Road Test - 2004 BMW X3 3.0i

Discussion in 'OT Driven' started by TriShield, Dec 18, 2003.

  1. TriShield

    TriShield Super Moderator® Staff Member

    Jul 6, 2001
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    A German joins the Roughriders


    January 2004

    Boy, have we got a darling little German family car to show you! It's handsome, it's poised, and it's six-cylinder powerful. It attacks roads like a sports car, just chews them right to pieces. You also get four-wheel drive for better asphalt adhesion. It's really something!

    This blue thing? No, no, no, that's just the new BMW X3. We're talking about the BMW 325xi sport wagon, base price of $32,845, and a humdinger of a quality automobile. Put down the magazine right now and go call a dealer. He has plenty.

    Whadja say? You want us to shut up about the 325xi because you bought this magazine to read about the X3? Okay. Fine.

    But maybe you don't really want to hear about the X3. Conventional wisdom says if you really wanted a true sport-utility, you wouldn't be talking to BMW. And if you really wanted a BMW, you wouldn't even think of buying an SUV.

    Except for those 43,000 or so people who annually motor off in a new BMW X5 sport-ute. Worldwide, the X5's success is encouraging BMW to sink its tires deeper into the SUV swamp, especially since Americans treat all station wagons as if they come standard with tuberculosis. We're less at ease with this latest BMW, however. The X3's flaws are glaring, especially from a company known for clipping the perfection apex tighter than most.

    More specifically, we like the idea of the X3 better than the vehicle itself.
    Our ears pricked up when BMW invited us to sample what is essentially a smaller, lighter, less expensive X5. Gosh, just saying that feels good. Plus, the X3 is assembled in Arnold Schwarzenegger's hometown of Graz, Austria, not by BMW, but by a subcontractor, Magna Steyr Fahrzeugtechnik AG & Co. KG. Armed with that fact you can suck the air right out of the room at your next dinner party.

    The X3 is certainly lighter. Towed by the same 225-hp, 3.0-liter inline six as that in its bigger brother, the X5 3.0i, the 4095-pound X3 weighs between 600 and 700 pounds less than the X5. It is certainly cheaper, too. Although prices weren't finalized at press time, the X3 should start at about $32,000 for a base 2.5i with the 189-hp, 2.5-liter inline six and top out just north of $40,000 for a fully loaded 3.0i with the 225-horse six like the one pictured here. The 2004 X5 starts at $40,995 and is hurdling safely over $60,000 equipped with the bigger engine, the 4.4-liter V-8, and all the boxes checked.

    Smaller? Just by gerbil whiskers. The X3's wheelbase is less than an inch shy of the X5's, and the X3's black-plastic bumpers are only four inches closer together. The width and height differences are minimal as well. The X3's seating space offers more rear-seat headroom and legroom. Compared with the X5, the X3's cargo hold is actually bigger by 30 percent with the rear seats folded (almost) flat, 26 percent with the seats up. The unloved 325xi wagon is significantly tighter in every respect, especially in the back.


    We also like that BMW spliced the 3-series' curve-straightening DNA into the X3, including the same basic front-strut, multilink-rear suspension with some extra structural beefiness for off-road duty. The X3 also debuts BMW's new xDrive, a nifty single-speed torque-transfer coupling with a microchip-administered multiplate clutch pack that constantly varies engine thrust between the front and rear axles from 100 percent rear to 50/50. Combined with brake-based traction control and a hill-descent function that works the brakes to control downward velocity, the xDrive is a more flexible doohickey than the planetary gear differential and its fixed 38-percent-front, 62-percent-rear torque split found in the 325xi and the '03 X5 (the '04 X5 also features xDrive).

    If the X3 never rose up from the paper, we'd be quaffing schnapps in its honor. The doubt creeps in out on the road. The otherwise supple 3-series suspension has been radically hardened in the X3, kind of the way they harden ICBM silos. Shod in the rear with the 45-series, W-rated rubber of the optional Sport package, the X3's ride is hard-edged, concussive, and insufferable. Hit a craggy, undulating section of road, and the X3 bucks like a mare with Little Richard's pinky ring stuck under the saddle. Do it at speed, and the X3 is almost as good as a guillotine for testing your neck joints.

