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April 09, 2004|by DAN LYONS/Motor Matters

BMW calls its new X3 model a sport "activity" vehicle, not a sport-utility vehicle. I would say it's neither. Slotted between the bigger X5 and the sportier 325Xi wagon, the X3 is a tall station wagon, and a very good one at that. The X3 rolls on a car-based chassis with an all-wheel drive and traction system known to BMW as xDrive.

xDrive has a rear-wheel bias with a front-wheel back up. The normal powersplit is 60/40, rear tires/front tires. As your traction begins to suffer, xDrive's control system assesses wheel speed data and does one of two things. Either it triggers the traction control system (applying brakes and reducing engine power), or it re-routes engine torque. The system is stepless, and can push almost 100 percent of the power to the front paws when neither rear wheel can get a grip.

The benefits of the system are obvious when jousting with winter weather, but xDrive stays on the job even when the pavement is dry. The traction control function steps in to correct oversteer and understeer. The system has quick reactions to the point where it almost seems proactive, rather than reactive. While the vehicle is not designed to be a rock climber, conservative off-road is well within the X3's capabilities. There's 8 inches of ground clearance below, and skid plate protection for the undercarriage is available optionally through dealers. Even water crossings aren't a problem (within reason): the X3 can ford water up to 19.7 inches deep.


Hill Descent Control is a standard feature that will be appreciated as much by someone on the crest of a snowy street as those atop a rocky hill. As the name suggests, this feature helps the driver maintain control of the vehicle on steep, slow descents, by holding a constant speed, without need to touch gas or brake pedals, allowing the driver to concentrate on picking the way down a dicey stretch of road (or off-road), without worrying about gaining too much speed.

So, when roads are rough, the X3 is reassuring. And when roads are twisty, the X3 is a BMW. Which is to say, it's sporty. When equipped with the optional Sport Package, the X3 will keep up with many sedans in cornering. It's slightly less agile than its more purpose-built, 3 Series line mates, but it exhibits good ride quality.

Drivers have two engine choices; both inline six cylinders. The 2.5-liter motor is rated at 184 hp, while the 3.0-liter pumps out 225 hp. I drove the larger of the two engines, sampled with both the six-speed manual and five-speed automatic transmissions. The 3.0-liter six is smooth and sonorous. It offers plenty of power, good performance (company figures estimate 0-60 in 7.6 seconds), and returns respectable gas mileage (17 city/25 highway with manual transmission, according to EPA estimates).

Slide inside the X3 and you find a well-crafted cabin, with superior fit and finish. All controls are within easy reach of the driver. Overhead in my tester was an oversize moon roof. BMW joins Cadillac in offering outsized topside openings for their wagon models. Wide open, the panoramic glass top covers both first- and second-row passengers and gives the X3 a great, open air feel. A sliding cover works well to cut solar gain, or for those times when you'd rather make the outside world go away.

With 6-footers up front there is just enough legroom for like-size rear passengers. Given the X3's upright profile, headroom is a non-issue, even with the moon roof. Cargo room is plentiful. Behind the top-hinged lift gate is 30 cubic feet of space. Lift-over height is low and capacity is high. Flipping the second-row seats forward, you have as much as 71 cubic feet of space for your gear.

With the 3.0-liter motor, the X3 retails for $36,995, delivered. The smooth big six exacts a stiff price penalty - fully six thousand more than the 2.5-liter version, but $4,000 less than the X5 3.0. One more number for comparison: The 325xi Sport Wagon stickers for $32,845.

Basically, BMW has covered the $30,000-$40,000 range with station wagons, sport-utilities and everything in between. Of them all, the X3 3.0 may well be the most popular with most buyers. Right-sized and beautifully drivable in all conditions, it deserves strong consideration by midsize utility buyers.

© Motor Matters, 2004

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