You know, the funny thing is, I can actually remember vividly the first time I tested the (then) new BMW X3 when it arrived on our shores many, many moons ago. Much had been said about the revolutionary ‘X Drive’ 4WD system that was equipped in this car, and being the natural skeptic that I am, I was eager to see what all the fuss was about.
I’d decided to take the car to a little-known off-road location just outside KL, a place where owners of bona-fide 4×4’s sometimes congregate to escape city life for a brief spell. I’m not kidding, this area is off-limits to cars, and features two water-crossings before getting to an idyllic picnic spot, and the trail getting in was at best ‘medium’. As luck would have it, it had rained the night before, turning the off-road stretch into a veritable mud bath.
I have to admit, as I approached the area with the X3 and saw what lay ahead, I recall checking my phone book – it was just a regular Sony-Ericsson back then when phones were just that, phones and not mobile offices – for numbers of winch-equipped tow-trucks, as well as fellow 4×4 owners who wouldn’t mind heading out on a Sunday morning to ‘snatch-strap’ a bogged-down X3.
I even called one guy and relayed my nefarious plans to him, to which I’ll never forget his response, a very eloquent “You mad ah?”. Well, I needed to call someone, at least then they’d know where to recover the body…
What’s amazing about the X Drive system is that it continually monitors the terrain, insofar as traction is concerned, and is able to feed and retard power to any of the given four tyres at any time, depending on the level of traction that’s available at each corner of the car. And in conjunction with ABS and Traction Control, it’s also able to brake each wheel individually depending on the incline or gradient.
Even more amazing was the fact that the X3 was shod with Highway Terrain tyres and not ‘knobblies’ aka mud-terrain tyres. I’m still amazed just how well the X3 managed to traverse that off-road sector, and even the water crossings and I remember thinking ‘what a shame no one is ever going to experience how amazing this is’. I even wrote that in my subsequent article. I’ll explain later.
Want to know what’s changed between that and this new X3? Nothing. It still has that amazing X Drive 4WD system, which of course has been fine-tuned and improved over the years, but it’s all now sewn into a more refined package. Perhaps a bit too refined. The old X3 was a bit raw, edgy and in-your-face, this latest incarnation, well, it just looks a little ‘soft’.
Don’t get me wrong though, there’s nothing soft about the drive characteristics of this car, except for maybe the comfort level, which is still spot-on. Owners will still get one of the sweetest turbocharged diesel engines, that offers some serious low-end torque from as little as 1,500rpm. NVH is of course typically BMW, and thus once on the inside, you’ll not know that an oil-burner sits snug below the bonnet up front. The only time you hear it is when you unleash all 184bhp and 380Nm of torque. That low-end torque will get you from 0-100km/h in a blistering 8.5 seconds, and top out at 210km/h. Driven more sedately you’ll get an amazing combined fuel-consumption cycle of 5.6L/100km. That’s very close to hybrid territory folks.
As with any BMW, the driving position is borderline perfect, and thanks to generous amounts of glass, all-round visibility is very good too. The X3 may look small from the outside, but it’s more than adequate in terms of space on the inside. It has to be said though, the curved dashboard does eat up quite a bit of knee-room. The infinitely adjustable driver’s seat allows for a very comfortable driving position, while the slightly elevated ride height of the car itself gives a commanding view. It’s true what they say, once you’re used to the driving position of an SUV, it feels weird getting back into a sedan. I concur.
But let’s get back to the X3 itself. In terms of market segment, while its no doubt an SUV or as BMW calls it, SAV – Sport Activity Vehicle – it sits in a sort of no-man’s land. Bear with me for a second. You see, if someone looking for an SUV-like vehicle wanted a small BMW for town use or just getting around, there’s the X1, and on the opposite side of the scale, if someone wanted something bigger, there’s the X5. Of course those wanting something ‘all-flash’ could opt for the X6. So where does that leave the X3? In very dangerous waters, that’s where.
The X3 resides in the mid-size SUV range, and that’s populated by some ridiculously popular vehicles, that are a lot cheaper and no-less well-equipped or offer any less of a pleasurable driving experience. The Japanese SUV’s dominate this market segment completely, and just about every carmaker has one to offer, why even Ford has a worthy contender in this range, yes Ford. If you’ve not driven a Kuga, you really, really should. But I digress.
The ace up the X3’s wheel-arch is of course that sublime X Drive 4WD system, and that peach of a diesel engine under the bonnet, but is that enough? Unfortunately it’s not. First-off, the popularity of diesels in the ‘luxury’ segment is really unchartered waters, and anyone who’s been to a diesel pump at any gas station will attest that it’s not the most pleasant experience in the world. Secondly, unlike the maniac writing this article, how many owners are ever really going to use that X Drive the way I did? While the X3 was not damaged in any way, it was absolutely covered in mud and grime when I reemerged into civilisation from that aforementioned off-road jaunt, something that would curdle the insides of anyone who owned this rather expensive piece of machinery – I don’t think BMW have forgiven me completely for that yet by the way.
So it all boils down to two things then; looks and badge value. Now because looks are subjective, I’ll leave it to you to decide – you already know I think this new one has gone a tad soft in the looks department – so we’re left with badge value, and that’s the saving grace of the X3. It’s a BMW. You just know that when it comes to the blue-propeller, you’re not going to get short-changed. It’s like buying an original Polo tee as opposed to the two-for-ten versions in Chinatown. That’s what you get for RM343,800, as opposed to something half that price.
There’s a pedigree of sorts that comes part and parcel with the X3, the quality of components, the fit and finish, the NVH, the ergonomics, the ride and handling, everything. It’s all brilliantly packaged into a neat and tidy mid-size SAV that’s ideally suited for everyday life. And I guess there’s something comforting about knowing that if a ‘zombie-apocalypse’ ever happens (sorry) you can just jump in and head for the hills. The X3 and that X Drive system will get you there, and in fine style too.