2004 BMW X3

    (3 Reviews)




    MSRP
    $30,300 - $36,300
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    2004 BMW X3 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive

    That famous grille applied to a smaller SUV.

    Introduction

    The 2004 BMW X3 is an all-new, mid-level, near-luxury sport-utility powered by the company's proven six-cylinder engines. The X3 is equipped with BMW's xDrive all-wheel-drive system, Dynamic Stability Control and Hill Descent Control, all designed to give it tenacious grip and secure control in less than favorable conditions. 

    BMW may build the ultimate driving machine, but the X3 shouldn't be considered a contender for the title of ultimate off-road vehicle. This isn't BMW's intent. But the X3 should do what a BMW owner feeling the need for something akin to an SUV wants as well as or better than any other in its class does. And this it does. 

    The X3 is quick and fast, considering its heft. The xDrive puts it at the head of the class when weather or road goes north. It's roomy, both for passengers and cargo. And just as important, it's replete with safety features, both active and passive. 

    Lineup

    BMW offers its entry in the mid-size sport-utility segment in two configurations. The more affordable is the X3 2.5i, powered by a 184-horsepower, 2.5-liter, inline six-cylinder engine. The other is the 3.0i, sporting a 225-horsepower, 3.0-liter, inline-6. Both come fitted with a six-speed manual transmission and xDrive, BMW's take on all-wheel drive. A 5-speed automatic featuring Steptronic is available for both models ($1,275). 

    The 2.5i base model is nicely trimmed with standard features, including the usual power-assisted/memory functions; a four-way adjustable steering wheel; six-way manually adjustable front seats; a competent, 10-speaker audio system; faux leather upholstery; and micro-filtered climate control system. Options can add considerably to the bottom line. The 2.5i Premium Package ($3,800) adds power front seats with memory, a dual-panel, two-way power moonroof, cruise control, automatic climate control, foglights, rain sensing windshield wipers, and BMW Assist. The Cold Weather Package ($750) adds heated front seats, headlight washers and ski bag. 

    The 3.0i adds rain-sensing windshield wipers; cruise control; a leather-wrapped steering wheel hosting cruise and audio controls; automatic climate control; six-way power-adjustable front seats; an on-board computer, tilt-down right-hand outside mirror, fog lights, front and rear reading lights, front footwell lights, visor vanity mirror lighting and front center arm rest and storage compartment. Options include unique 18-inch wheels and high performance tires ($500). 

    The Sports Package ($1,500) includes a sports suspension and 18-inch wheels, and unique interior trim including a special steering wheel and seats. 

    Passive safety features include two-stage front airbags, front-seat side airbags and head protection curtains for front and rear seat. Adaptive brake lights signal the urgency with which the driver has pressed the brake pedal. Two standalone options worthy of special mention, and worth every pfennig, are the Servotronic steering ($250) and rear door-mounted side-impact airbags ($385). 

    Walkaround

    Owners of the X5 may be forgiven for doing a double take when they see the BMW X3, as the two are nearly perfect images of each other. Only when parked side by side are the differences noticeable, and then only to the extent of mere inches or much less. 

    There's the traditional twin-kidney grille, of course. From the front, the stance looks much the same, with fenders tautly blistered over wide and widely spaced tires, giving the X3 a BMW-like, road-grabbing face. This is no real surprise, as the X3 is but 0.7 inches narrower than the X5; its track, too, is within an inch and a half of the X5's. 

    Much the same goes for the side view, with a mild character crease bridging the space between the fender blisters and a relatively low beltline adding openness to the side windows. The trademark dogleg in the rear quarter window has been stretched a bit, however. Physical measurements support the visual similarities. The X3's 110-inch wheelbase is less than 1 inch shy of the X5's, and its overall length comes up short of the X5's 183.7 inches by only 4 inches. The X5 is also but 1.5 inches taller. 

    From the rear, the only marked difference is the single, double-tipped exhaust exiting on the left side where the X5 sports dual exhausts exiting at the corners. 

    Interior

    On first impression, people familiar with BMW interiors will feel right at home in the X3. Controls are where they should be and feel the way they should, with the proper directional movement, resistance and detents. Instruments are easy to read at a glance and communicate the proper and necessary information. The display for the optional navigation system is one of the most thoughtfully positioned of the lot, rotating up out of the top center of the dash so it's visible to driver and navigator but nestled unobtrusively halfway down in the recess where it stows when not in use. 

    The front seats are supportive and comfortably bolstered. The standard seats are more comfortable than the sport seats and quite adequately restrain the occupants' posteriors when the way turns winding. Seatbelts feel right, properly tensioned. Ranges of seat adjustment are extensive, to the point a six-footer can enjoy major amounts of headroom and actually put the steering wheel and forward footwell wall out of reach; at these extremes, however, rear-seat legroom is seriously diminished. 

    Dimensionally, the X3's interior compares favorably with its most likely direct competition, the Lexus RX 330 and Infiniti FX35, giving up an inch or so here and gaining the same there. In many measures it bests the more expensive X5. There's almost an inch more legroom in front and about half an inch more in the rear, for instance. Front-seat headroom is about a half inch less than in the X5, but rear-seat headroom is nearly an inch greater. On the downside, the X3's rear seat is quite firm and virtually flat, like a church pew, where the X5 and the others offer more form fit and comfort. The X3's rear center head restraint is fixed, offering no vertical adjustment. 

    Storage areas are numerous and flexible, many fitted with netting that stretches to accommodate odd shapes and medium-sized water bottles. Rear-door map pockets forfeit several square inches to the Europeans' unabated addiction to ash trays. Cargo area, though, is impressive, exceeding the X5's by 2 cubic feet with the rear seats folded, and slotting in between the RX 330's 84.7 cubic feet and the FX35's 64.5. 

