Conveniently forgetting about the Land Rover Freelander, BMW boasted at a press preview here that the new X3 is the "first vehicle of its kind," one that "creates a new segment" of premium small sport-utilities. BMW of North America has not yet set prices for the X3 but allows that the X3 2.5i will cost slightly more than the $32,845 all-wheel-drive 325xi sport wagon, while the X3 3.0i slots in under the $40,995 X5 3.0i with a mid-$30,000s base sticker price. In other words, the X3 won't be much cheaper than the X5, which leads one to wonder why the X3 even exists, but we'll leave that conundrum to BMW's marketing department.
At least you'll get good bloodlines for the money. "This being BMW, we beg, borrow, and steal" resources from all the company's product lines when creating new vehicles, explains the X3's American-born, Porsche-bred product manager, Bert Holland. "The X3 has a greatly strengthened 3-series rear axle, and the front axle lifts components from both the 5-series and the X5." The familiar 225-horsepower, 3.0-liter and 189-horsepower, 2.5-liter straight sixes, mated with a six-speed manual or a five-speed manu-matic transmission, are available in the States. We drove only the 3.0i, which, with either transmission, had punch aplenty for merging onto the Costa del Sol's autovias and chasing goats through narrow mountain switchbacks. BMW claims 0-to-60-mph times of 7.6 and 7.9 seconds, respectively, for 3.0i manual and manumatic models.
The X3's new xDrive four-wheel-drive system also appears in the newly face-lifted 2004 X5. Replacing the previous center differential is a new computer-controlled multiplate clutch that sends a portion of the transmission's output to the front wheels. (Rear-wheel drive is permanently engaged.) The xDrive controller anticipates rear-wheel slippage by engaging front-wheel drive during acceleration and hard cornering. Automatic brake applications stop individual wheels from spinning. Like the X5, the X3 has no low range but features Hill Descent Control. Towing capacity is a respectable 4400 pounds with the 3.0-liter engine, and BMW's stability control has been modified to detect trailer sway, applying both the car and trailer brakes as necessary to keep the rig under control.
The 4023-pound X3 feels a lot like the X5 from behind the wheel, with minimal body roll, quick throttle response, and reassuring brakes. The steering has typical BMW precision and feel but, thankfully, is not as heavy as the X5's. Unfortunately, whether equipped with standard, seventeen-inch, all-season tires or optional, V-rated, eighteen-inch rubber, the X3 has the ride quality of a hay wagon on all but glass-smooth tarmac. The four-wheel independent suspension reads every imperfection in the road, and it is not a tale you're going to want to hear (or feel).
The X3 looks great, however, which should keep it out of the gun sights of the Chris Bangle haters. The rearmost side windows slope upward to create BMW's signature Hofmeister dogleg kink in the D-pillar, while narrow, rubber-grommeted, aluminum running boards add coolness, even if they do dirty your pantlegs (they're a dealer-installed option). The iDrive-less interior is well designed, but the quality seems to have taken a dive compared with the X5. A tall, narrow cargo area holds 30 cubic feet with the rear seats up and 71 when folded, and rear-seat room is impressive.
Overall, the X3 is a well-executed sibling to the popular X5, and as a premium-priced cute-ute, it inevitably will provide spoiled high school and college kids with one more thing to pine and whine for. But we're not particularly excited about a second, slightly smaller, slightly less expensive SUV from BMW.