SPARTANBURG, South Carolina — It’s BMW’s biggest production facility in the world. It’s where all BMW X vehicles save the X1 are built. It’s an American success story. It’s the BMW Group Plant Spartanburg, and during the first live reveal of a new vehicle ever held here — the refreshed 2018 BMW X3 — BMW officials from CEO Harald Krüger on down made it abundantly clear that the German automaker remains fully committed to the facility, to the region, and to the U.S.
Even if you don’t watch the news, it’s probably not lost on you that slogans like “Made in the USA” and “America First” matter greatly in today’s frenzied political climate. Given the pomp and circumstance surrounding BMW’s event here, and the announcement that it will invest some $600 million in the Spartanburg facility over the next several years, it isn’t lost on them either. BMW built a record 411,000 vehicles here last year, with some 70 percent of them being shipped to 140 markets worldwide. They are quite proud of the fact that they are the largest automotive exporter in the U.S. by value.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of BMW announcing its intention to build the Spartanburg facility, which has grown from 570 employees when the first 318i rolled off the line in September of 1994 to 9,000 today. It also plans to add 1,000 more as production of the all-new X7 full-size SUV ramps up in 2018. In that first year, BMW produced a total of 28,000 vehicles. Last year, that number was reached every 20 days, with 1,400 vehicles coming off the line every 24 hours.
1. Not skin deep
As a new 2018 X3 rolled up the ramp at the press conference, we immediately noticed the exterior differences over the outgoing model. BMW likes to call its X models “Sports Activity Vehicles” and the latest version of BMW’s compact crossover certainly has a more athletic look for all those sport activities it will be presumably be engaging in. While its exterior dimensions are virtually the same, the new X3’s wheelbase has been extended by 2.2 inches, giving it a more firmly planted stance as well as the illusion of greater length.
“We lowered the roof, and now it has a sportier line from the front axle to the A-pillar,” Arno Keller, the X3’s project leader, explained to us. According to Keller the result is improved aerodynamics which aids overall performance. For the first time, an M Sport package is available for the X3 that includes larger air intakes, side skirt trim, and a diffuser-style rear apron, all of which are designed to improve downforce.
The front fascia features a larger, three-dimensional look kidney grille and new headlights and running lights. At the rear are new taillights, twin exhaust pipes, and a downward sloping roof spoiler that cumulatively add to the vehicle’s overall more aggressive, muscular, and yes, sporty mien.
Krüger explained during the press conference that many 3 Series customers are moving to the X3 in search of more commanding seating position and better ride experience in rougher terrain. Given that BMW moved 44,196 X3s in the U.S. in 2016, an increase of 38.4 percent compared to 2015, it seems like that’s the case.
2. Why Spartanburg?
Outside of the traditional, genteel Southern “handshake deal” mentality and the eagerness of South Carolina’s government to see BMW break ground here, the Spartanburg area is home to more than 60 colleges and universities. By our count at least a quarter of those have the word technical in their title. South Carolina is a state with a trained and eager workforce, making it relatively easy for the German automaker to attract new talent.
Said technical college folks have made a big impact at the plant over the years. Some of the most advanced and downright coolest tech we’ve ever seen utilized on an assembly line is being used by BMW employees screwing together the X models at Spartanburg. We saw one worker tooling a present-generation X3 wearing a Robocop-like exoskeleton made of a system of springs and pulleys to assist with repetitive motions and overhead activities. No, it didn’t move his arms for him, but it aids movement by 30 to 35 percent, reducing fatigue.
Spartanburg’s physical location is crucial as well. The port of Charleston is close, with some 86 percent of the vehicles BMW ships out of the U.S. from Spartanburg moving through there, making vehicle export easier (the other 14 percent move through other southeastern ports). Distribution to BMW’s 657 U.S. dealers by truck isn’t an issue and the expansion of the Greenville-Spartanburg airport aids the cause as well.
It all adds up to a boon not only to the local economy but the U.S. as a whole. According to an independent study to be released in July by the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business, for every job at the BMW Plant Spartanburg there are four to five jobs indirectly created in the region. BMW supports some 70,000 direct and indirect jobs in the U.S., and the Moore School estimates the multiplier effect adds another 50,000 when you take into account jobs not directly related to the automotive sector.
3. Is the M the X-factor?
The addition of the X3 M40i to the X3 mix marks the first time an M Performance variant will be available for the model. It ramps up everything, harnessing BMW’s TwinPower turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six that makes 355 horsepower between 5,500-6,500 rpm and 369 lb-ft of torque. That means 0 to 60 mph happens in 4.6 seconds thanks in part to an 8-speed Steptronic Sport transmission featuring launch control. The X3 M40i also comes with an updated xDrive all-wheel-drive system that now throws more power to the rear.
Overall weight has been reduced, but only by about 120 pounds. The use of aluminum, plastic, and carbon-fiber elements helped, but the bigger 19-inch wheels (20- and 21-inch wheels are optional) and other performance elements put weight back on. Regardless, adding the M Performance version was an A+ choice in our book.
4. What’s inside counts
The X3’s all-new interior is focused on details. X3 badging is everywhere. If you look closely enough, you’ll see it stamped into the sheet metal where the B-pillar meets the roof just in case you forgot what you were driving. The dash is Germanic-ly Spartan but elegant, with a well thought out center stack starring the 12-inch infotainment display. Good use is made of the center console — this might be the most integrated we’ve seen cupholders in a while. They’re a necessary evil, but as placed here they don’t take up too much unnecessary room.
The entire dashboard package has been lowered, making the cab feel brighter and increasing visibility. The larger heads up display is the same version used in the 7 Series, as is the optional digital gauge cluster just beyond the new sportier steering wheel. Acoustics inside the cabin are reportedly greatly improved as well. Reduced wind noise and city noise will no doubt make for a more pleasant interior experience.
5. Made in the USA
The X3 will be made at the Spartanburg plant, mostly. Due to its worldwide popularity, it will also be produced in China and South Africa. We were told Spartanburg simply can’t produce all of them and given that Spartanburg is already near its 450,000 vehicle capacity even before the X7 comes online, it’s easy to understand why. Everyone’s going to have to wait until November of this year to get their global little hands on one.
It’s not only the volume question dictating production location, but also the hefty tariffs that are slapped on U.S. made cars heading to European markets. We’re not going to get political here, but for the record, present at the X3 press conference were South Carolina’s Governor Henry McMaster and Senator Lindsey Graham. Neither of them had anything to say about the new X3 we were all there to see, but a lot to say about a certain someone in a big White House in Washington D.C., about the importance of globalization, and easing export restrictions on the automotive industry.
Beyond the near term concerns around jobs and investment and the like, the future of the automobile in general is in flux as well. With myriad new technologies emerging seemingly daily, it’s increasingly hard for automakers to predict who will be buying what in five or 10 years. Hybrids, diesels, plug-in hybrids, EVs, autonomous vehicles, combustion engines (are jet packs next?) — any manufacturer is going to have to be increasingly flexible. According to Krüger, they have to deliver everything.
Forward thinking is a must, and while BMW predictably won’t provide any details, there are reportedly some 14 all-new and revamped BMW models heading for production in the next several years. Some of those, like the new X7, will be rolling out of South Carolina. For BMW, Plant Spartanburg is a huge piece of its global production puzzle, and everyone seems to be pretty happy that the X seems here to stay in the good old U.S. of A.