    So much for the tape measure. Where the X3 disappoints is in the intangible and tactile, how the interior looks and feels. Yes, it's roomy. And yes, the seats do their job, and admirably. The stereo, too, is a quality unit surrounding occupants with balanced sounds. 

    But textures and materials generally come across as plasticky and low budget. Metallic trim accents remind us of discount wallpaper. There are two front cup holders, but the one mounted on the center console is sized more for soda pop cans than coffee cups or water bottles and looks like an afterthought, something cobbled together and glued in place forward of the armrest/storage bin. German designers cannot understand Americans' fondness of cup holders. The passenger cup holder pops out of the end of the dash by the door, where it gets bumped by knees when the passenger is climbing in or out of the car. Door closings are followed by a hint of a hollow echo, instead of the solid 'thunk' so common on BMWs. 

    Driving Impression

    Driving the BMW X3 is a memorable experience, for the most part a quite pleasant one. It's not a BMW 3 Series by any stretch. But neither is it anything like a run-of-the-mill SUV, quite different even from either the Lexus RX 330 or the Infiniti FX35, both of which tend toward the luxury end of the scale, while the X3 leans more to turning two-lanes and the occasional twisty dirt track into a fun drive. 

    As readily as the X3 swallows up mile after mile of high-speed highway, and as confident as it feels in the wet, it really shines on dusty, gravel-strewn back roads and slushy boulevards. Granted, its xDrive must obey the laws of physics, but within those limits and working with the X3's multi-faceted Dynamic Stability Control system, it accomplishes feats beyond the talents and reflexes of all but the most accomplished off-road drivers. Unerringly, just about the time the driver senses the X3 begin to slide and intuitively readies a saving countersteer, the xDrive calmly tucks the rear end back in line. The first few times, an aware driver might feel a bit out of sorts, almost offended or even insulted, but soon comes to anticipate the initially odd but very timely correction. 

    For this, demi-extreme type of driving, the Steptronic automatic is the transmission of choice. It frees the driver to focus on braking, accelerating and steering through the fun parts, yet can be held in a specific gear if the incline or traction so dictates, or invites. This isn't to besmirch the manual transmission, as it's everything people who know and like BMWs have come to expect and appreciate. Shifts are smooth and precise, clutch engagement predictable and gears properly spaced to keep the engine in the sweet spot of its power band, although it is geared a bit high for relaxed long distance cruising. In short, we prefer the automatic. 

    The exhaust note that initially sounds pleasingly sporty becomes an irritating drone after a while at constant speeds. Wind noise reaches levels surprising for a BMW, and this is without any crosswise racks on the standard roof rails. Enough tire rumble penetrates the cabin to suggest the desirability of some additional sound-deadening materials. 

    Braking is sure, with solid pedal feel allowing equally linear, smooth, gradual stops when desired, unlike many over-assisted systems increasingly popular on high-end cars and SUVs. 

    The optional Servotronic steering is flat-out wonderful. It's speed-sensitive, adding more assist at low speeds, and invisibly altering the steering ratio, so the car turns more with less steering input. Parallel-parking is a breeze, as are quick, mid-block U-turns. As speed increases, assistance diminishes and the ratio slows, making for good on-center feel and sure lane changes. Perhaps most telling about the Servotronic is its transparency; unless a driver moves directly from the X3 to another vehicle without the feature and suddenly has to crank in more steering at slow speeds, it'll likely not be noticed at all. 

    Acceleration is silky and linear, thanks in part to an advanced intake design that leaves the manifold free of buffeting butterfly valves. BMW rates the 2.5i as slightly slower than the 3.0i, reporting 0-60 mph times of 8.6 seconds for the manual transmission and 9.3 seconds for the automatic versus 7.6 seconds and 7.9 seconds, respectively, for the 3.0i. While not blistering performance figures, considering the X3's weight of two tons-plus, neither are they shameful. 

    Active safety features are impressive and add to driver confidence and enjoyment. The xDrive system uses an electronically controlled array of clutches to disperse the engine's torque among the four wheels the instant it's needed, even to the point of sending 100 percent of the traction to any single wheel. Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) works to rein in the car when it's over-extended in cornering or emergency maneuvers. Electronic throttle control redu. 

    Summary

    The BMW X3 is hard to beat for people who want BMW's heritage look, powertrain and packaging, but desire the flexibility a sport-utility vehicle offers, or vice versa. 

    The xDrive, Dynamic Stability Control and Hill Descent Control combine to offer excellent handling, grip, traction, stability in adverse conditions: on gravel roads, muddy two-tracks and snow-covered backroads. 

    Overall fit is up to the marque's standards. The interior finish is disappointing, however. Leaving the options boxes unchecked yields an affordable and capable SUV that requires no apology, and judicious checking lets even a cost-conscious shopper have the desired luxuries. 

    Model Lineup

    BMW X3 2.5i ($30,300); X3 3.0i ($36,300). 

    Assembled In

    Graz, Austria. 

    Options As Tested

    Premium Package ($3300) includes 2-way, dual-panel, power moonroof, auto-dimming rearview mirror, 4-way power lumbar, leather upholstery and BMW Assist; 5-speed Steptronic automatic transmission ($1275); Servotronic steering ($250); Xenon headlights with auto-leveling ($800); rear door-mounted, side-impact airbags ($385); power folding outside mirrors ($250); on-board navigation system ($1800); Park Distance Control, front and rear ($700). 

    Model Tested

    BMW X3 3.0i ($36,300). 

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