    The ceaseless shuddering of our test vehicle did its best to separate interior panels from the walls and the seats from their mounts. Squeaks and rattles took carcinogenic root and were spreading.
    Base versions of the X3 are slightly better with 55-series, H-rated tires all around and spongier shocks, but only slightly. The X3 clomps down the road, and BMWs shouldn't clomp. Those who commute on glassy-smooth freeways may never be bothered by the X3's ride, but everyone else will be.

    BMW's Ultimate Driving Machine mantra and the ceaseless quest for the intergalactic lap-time record at the Nürburgring are surely behind the X3's crusty suspension. No question, the X3 handles twisties with Bavarian aplomb. The xDrive takes its directions in part from a lateral-g sensor. As the X3 bends into a corner, the clutches sling more engine output to the rear axle. The strategy frees up the front tires to concentrate on the vital job of turning the car. The X3's rack is a bit numb and isolated, but the nose darts crisply and without the pushy understeer that plagues most four-wheel-drivers. It even rewards bold drivers with a little tail wagging and pulled a no-arguments 0.88 g on the skidpad, the highest grip we've ever measured for an SUV.

    The quickest X3, the one with the 225-horse engine and six-speed manual, isn't poky, either, although the inline six from the 330i has to work harder to keep the X3's 4095 pounds moving. We saw 60 mph zing by in 7.4 seconds, a few ticks quicker than a 325xi wagon (0.3 second), and a lot of ticks (0.7 second) quicker than an X5 3.0i. The X3 constructs a quarter-mile in 15.5 seconds at 87 mph, a half-second faster than the wagon, and then stops from 70 mph in 157 feet, the same as a Mitsu Evolution.

    That's great, except that on back-to-reality roads the rigid suspension never rests, never submits to a firm set. It keeps the body bouncing around and the driver making continual course corrections to stay on path. Sitting several extra inches above the roll center doesn't help the steady drain of confidence, or the steady drain of color from your face. Several drivers felt a rising ball of motion-related nausea after thrashing the car down curvy roads.


    As long as the X3 remains parked, we have fewer problems with it. The dashboard's mix of geometric and organic shapes, accented by broad swaths of battleship-gray plastic, looks like a Z4 cockpit that's been through the penny squeezer. Hard surfaces with deep graining abound, and the door handles are just rough black plastic. BMW charges a bit less for an X3, and it's intended to have some sport-ute toughness, so we accept the thrifting.

    There are touches of epicurean taste: French-seamed double pleats grace the optional leather sport seats, and the silver accents of electrocoated plastic sport a weird fingerprint pattern that somehow works. The navigation screen motors into the dash when not wanted, a feature we'd gladly pay extra for in the 5- and 7-series.

    Those with seat time in an X5 will feel right at home behind the X3's yoke. The buckets sit high off the floor, the knees bent more sharply than in a car, and the pedals stepped on more than into. The rim of the three-spoke sport steering wheel is python meaty, the six-speed shifter knob light to the touch. Back-benchers will enjoy good knee- and headroom, although the flat and firm seatback can't be adjusted for rake and tends toward the vertical. The bottoms are shallow and formless, so expect rear-seat passengers to act like unsecured rolled-steel coils during suspension workouts.


    During our time with this truck, we never explored anything more rigorous than a dirt road, even though BMW engineers claim that it will endure much rougher treatment. The lack of underbody shielding bodes ill for serious slick-rock crawling, although a tow-truck driver would surely be grateful for your call. A BMW spurting its fluids could be the inspiration for endless bar jokes.

    So, should you just forget about off-roading and go for the 325xi wagon instead? The X3 does have more space along with cargo-floor rails for an add-on bike rack if you require such things. The xDrive is neat and not available on the wagon. To BMW, we say, get thee to it. When a company like BMW starts reserving its best technology for its trucks, it's time to start building bomb shelters.

    Here's the solution, BMW: Ease up the damping on the X3 so passengers don't feel like kernels in a Jiffy Pop, or slip the 3.0-liter engine and xDrive into the 325xi wagon.

    Until then, if you still want an X3, perhaps it wasn't really a BMW you wanted after all.




    Highs: Inline-six sweetness with a brainy four-wheel-drive system, adequate cargo area, corners well.

