REVIEW DATE: 05 Oct 2007
BMW's X3 returns with an entry level petrol engine that more than punches its weight. Andy Enright reports.
It's not often that BMW has to perform a little remedial action. They're traditionally a right first time sort of operation but the X3 was never great straight out of the crate. The two words I kept hearing when discussing the X3 were 'plastic' and 'overpriced,' never great brand values for a prestige compact 4x4. The latest car has benefited from a raft of improvements not least of which is the fitting of a punchy 218bhp 2.5-litre engine to what is now the entry-level petrol model. The X3 2.5si generates a wholly different range of buzzwords. Fast, fun and composed are just a few.
This isn't the 192bhp 2.5-litre engine that powered the pre-facelift X3. Instead, the latest X3 gets a far more modern piece of engineering with a healthier slug of torque and the mumbo to move what is quite a sizeable vehicle. Based on the world's lightest six-cylinder engine, this powerplant is largely constructed of aluminium and magnesium alloys. It's able to punt the X3 to 60mph in 8.2 seconds before hitting a top speed of 137mph, which is some going for the entry level car ion the range. Petrol buyers looking to step off the line even faster can pay a bit more for the 272bhp 3.0-litre should they so wish.
As great as the bigger engine is, I'd have difficulty looking beyond the 2.5si if I needed an X3 that drank from the green pump. While the 3.0-litre diesel is probably the pick of the X3 range, it's markedly dearer than the £31,520 2.5si and, in the real world, not always quicker. The 2.5's fuel consumption figure of 30.4mpg also means you'd have to rack up some major mileages to justify the diesel car in terms of fuel savings. The X3 feels pleasantly nuggety to drive, all of a piece if you like. It drives like it looks, compact and car-like rather than a lumbering 4x4. Yes, it is reasonably useless off road but that's hardly the point. The X3 appeals to a discrete niche and now it does so very well indeed. BMW has succeeded in turning the problem child of its family into a star pupil.
So what do you get for your money? Along with the featherweight engine, BMW has also tweaked the X3's styling, giving it a more upmarket look. The old X3 looked fine when specified in M-Sport trim with the body coloured side panelling but rather cheap with black parts, especially if the body was trimmed in a pale colour. The 2.5si is also available in M-Sport guise and features a colour-keyed front spoiler that sits below a redesigned bumper assembly. A bigger kidney grille reflects BMW's pride in the latest X3 and front fog lights are now incorporated into the main section of the bodywork. Move round to the back and there are LED tail lamps. 18-inch alloy wheels and twin exhausts that poke out beneath a ground hugging rear valance are standard with the option of 19-inch rims.
"The X3 2.5si drives as a proper BMW should"
The interior, the source of much of the X3's reputation for being built down to a price, has also been treated to a nip and tuck. The materials used on the centre console have been uprated and there's a better looking three-spoke steering wheel. The anthracite head lining and cool technical finishes of the M-Sport model also lift the cabin, giving the car a properly premium feel. Now that much of the technology that was introduced on the 5 Series has matured, BMW has been able to take a look at what's worth sticking with, what features will die a quiet death and, at the same time, has also introduced a few new ideas on the X3.
The Dynamic Stability Control + system (DCS+) is fitted to an X model for the first time, giving X3 drivers immense confidence as they explore the outer reaches of the car's handling envelope and acting as a reassuring safety net in the event of an evasive or emergency manoeuvre. The braking system has been given the most attention and the X3 comes with a series of braking functions that are beyond the ken of many cars costing three times as much. Brake Drying scrubs away the film of water on the brake discs that can reduce stopping power, while Brake Pretensioning shortens stopping distances during an emergency stop by priming the brakes to remove any slop in the system should the driver come sharply off the throttle pedal. Hill Start Assistant holds the brakes on a manual car until the driver can accelerate away while Brake Fade Compensation ramps up calliper pressure if the system detects that heat build up is causing brake fade. Switchable Dynamic Traction Control is also another first for an X model.
Let's be clear about this. BMW has repositioned the X3, lifting it out of the compact 4x4 mainstream and has equipped it with jet heels. It's different because it's so much faster and more capable - on road at least - than any conceivable rival. It needed to be though. Land Rover is looking to redefine this sector with the new Freelander and, as you're probably aware, Land Rover and BMW have a little history. Points are there to be proven.
BMW is anything but complacent. You only have to look at what the company has done to the X3 range as a whole to realise that they're acutely attuned to customer feedback. Draw up a tick sheet of all the faults of the first generation X3, run the rule over this latest car and you'll find that the Munich outfit has dispassionately set about rectifying all the shortcomings. The 2.5si model is evidence, if ever it were needed, that BMW knows how to build a driver's car. Don't let the all-wheel drive paraphernalia muddy your logic. It's not cheap but at least now you'll be able to form a more justifiable value proposition. Don't write off the X3 based on prejudice. It's come a long way.
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