3 is no 3-Series.

True, on paper it has all of the makings of a rugged version of its sedan counterpart. But the driving experience reveals significant differences that, while they don’t detract from the X3’s basic purpose, keep the little SUV – oops – SAV (BMW buyers are active, not utilitarian) from winning me over. Perhaps I expect too much. More on that later.

The lineup

The powertrain beneath the three-litre X3’s skin is nothing new for fans of the blue-and-white propeller. An inline six displacing 2,979 cubic centimetres pumps out 225 horsepower at 5,900 rpm and 214 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm. Power is distributed all around via BMW’s “Xdrive” permanent all wheel drive system. A six-speed stick is standard-issue, while a five-speed auto with manual shift mode can be had for $1,290.

Sounds pretty 3-Series-ish doesn’t it?

I had the opportunity to drive the X3 3.0i and its 330xi sedan stablemate (the base prices of which are separated by a mere $100) back to back, making the differences between the two vehicles particularly striking.

Driving experience

2004 BMW X3 3.0i
Photo: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

Contrary to my expectations before getting into the driver’s seat of the X3, there are a few critical differences that keep the X3 from getting a glowing review as a driver’s vehicle. First, the X3 weighs 100 kg more than the 330xi. That may not seem like much, but combine it with the additional air resistance generated by poking a 240-mm (almost ten-inch) taller hole in the air and greater ground clearance, and the result is a half-second deficit in 0 to 100 km/h times and about 15 per cent greater fuel consumption.

That higher centre of gravity leads to my second beef, and that’s the X3’s responses to input at the controls. It’s most evident in cornering, where the X3’s steering wheel is a little further away from the front tires, and its passenger compartment is higher off the ground than the 330’s. So while steering is still tight by SUV standards, the resulting action is a little more delayed and less precise than I expected. Another culprit is the significantly slower 18.9 (vs. 15.5) steering ratio in the X3.

2004 BMW X3 3.0i

2004 BMW X3 3.0i

2004 BMW X3 3.0i

2004 BMW X3 3.0i
BMW X3 3.0i with 5-speed automatic transmission shown. Photos: Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge

In terms of cargo carrying capacity, the X3 can swallow 480 litres of stuff behind the rear seats and 1,560 litres with the seats folded down. That’s about the same size as the Land Rover Freelander, and smaller than all members of the CR-V/Escape/Liberty et al. camp. It’s actually about as capacious as BMW’s own 325xi Touring wagon that, by the way, is available with all wheel drive for about $4,000 less.

And finally there are the subjective rants. The X3 just doesn’t have the panache or substance of other BMWs. It looks like it’s less money than the 3-series cars even though it’s not. The doors don’t sound the same when they’re slammed and the shifter throws are too long for a BMW, even if it is an SUV.

Thanks, I feel better now.

So what does the X3 have to offer? For those who absolutely must have an SUV, it provides a tighter driving experience than larger (read: heavier), similarly priced entries like the Mercedes-Benz ML 350, and it’s sportier than a Lexus RX 330. And some of the disadvantages I cited above are boons to those who want it: it sits higher off the ground for a more commanding view of the road and for trudging through really deep snow or (ahem) for those off-roading adventures.

It does have a more adaptive all wheel drive system than is available on 3-Series cars, too: an electronically controlled clutch pack manages the front-rear power distribution versus the fixed 38/62 split in the xi models.

Active and passive safety has always been important to the Bavarians. On the active (collision avoidance) front, anti-lock brakes and Dynamic Stability Control are standard issue, as are bi-xenon headlamps and adaptive brake lights. Passive safety, which covers those features designed to minimize occupant injury in a collision, is represented by front, side, and head airbags and a crash sensor that cuts off fuel to the engine, unlocks the doors, and turns the car’s lights on.

Summing it up

So it’s pretty clear that I’m not an SUV guy, but that doesn’t keep me from recommending SUVs to people looking for one. The only caveat is that the vehicle has to have something unique to offer. For SUVs, cargo versatility should be a convincing argument, but in this case it’s not. It is, however, a BMW, and it comes with a base price that’s $14,000 more affordable than the more upscale X5. For some, that’s enough.

Shopping around

2004 BMW X3 3.0i
Photo: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

This is one of the fastest growing segments in the industry, and includes models that cover the spectrum from sport to luxury, with the Bimmer sitting at the sporty end (base prices shown):

  • Acura MDX ($50,300)

  • Cadillac SRX ($52,250)
  • Infiniti FX35 ($52,700)
  • Land Rover Discovery ($49,000)
  • Lexus RX 330 ($49,900)
  • Mercedes-Benz ML 350 ($51,100)
  • Volkswagen Touareg ($52,100)
  • Volvo XC90 ($54,995)

Counterpoint: BMW X3 3.0i

by Grant Yoxon

2004 BMW X3 3.0i
Photo: Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge

One might be forgiven for not immediately recognizing the X3 as a BMW, despite the traditional BMW grille.

Look a little closer and you will find more that defines the X3 as a BMW – the simple utilitarian interior assembled with militaristic precision, a smooth and powerful straight six and on-road manners that seem to defy the laws of physics, at least as they apply to tall, all-wheel-drive vehicles.

Although equipped with such off-road goodies as hill descent control, this sport ute…, I mean sport activity vehicle (as BMW would prefer), is more suited to towing the speed boat to the marina than crawling down rocky outcrops, but also more talented at delivering back road driving thrills than bags of groceries.

Cargo carrying capacity is on the small side, compared to most mid-sized SUVs, but power and towing capacity is far greater than any compact SUV. It is in pushing the accelerator pedal that the X3 is most satisfying – and in tossing it around corners. Handling is second to no other SUV. Consequently, the ride is not as plush as some competitors in this price range. The Lexus RX 330 comes to mind.

In base trim, the X3 is not as well equipped as other $50,000 SUVs either. Manually adjustable seats are standard. Power seats and real leather trim are optional.

2004 BMW X3 3.0i
Photo: Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge

Top of the line safety is standard, however, with a full complement of passive and active safety features. Whether towing a trailer or navigating slick roads on a dark night, the X3 has the technology to keep you and your passengers safe and secure.

Although visually similar to its bigger brother, the X5, I couldn’t help but think that something has been lost in the shrinkage. Despite the admirable handling, the wonderful strength of the 3.0 litre inline six and the predominant BMW grille, the X3 is less visually stimulating than the X5. If we were talking about real estate, we would say the X3 lacks curb appeal.

Place it along side new all-wheel-drive vehicles like the Infinity FX35 or the aforementioned Lexus RX 330 and its not the X3 that raises the pulse despite its twin kidney grille.

Technical Data: Haney’s 2004 BMW X3 3.0i

Base price $44,600
Base price $49,850
Options $7,700
Freight $1,595
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $59,245
Type 4-door, 5-passenger, sport-utility vehicle
Layout longitudinal front engine/all-wheel-drive
Engine 3.0-litre inline-six, DOHC, 24 valves, VVT
Horsepower 225 @ 5,900 rpm
Torque 214 lb-ft @ 3,500 rpm
Transmission six-speed manual (5-speed automatic available)
Wheelbase 2,795 mm (110.0 in.)
Length 4,565 mm (179.7 in.)
Width 1,853 mm (73.0 in.)
Height 1,674 mm (65.9 in.)
Cargo capacity 480 litres (16.9 cu. ft.) seats up
  1560 litres (55.1 cu. ft.) seats down
Fuel consumption City: 13.8 L/100 km (20 mpg)
  Hwy: 8.8 L/100 km (32 mpg)
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km

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