As if the world needs another luxury sport utility vehicle. Alright BMW, another Sport Activity Vehicle. BMW coined the term "Sport Activity Vehicle" to further set their SUV's apart from the crowd.
But maybe BMW is right on this one. After all, the German automaker doesn't make many mistakes. I recall a comment by Bob Eaton, when he was President of Chrysler. He said his goal was to make Chrysler into an American BMW. He didn't want it to be the biggest. He just wanted to manufacture high quality cars that filled a niche.
Well, the new BMW X3 definitely fills a niche, one that people may not have known existed. Based on the 3 Series platform the X3 might best be defined as a luxury compact SUV (or SAV). For comparisons, the X3 is 180 inches in overall length on a 110-inch wheelbase. The more expensive X5, based on the 5 Series sedan is 183.7 inches long on a 111-inch wheelbase. The popular Ford Explorer is 189.5 inches long on a 113.8-inch wheelbase, and the Cadillac Escalade is 198.9 inches long on a 116-inch wheelbase. The Suzuki XL-7 rides on a 110.2-in. wheelbase and is 183.6 inches is overall length
So in overall length, the X3 is a convenient size. It'll fit in any garage and in any parking space on the street. It also benefits from excellent handling. The smaller size gives it the ability to take a corner with the agility of a sports car. Four-wheel drive gives it the ability to take those corners on almost any surface.
BMW first introduced the X3 to the automotive press by taking us along the Apache Trail in Arizona. After a leisurely 100 mph ride over Interstates and two-lane roads, we crossed the Roosevelt Bridge, parked at the Roosevelt Dam (that created Lake - you guessed it - Roosevelt), then headed up the canyon on a 1 1/2-lane dirt road that hugged the side of the canyon as it rose and fell over the Apache River. Sometimes the surface was hard-packed, other times is was loose sand. All the time it was scary as hell with no guard rail keeping us from a surprise swim in the river.
The X3 protected us in this potentially dangerous situation, whether I was driving or my riding partner Ron was at the wheel. I say "protected," because at times the X3 anticipated problems and acted to prevent them.
BMW has equipped the X3 (and X5) with something they call xDrive. This is a form of four-wheel-drive that transfers torque from wheels without traction to wheels with traction. Part of our earlier drive took us on a wide gravel-surfaced road that was flat. Both the X3 in front of us and we tried to get the rear end to break away, or to have xDrive engage, by twisting the wheel and swerving. Nothing happened. Either xDrive was more subtle than we thought or it didn't work.
However, when it got testy at the top of the canyon, we gained a sense of security. I was going downhill with a sharp turn to the left. My wheels hit sand as I was braking, and I felt the X3 was going to go straight (understeer) over the side. Then xDrive took over (I could physically feel the torque shift between the axles), and the X3 simply turned the corner as if it was on 3rd Avenue in New York.
When we got back to the hotel, we thought about it and decided that xDrive was simply smarter than we were. It would have worked if it had to, but we were just playing around.
During the first part of the ride on the side of the canyon we had the X3 with a 6-speed manual transmission. While Ron shifted during his stint, I generally left it in third, which was adequate for most of the ride. Later, when we had an opportunity to try the 5-speed automatic, we left it in Drive most of the time, although we tried shifting with the Steptronic a few times. On the Trail, I think the Steptronic would have been better because both Ron and I had trouble a few times finding neighboring gears (sixth and fourth and second, fifth and third).
The X3, as I said earlier, is compact, and may not be the best car for NBA centers (or guards these days). But if you're of a more normal stature, head, leg and shoulder room were fine.
Controls and instruments were easy to read, but a quick read of the owner's manual to familiarize yourself with the BMW icons for cruise control, etc. wouldn't hurt. Our second X3 also had the optional navigation system, but we couldn't figure out how to use it intuitively without checking the book. The navigation system is priced at $1,800 ($2,100 without the Premium Package) and resides in a compartment at the top of the dash, out of sight until called for. This compartment is used as a small storage bin when the nav system isn't included.
Like the Nissan Xterra, the X3 can be set up with some optional accessories that fit in well with an active lifestyle. One particularly useful accessory was an internal bike rack that accommodates a mountain bike. This type of accessory is important and actually saves room by securing the bike upright, rather than simply tossing the bike in the rear compartment.
The X3 is solid, has a touch of luxury, is capable with xDrive, is safe with air bags and ABS and traditional BMW solidity, and offers a comfortable ride on- or off-road. In today's SUV/SAV market, the sticker price in the mid-$30s is not unreasonable. You can get bigger SUVs for less money, and you can definitely get smaller, less luxurious SUVs for less money. But I can almost guarantee that you'll be a lot happier in the X3.