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BMW X3 3.0 review (2003-2006)
Bodystyle: Mid-size 4x4
Engine: 3.0-litre in-line 6-cylinder
Fuel type: Petrol
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Date of test: November 2003
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What is it?
Baby brother to the X5 'Sports Activity Vehicle' - but not a particularly small baby. Its only about four inches shorter than an X5, an inch and a half lower, a fraction narrower, and the wheelbase is barely an inch shorter. It's a 4x4, like the X5, and with variable torque split four-wheel drive it has a limited degree of off-road ability, but really it's far more focussed on regular road use with the occasional green-lane detour. Rugged it isn't, not in the true off-roader sense, and BMW's own phrase 'Sports Activity Vehicle' isn't a bad description. Think mountain-bike or surf-board carrier and you're pretty close. Think school-run style-statement and you're probably even closer.
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Where does it fit?
Squarely into BMW's declared policy of producing 'premium' vehicles for any niche they see as having untapped potential. Usually that means competing with other premium brands in familiar areas. In this case, the premium end of the niche didn't really exist before now -not for a vehicle combining the X3's compact size with its premium price. So in high-end 3.0-litre petrol guise, it sits above similarly-sized but far less expensive 4x4 alternatives such as the Land Rover Freelander, Jeep Cherokee, Mitsubishi Shogun Sport, Nissan X-Trail and Toyota Land Cruiser, and not far short of bigger guns including the Grand Cherokee, the lower-end VW Toaureg and Mercedes M-Class, and not least, BMW's own entry level X5. The closest you'll get on size and price combined are maybe the Lexus RX and the brilliant Volvo XC90 - both, significantly, 'lifestyle' 4x4s.
Is it for you?
Depends very much on what importance you put on hard reality and how much on image and badge consciousness. Fact is it's quite difficult to say who precisely might 'need' an X3 as opposed to simply wanting one for its prestigious blue and white propellor badge. Not that that's unusual in the premium segment, and not just for 4x4s - for some people, badges are all. And if you can look beyond that? Well, it's no more and no less obvious a choice than any other compact, up-market soft-roader. It definitely isn't for you, however, if big off-road ability is as important on-road civility.
What does it do well?
It has a typically effective and refined BMW drivetrain, in this case combining the classic 231bhp 3.0-litre straight-six BMW engine with a smooth, even quite sporty five-speed auto transmission. This, for now, is the only version we've driven, the petrol range-topper, snuggled between the 2.5i six-cylinder petrol and 3.0d six-cylinder turbodiesel. There's a choice, too, of six-speed manual transmission, but the lazy option will find far more takers, and it's worthy of preference. Refinement is excellent, character is recognisably BMW, and performance is lively - with a claimed 131mph (138mph with the optional Sports package) and 0-62mph in 9.9 seconds (or 7.8 seconds in manual form). It handles well - as close as a vehicle with such a high centre of gravity reasonably can to a sporty car - and the steering is precise, reasonably direct (though certainly not quick), with decent feel at most speeds. Even the continuously variable xDrive four-wheel drive impresses with its refinement and responsiveness, but don't expect the X3 to be a real mountain goat - it isn't meant to be.
What doesn't it do well?
The pay-off for impressive body control is a very questionable ride - by far the X3's weakest dynamic link. It's way too stiff, even in standard form, to be comfortable on anything except billiard-table black-top. On anything remotely pot-holed, pock-marked or just vaguely undulating, it's a filling-loosener. In controlling the natural tendency to roll they've engineered a ride as harsh and unforgiving as a kart's. In fact it's difficult to overstate how rough and nausea-inducing it can be on even a modestly poor road at everyday speeds. What the even firmer Sports-packed option might be like hardly bears thinking about. The other weak link is the X3's aesthetics. You'll either love it or hate it, depending on whether you're taken in by over-complicated 'flame-surface' details overlaying what's frankly a pretty ordinary basic shape. Then there's the impression of quality for price - it's neat enough inside, and tolerably well equipped, but some of the smaller fittings (such as the nasty plastic door handles) really don't shout premium prices, while the X3 price list certainly does.
What's it like to live with?
Ride apart, potentially not bad at all - it's virtually as roomy as an X5, but marginally more traffic friendly in overall size, and apart from rear three-quarters it has good all-round visibility. It's practically packaged, with decent luggage capacity and plenty of oddment storage, but it lacks now expected features like BMW's excellent split-opening rear glass. Add to the initial price a sub 25mpg combined thirst, 276g/km CO2 figure and fairly lofty insurance grouping and running costs will be worth thinking about before buying - but residuals and reliability shouldn't be big issues.
Would we buy it?
With the suspension set-up as it is now, definitely, unreservedly not - it's simply too crashy and bumpy to live with on everyday roads. Even with that sorted you'd have to wince slightly at the UK price - we're still being badly loaded compared to other European markets. We've no doubt at all, though, that the queues will already be filling, warts and all.
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