    Lows: Rides like the axles are welded right to the frame (pack aspirin).

    The Verdict: Less appealing on the road than on paper.




    I might have thought more of the X3 had I not driven it back-to-back with a Subaru Forester 2.5XT. Yes, the Bimmer is ritzier, offers more niceties, such as a power liftgate and hill-descent control, and handles and brakes in a league above, but it's more than two seconds slower to 60, a lot harsher in the ride department, and about 15 grand more on the bottom line. And as far as I can tell, it doesn't offer any real advantage in rear-seat space, cargo room, or all-weather traction. By itself, the X3 is an able performer, but next to the Forester, it simply seems like an inflated 3-series wagon, in both size and price.

    I've seen sillier cars. There was an angry, slotted Bizzarrini GT back in 1968 that scraped its belly on the ground like a skulking lizard. The AMC Gremlin, a subcompact created by chopping the useful space out of the compact Hornet, was pretty silly, too. But this BMW X3 is the 21st-century record holder. Especially with the sport-suspension option and six-speed box, BMW seems to have combined the worst features of sports cars and SUVs—the jarring ride, fast-wearing tires, and dinky cargo area of the former with the excessive weight and precious pricing of the latter. For $41,000 you get a sports car on stilts. Mondo silly.

    A BMW sport-ute had me skeptical from the start, but I grew to appreciate BMW's first effort, the X5. I once used an X5 to tow my race car—at a very comfortable and fast velocity—and once at the track exploited the car's flexibility by using it for a handful of not-too-slow demonstration laps around the course. I couldn't have done both in the 5-series wagon. But I don't think the X3 is any more useful than the 3-series wagon. Plus, the X3 gives up plenty of performance, and it's the worst-riding BMW I've ever driven. Sure, the X3 has a roomier interior, but from a driver's standpoint, it's not even a contest—I'd take the wagon version.



    ACCELERATION (Seconds)
    Zero to 30 mph: 2.0
    40 mph: 3.6
    50 mph: 5.1
    60 mph: 7.4
    70 mph: 9.7
    80 mph: 12.4
    90 mph: 16.6
    100 mph: 21.2
    110 mph: 28.3
    120 mph: 38.4
    Street start, 5-60 mph: 8.5
    Top-gear acceleration, 30-50 mph: 11.7
    50-70 mph: 11.6
    Standing 1/4-mile: 15.5 sec @ 87 mph
    Top speed (governor limited): 132 mph

    70-0 mph @ impending lockup: 157 ft

    Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.88 g
    Understeer: minimal

    EPA city driving: 17 mpg
    EPA highway driving: 25 mpg
    C/D-observed: 15 mpg

    Idle: 43 dBA
    Full-throttle acceleration: 75 dBA
    70-mph cruising: 70 dBA


    Vehicle type: front-engine, 4-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 5-door wagon
    Estimated price as tested: $41,000 (estimated base price: $36,000)
    Options on test car: Sport package (includes sport suspension and tires, 18-inch wheels, sport seats, and exterior trim), high-performance wheels and tires, sunroof, leather seats, navigation system, Cold Weather package (includes heated seats and ski bag), and xenon adaptive headlamps
    Major standard accessories: power windows, seats, and locks; remote locking; A/C; cruise control; tilting and telescoping steering wheel; rear defroster and wiper
    Sound system: BMW AM/FM radio/CD player, 10 speakers

    Type: inline-6, aluminum block and head
    Bore x stroke: 3.31 x 3.53 in, 84.0 x 89.6mm
    Displacement: 182 cu in, 2979cc
    Compression ratio: 10.2:1
    Fuel-delivery system: port injection
    Valve gear: chain-driven double overhead cams, 4 valves per cylinder, hydraulic lifters, variable intake- and exhaust-valve timing
    Power (SAE net): 225 bhp @ 5900 rpm
    Torque (SAE net): 214 lb-ft @ 3500 rpm
    Redline: 6500 rpm

    Transmission: 6-speed manual
    Final-drive ratio: 3.64:1
    4-wheel-drive system: full time with automatic front-axle engagement, no center differential, and open front and rear differentials with brake-based traction- and hill-descent control

