2004 BMW X3
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Story and photos by Richard Russell

Mijas, Spain – BMW’s goal of sharply increasing sales is highly dependent on the introduction and sale of new lower-price vehicles. In that light, the significance of the 2004 X3 becomes even more important.

SUV’s have become popular for a variety of reasons – all-wheel-drive, a high seating position, practicality and image. The X3 has all – with special emphasis on the latter. BMW sees considerable growth potential in the premium SUV segment, particularly the medium-size component, figuring the majority of that growth will come from vehicles oriented toward on-road dynamics and comfort. It sees the X3 as a substantial pillar in the group’s strategy, one of the cornerstones upon which further growth will be built.

As you approach the X3 you are immediately aware it is a BMW. The grill, interplay of convex and concave surfaces and unique rear end combine to leave that visual impression. It is not as controversial as Chief BMW designer Chris Bangle’s recent BMW sedan efforts, but neither will it be mistaken for anything other than a Bimmer. Not all of us gathered here at the world introduction of this newcomer were enamored with the dull black plastic bumper covers front and rear, but they undoubtedly add to the tough look sought after in SUVs. While tall and relatively boxy, the X3 still earns an impressive 0.35 co-efficient of drag measurement – lowest in the class.

2004 BMW X3
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The interior is typically BMW with high quality materials assembled to fine limits. The instrument panel will be readily recognized by BMW owners with two large round dials framed by the steering wheel. The upper portion of the center stack contains provision for the optional pop-up navigation system. The seats are comfortable, supportive and adjust over a wide range. There is plenty of room for two large adults in the rear with practically unlimited headroom. The only fault we found was poor placement of the grab handles on the front armrests – out of reach with the seat in all but the most forward setting. This was pointed out by a driving partner seeking support during the very aggressive driving the X3 invites.

The large one-piece rear hatch opens to reveal a low lift-over and a perfectly flat floor equipped with built-in luggage or cargo tie-down rails. The X3 provides more storage space aft of the second row of seats than most larger SUVs.

Built on the 3-Series platform, the X3 is the only vehicle in the lineup not built in a BMW plant. It will come from a dedicated body shop and assembly line at Magna Steyr Fahrzeugtechnik AG in Graz, Austria. The X3 falls nicely into the line, size-wise between the 3 and 5-series sedans and the X5. It is 87 mm longer than the 3-Series Touring, 102 mm shorter than the X5 and 30 mm shorter than the new 5-Series.

2004 BMW X3
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The first shipment of X3s will come to North America with the same sweet 3.0 litre inline six found elsewhere in BMW land. Producing 231 horsepower and 221-lb. ft. of torque in this application, it rewards both the ear and right foot. The X3 will also be available with a 2.5 litre six, whose 192 horses and 181 lb. ft. of torque won’t be quite as impressive. A 3.0 litre diesel with 204 horsepower and more importantly 302-lb. ft. of torque will be offered in other markets. This unit comes within one-tenth of a second of matching the 3.0 litre gas engine’s 7.8 second 0-100 km/hr time and handily beats it in mid-range acceleration or passing performance. Our test vehicles were equipped with the five-speed automatic with Steptronic, but a six-speed manual will also be available. The auto does such a good job in this situation we wondered why anyone would bother with the manual.

All X3’s are equipped with BMW’s new XDrive “intelligent” All Wheel Drive system. Making its first appearance here, it will also be standard on the 2004 X5. XDrive is linked with BMW’s Dynamic Stability Control to help prevent spins and to divert power to the rear wheels if understeer is detected in corners, and to the front tires if it senses oversteer. XDrive is unique in that it, working on information supplied by a variety of sensors, constantly apportions torque according to perceived situations. Floor the gas from rest and it will automatically distribute half the power to the front wheels to help limit wheelspin. It then sends more to the rear as speed increases – to 100% after 180 km/hr to insure maximum stability. XDrive can send 100% of the power to either front or rear axle if the other encounters poor traction. It works in conjunction with the ABS system to send power to one wheel on either side of the front or rear if the other has no grip.

The X3 is rated to tow a 2,000 lb. trailer and the DSC system has been equipped with a yaw sensor programmed to detect and control any dangerous pendulum motions. The X3 also comes with electronic Hill Descent Control – which automatically holds a preset speed while going down steep grades. While this important offroad feature has popped up on a couple of other SUVs, in the X3 that speed can be adjusted through a button on the steering wheel anywhere from 6 – 25 km/hr. Seventeen inch wheels and tires will be standard and 18 inchers optional.

2004 BMW X3
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In addition to these worthy safety aids the X3 comes with front, side and side curtain airbags and a tire pressure warning system. The X3 has been equipped to fit the premium category. Neither equipment levels nor prices had been set at the time of the international launch here, but look for an entry at just under the $50,000 mark including a very high level of standard equipment. The X3 will be available with Park Distance Sensors front and rear, rain sensing wipers, adaptive headlights and a giant panoramic glass sunroof . Also available are BMW’s elaborate adaptive bi-xenon headlights that illuminate the road in the direction you are turning at night, almost doubling the distance you can see down the road.

Most customers are expected to come from conventional cars, with lesser numbers from station wagons, minivans and existing SUV’s looking to move into a premium brand.

After more than 400 kilometres of throwing early production X3 around the marvelous roads north of Malaga, we can attest BMW met its goals. This is one very agile and nimble SUV! We even tackled a pretty tame off-road course, but all we learned was that the same dynamic attributes apply in tight, slippery situations, and that the new Xdrive all-wheel-drive system is very quick to react to changing conditions.

It was on the public roads twisting and turning through the hills and mountains we really got a sense of how capable this newcomer is – and how easily it will earn a place at the top of many SUV wish lists.

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