October 2, 2006
Munich, Germany – The BMW X3 has pretty much owned the premium cute-ute segment, but with the recent arrival of the Acura RDX, and upcoming small SUVs from Audi, Land Rover and Mercedes, the market is about to get very crowded.
The X3 SAV (sport activity vehicle in Bimmer-speak) has done pretty well in Canada since its launch in 2004. Being a pragmatic lot, we seem to prefer our premium SUVs on the small size. So far in the 2006 model year, the X3 sales are nearly double those of its bigger brother, the X5.
There is a lot to like in the X3: fine dynamics, good packaging and a standard six-speed manual for those who prefer a little more driving involvement with their SUV experience.
For 2007, BMW has given the X3 an extensive mid-life make-over. They’re calling it the “all new” X3, which might be a bit of a stretch, but granted, the improvements go a lot deeper than the larger grille, more aggressive headlamps and body-coloured bumpers you see in the photos.
One welcome upgrade here is to the interior. It goes a long way in erasing the memory of the previous effort which was uninspired, plasticy, and generally not what you’d expect of a BMW.
Although the basic design remains, the dash is now constructed of higher quality plastics and features a new broad horizontal swath of trim (aluminum or wood) that is bisected by the centre console. The door panels have large pockets instead of map nets and the window and mirror controls are now placed on the door arm-rests where they belong.
Nice touches include useful cubbies in the dash, and galvanized metal on the door handles and air/con controls. The cabin looks especially fetching in sand beige. It now says “upscale elegance” as opposed to “bean counter’s dream”.
The other big news lies under the hood. The former X3 3.0 is now called the X3 3.0si. Gone is the old 225-hp 3.0-litre straight six, replaced by the aluminum/magnesium 3.0-litre unit found in the 3 series, 5 series and Z4. This relatively light 164 kg engine features BMW’s trick throttleless Valvetonic intake system. It is smooth, quick to rev, and puts out 260 hp at 6600 r.p.m. and 225 lb.-ft. at 2750 r.p.m. BMW claims the X3 3.0si reaches the benchmark 100 km/h in 7.2 seconds.
The most impressive aspect of this drivetrain, which, when including the new optional no-cost six-speed automatic transmission with Steptronic, sees a claimed 15% increase in fuel economy over the outgoing automatic model.
The entry-level X3 2.5 of last year has become the X3 3.0i, and sports a detuned version of the 3.0si’s engine, rated at 215 hp at 6250 rpm and 185 lb.-ft. at 2750 rpm.
BMW’s clever xDrive all-wheel-drive system, which uses a computer-controlled limited slip centre differential, has been upgraded with Integrated Chassis Management – yet another computerized electronic intervention system that oversees and integrates xDrive, Dynamic Stability Control, and engine management, ensuring even faster response to any changes in driving conditions, be they on or off-road.
To quote the press release, “While so far the engine and brake management systems acted on the vehicle’s behaviour almost independently of the longitudinal forces management, these three control circuits now act in parallel to one another.” Got that?
All techno-babble aside, this electronic trickery is transparent in its operation. The default setting for xDrive is a front/rear torque split of 40/60, which imparts the X3 with a nice rear bias. But if, for instance, ICM detects impending understeer (or ploughing), the system will send more torque to the rear wheels, and conversely for oversteer.
Get into more trouble, and the computers will brake individual wheels and reduce engine output. While most X3s will likely never see anything more treacherous than a dirt road to the cottage, BMW took us to a special off-road track near Munich to show off the X3’s bush-whacking acumen. With Hill Descent activated, and all the electronics working away, the little ute crawled its way over some pretty tough terrain.
Out on the smooth serpentine German B-roads, the X3 proved to be everything you’d expect of a BMW vehicle. The steering is well weighted and linear, and there is very little lean in the corners. The high driving position makes for great visibility, but of course the higher centre of gravity compromises its agility.
Such is the nature of the SUV animal. The X3 feels like a BMW 3-series sedan on stilts, which in the realm of sport-utes, is quite an accomplishment.
Utility has always been an X3 strong suit. Under the rear luggage cover is an ample 480 litres of storage space. This expands to 1560 litres when the 60/40 split rear seats are folded forward – slightly more than the current X5 in both cases.
For you boat and horsey types, the X3 is rated to tow up to 2000 kg, and features Trailer Stability Control. This system detects any impending instability and gently applies the brakes on both the X3 and trailer to prevent pendulum sway.
The base X3 3.0i costs $45,300, and the 3.0si comes in at $50,900. This is up only $600 and $700 respectively from the outgoing models. Nevada leather will set you back $2400 and navigation adds a further $2900.
There are a number of option packages available for both models that can quickly escalate the price skywards. For instance, a 3.0si with the $4800 premium package (heated steering wheel, panoramic sunroof, leather, auto dimming mirrors and upgraded stereo), the $3200 M Sport Package (sport suspension, sport seats, M steering wheel, M aerodymanics, 18’ alloys, anthracite roof liner), plus sat/nav and $800 metallic paint will put you well on the wrong side of sixty grand.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this test event was my brief seat time in the European X3 3.0sd, which is the first application of BMW’s new diesel 3.0-litre six with Variable Twin Turbo technology. This engine is quiet, silky smooth and generates 286 hp and 427 lb.-ft. of torque (!) between 1750 – 2250 rpm. Yes folks, this puppy pulls like a freight train. And best of all, it gets 8.7 L/100 km on the EU cycle.
Sadly, all this diesel goodness is not crossing the pond. Yet. The recently mandated low-sulphur diesel fuel is one hurdle crossed. Now, if we just can make enough noise…
At a glance: 2007 BMW X3 3.0si
Base price/as tested: $50,900/$56,200
Engine: 3.0-litre DOHC 24-valve Valvetronic inline six
Power: 260 hp @ 6600 rpm
Torque: 225 lb.-ft. @ 2750 rpm
Fuel consumption: 10.1 L/100 km on EU cycle
Competition: Acura RDX, Land Rover LR2
Manufacturer’s web site