Wednesday, August 24, 2005
I’m not an SUV guy. I have an M5 and Z4 for a reason. I like cars; small fast ones. The SUV world doesn’t resonate with me although there are certain circumstances where they are the most appropriate vehicle choice for some. Although I cannot personally think of any type of outdoor activity or location I would want to go that my M5 couldn’t handle I am a Florida boy and don’t have to deal with things such as snow. Suffice it to say that I am biased against SUVs and they could shade my analysis of the X3. Consider yourself warned.
First things first. This blog is named Bangled Bimmer and we therefore start with the aesthetics of the vehicle. Controversial as always, the X3 embraces all the design cues of the Bangle era. There is flame surfacing everywhere and asymmetry is employed wherever they think they can get away with it. In person the vehicle is striking but not beautiful. The flame surfacing give the carriage work an aura of muscular tautness (insert Goldmember quote) that the pre-Bangle bimmers didn’t have. Granted, it’s more of a Navratilova tautness as opposed to the Kournikova variety, but this is one characteristic of flame surfacing that I think is quite successful. Especially when directly compared to their immediate predecessor the new bimmers look much more physically fit. This is more pronounced in the new 3 series when viewed side by side with an E46. The new 3 is larger than the old but appears more lithe then my beloved E46. See, I’m not an SUV guy. I try to write about the X3 and immediately digress into discussions about the new 3 series. Anyway, the X3 is not a knockout, nor is it an ugo. Considering the only SUV I find truly attractive is the Land Rover aesthetics would not be my top priority in vehicle selection.
Moving into the driver’s seat you are immediately at home if you’re a bimmerphile. Everything, almost, is where you expect it to be. The materials, teutonic plastic and all, are exactly what you expect. Not ones to leave well enough alone there have been a few enhancements in the layout. Being based on the 3 series one would expect the window lifts to be located on or near the center console. Nope. BMW has moved them to the arm rest, probably once and for all. Also, the hazard light actuator and central locking button have migrated from just above the gear selector to smack dab between the air vents up top. This takes some getting used to if you’ve owned several BMWs over the years, but the new location makes much more sense than the previous one. It’s front and center where it is easily visible yet out of reach of the hands of little ones seated in the back.
Where you’d expect the buttons for the heated seats to be located you’ll find the DTS button, tire pressure indicator, and descent control button. The descent control is a cute little feature which worked as advertised but I doubt most X3 owners will need it. To the left of the steering wheel is the light switch. It activates the new xenon lights that turn in the direction the vehicle does. A bit disconcerting at first, especially if you didn’t know the vehicle was so equipped, the steering lights are a wonderful and useful addition. There is a new setting all the way to the left which sets the lights to come on automatically. This is a luxury feature many other marques have included for years. It’s nice to have but not an absolute deal braking must have feature. BMW has managed to include it in a way that is simple and not intrusive. Better, yet, it is something you can turn off without having to wonder how. I think the way they added this feature is within the BMW tradition of having only the technology needed to keep the driver focused on the road and not merely adding features for the sake of having features. I appreciated that level of thought.
Another design feature that I appreciated the in-door map pockets. They were made of an elastic mesh with a superband waistband at the top. It was able to accommodate Gatorade bottles and other miscellaneous items that would have been too big if it was just solid plastic. Also, the elastic was able to hold these items in place making them truly useful. I have no idea if the elastic will wear out before your lease term does, but I’m sure it’s covered by the warranty.
Once being known as the manufacturer that didn’t offer cup holders BMW has now entered the fray full force. The passenger side has a Z4 style cup holder located just under the air vent. This location ensures that your beverage will remain properly cooled (or heated, as the case may be) since placing anything in it will block the air vent entirely. While the location is convenient and the mechanism is able to secure drinks of varying sizes, I can’t help think that this is just another swipe at those that would deign to drink while in their BMW. The armrest between front seats concealed the cup holder for the driver. It worked well, although the beige plastic was a bit on the cheapy looking side. The story of the armrest was more about the gentle arc at the top. The arc must have been derived from the radius starting at where your elbow is to your wrist as it rotates toward your body. Pretty clever, although I can hardly see any advantage to this arc save to add an out of the ordinary anthropocentric detail for its own sake.
Rounding out the interior appointments takes us to the rear seats. They are comfortable, seem to have plenty of room, and fold down not quite completely flat. While the storage area is plenty big, having the seats fold down flat would have allowed the cargo are to be more flexible in what it can accommodate. The storage area in the rear has a cargo cover that is easily removed and replaced. It fit anything I was looking to put back there so no complaints.
Now for the good part, driving the thing. The X3 has a reputation for having a stiff ride. This variant was not equipped with the sport suspension but certainly delivered a stiff ride, relatively speaking. It wasn’t the bone jarring, kidney pounding ride of the sport suspension equipped Z4, nor was it the silky glide of the elegant M5. I found it to be just right, as good a compromise as can be had with today’s technology. Any softer and any confidence you had in the vehicle’s cornering ability would be shattered. You’d be stuck driving it like a land yacht. If that’s what you’re looking for then get a Lexus. If that’s what you’re looking to avoid, then drive the X3. It won’t disappoint.
Going off road the suspension goes through a transparent metamorphosis. It soaks up the bumps and dips with, wait for it, aplomb. You don’t have to turn any knobs, switch any levers, or anything. Just hit the dirt and keep on going. It was shocking considering the X3s road performance. I must admit I was impressed. I would search out dirt roads just to see if I had been fooled by a particularly compliant dirt road. Nope, they got it down. My job takes me onto various job sites and being able to have the handling performance of a BMW with the ability to go off road comfortably got me thinking about adding an X3 to my collection.
The engine is the magnificent 3.0 inline six mated to a five-speed steptronic transmission. They had no manual variant available, go figure. The engine was buttery smooth, quick on the take up, and an overall delight. Again, if you’re a propeller head this will feel like home. It could benefit from a CAI and free-flow exhaust, however. But, then again, what BMW can’t? The tranny is the same type as the one I mistakenly got in the Z4. While it’s nice on occasion to have an automatic in traffic, that’s the only time. The upshifts and downshifts do not happen with the immediacy you’d like and you find yourself keeping it in D instead of futzing with it. BMW does include a sport shift mode which is accessed by sliding the gear selector to the steptronic side. The SD comes up on the dash and you’ll notice much better throttle response and gear holding. This was a saving grace for an automatic transmission that would otherwise make you long for a stick. I just kept it in SD and didn’t bother going up and down the gears with the stick.
Around town or on extended road trips the X3 proudly lives up to its heritage. If the suspension is too stiff for you then you shouldn’t be looking at a BMW in the first place. The full time 4WD was nice to have when it rained, it was truly confidence inspiring. Especially if you’re someone who drives a very capable car on a regular basis and are wary of having to change your driving style when jumping into an SUV. Overall, if I was forced into a situation where I needed an SUV I would take a serious look at the X3. You do not have to give up performance and excellent handling characteristics for the sake of extra room and ground clearance. Add to this the benefit of a familiar driving environment and you don’t need to compromise when purchasing a vehicle that is basically a compromise. The good news is that BMW made an SUV for BMW enthusiasts probably at the expense of expanding their market. If you’re in the market you’d be making a mistake if you don’t check this one out.
Posted by Ken at 5:37 PM