    Gear ... Ratio ... Mph/1000 rpm ... Max. test speed
    I ... 4.35 ... 4.9 ... 32 mph (6500 rpm)
    II ... 2.50 ... 8.6 ... 56 mph (6500 rpm)
    III ... 1.66 ... 12.9 ... 84 mph (6500 rpm)
    IV ... 1.23 ... 17.4 ... 113 mph (6500 rpm)
    V ... 1.00 ... 21.4 ... 132 mph (6150 rpm)
    VI ... 0.85 ... 25.2 ... 132 mph (5250 rpm)

    Wheelbase: 110.1 in
    Track, front/rear: 60.0/60.7 in
    Length/width/height: 179.7/73.0/66.0 in
    Ground clearance: 8.0 in
    Drag area, Cd (0.35) x frontal area (29.4 sq ft, est) 10.3 sq ft
    Curb weight: 4095 lb
    Weight distribution, F/R: 49.8/50.2%

    Curb weight per horsepower: 18.2 lb
    Fuel capacity: 17.7 gal

    Type: unit construction with 2 rubber-isolated body crossmembers
    Body material: welded steel stampings

    SAE volume, front seat: 51 cu ft
    rear seat: 45 cu ft
    cargo, seats up/down: 30/71 cu ft
    Practical cargo room, length of pipe: 125.0 in
    largest sheet of plywood: 37.5 x 71.0 in
    no. of 10 x 10 x 16-in boxes, seats up/down 16/40 cu ft
    Front-seat adjustments: fore and aft, seatback angle, front height, rear height, lumbar support, thigh support
    Restraint systems, front manual 3-point belts; driver and
    passenger front, side, and curtain airbags
    rear manual 3-point belts, curtain airbags

    Front ind, strut located by 1 lateral link and 1 diagonal link,
    coil springs, anti-roll bar
    Rear ind, 1 trailing arm and 2 lateral links per side,
    coil springs, anti-roll bar

    Type rack-and-pinion with variable power assist
    Steering ratio 18.9:1
    Turns lock-to-lock 3.3
    Turning circle curb-to-curb 38.4 ft

    Type hydraulic with vacuum power assist and
    anti-lock control
    Front 12.8 x 1.0-in vented disc
    Rear 12.6 x 0.9-in vented disc

    Wheel size/type F: 8.0 x 18 in, R: 9.0 x 18 in/cast aluminum
    Tires Michelin Diamaris Radial X; F: 235/50WR-18,
    R: 255/45WR-18
    Test inflation pressures, F/R 32/32 psi
    Spare high-pressure compact on steel wheel

  2. Short Bus

    Short Bus Beep beep!

    Apr 17, 2001
    Likes Received:
    Dear God that's ugly.
  3. mamoru

    mamoru New Member

    Mar 13, 2002
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    New York Shitty
    I wish the hood was one swooping piece like the current 3 series, or like on the 5 and z3's...that line across the top makes it look like it belongs with an older gen 3...
  4. TriShield

    TriShield Super Moderator® Staff Member

    Jul 6, 2001
    Likes Received:
    ...and it drives even worse than it looks. :eek3:

    What's with all these German performance car companies creating mediocre SUVs? :ugh:
  5. Chi_Town_GoD

    Chi_Town_GoD Guest

    yeah i'd definitely pick a 2.5xt over it.. ;)
  6. Short Bus

    Short Bus Beep beep!

    Apr 17, 2001
    Likes Received:
    Bangled. :hs:
  7. M4A1

    M4A1 :)

    Oct 25, 2001
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    I sat in one this past weekend. It's horrible.
  8. Johnny*MacBlayze

    Johnny*MacBlayze wassup? shut up!

    Jan 20, 2002
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    bill gate's neighbor
    40k for black bumpers
  9. Redline Racer

    Redline Racer Subaru Tecnica International

    Aug 26, 2002
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    Ugly, and way too close to the X5 in terms of size.

    And looking at that interior makes me realise that Audi is the only German manufacturer that seems to be retaining quality in their products. The Z4 and new 5 Series were bad enough, but this just looks appalling.
  10. curiousgeorgeM3

    curiousgeorgeM3 naughty little monkey

    May 10, 2001
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    BMW is sure making me :( lately. Will I continue to be a fan through the next generation??? Only time will tell. :wtc:

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