Despite what Frank Greve might tell you, some automotive journalists (well, automotive writers anyway. Car writers. Hacks.) don’t have gleaming new cars dropped off curbside, with caviar and champagne in the cupholders and an eight-ball of coke in the glovebox. Instead, a jobbing freelancer such as myself usually has to hoof it on the ol’ public transit network to wherever the fleet cars are kept, staring out the window at people picking their noses in Toyota Corollas and pretending not to notice the pressure on my thigh as the portly, odiferous gentleman on my left overflows his seat.
This time though, BMW being so far out of the way, I grabbed a lift from a friend in a track-prepped, bright orange Lotus Elise. I have never indulged in methamphetamines, but now I no longer need to: never mind road feel, that car was effectively fifteen miles of licking the tarmacadam.
After such a Habanero sorbet, the drive back in the BMW was fairly muted. Ho-hum, another big heavy heffalump with a fancy badge on the nose and an options pricing list that reads like the GDP of Belgium. Right? Next morning at the on-ramp: um, actually no. This thing’s a rocket.
Despite the safe beige colour of my tester, perhaps I should have got a whiff of this tendency for velocitous extramuralisation from its pugnacious stance. The new X3 is flared out, lowered, blocky and creased, making the corporate twin-kidney grille resemble nothing so much as the nostrils of a French bulldog. I like it quite a lot: there’s a smidgen of 1-series M Coupe in here, possibly because they both have such stupidly long names.
Best of all, while this new X3 has swelled by a few inches in all directions to make market room for the upcoming X1 (already available up here in the Great White North), it hasn’t been on the usual Nick Riviera Diet for Dangerously Underweight Individuals. Unlike other BMWs – the 5-series GT hits the chocotastic group so hard it should come with an available MUMU paint code – the X3 pulls the shades on the window to weight-gain, although optioning-out the turbo model will put you up two hundred pounds over the out-going model in base, manual transmission configuration.
More about that heft later, let us first slide into a cockpit furnished in the only the finest of rubberized cows. Apparently from the same polymerized herd that provides Angus beef to McDonald’s, the pleather interior in the X3 is pleasing to the touch and assuredly going to be wipe-down durable if this is your kid-hauler, but for $50K+ is its hard-wearing surface better than leather? Maybe. Yeah, and maybe I’m a Chinese jet fighter pilot.
Then again, the rest of the spartan cockpit of the X3 is really quite good. If I might voice a dissenting opinion on the usually-lambasted iDrive, I actually don’t mind it as a control device. I’m sure more than the usual week-long exposure provided by a review might prove it completely livable, if not quite Apple-grade intuitive. If you can’t stand it, all the radio and HVAC functions have redundancies on the centre stack and steering wheel.
Cargo-wise, and I assume that’s why you’re considering this yoke over a 3-series sedan, there’s plenty of head-and-legroom in the back seats. The trunk is big enough for things and/or stuff. A dog should fit, or maybe even one of those modern strollers that’s like a medieval siege tower with handlebars, although you’d probably have to hack the legs off of Fido to accommodate both.
But enough of this hum-drum Consumer Reports clipboard checking. If you wanted a pure family hauler, you’d have a Dodge Grand Caravan and a ex- Iwo Jima Marine’s thousand-yard-stare. This is a BMW: mach schnell!
Gripping the BMW’s hefty tiller (everyone in Bavaria must have mitts like Paul Bunyan), I face down the most idiotic on-ramp in the Western hemisphere: 5-degrees short of a T-Junction, at the bottom of a blind hill. As per usual, some trembling poltroon has pootled down to the the end of it and stopped dead in a rabbit-freeze panic. They misjudge, meander out and nearly receive a fifteen-ton Peterbuilt enema. I’m about fifty feet back, watching for a suitable gap.
Shrugging off its 4222lb curb weight, the Bimmer leaps forward with a surprisingly enthusiastic exhaust note, the 8-speed auto-box snapping off the gears with engaging rapidity. Forget the UV part, this thing hauls some serious S. Figure a 5-point-something sprint to 60mph and the quarter in the low-14s: enough to quash the boy racers.
To the heart of the matter, that amazing straight-six turbo engine. Where the 335i’s power-plant is twin-turbocharged, the X3 puts out pretty much the same power with just a single snail hanging off the exhaust manifold.
With a mesa-flat torque-peak from 1300rpm and up, its incredibly responsive twin-scroll turbo is more proof that we’re entering a second golden age of forced induction. After a week of boost, I was trying to figure out how to turbocharge the lawn-mower, the dishwasher, the Cuisinart… the cat caught me holding a dustbuster and looking at it speculatively and wisely buggered off tout suite.
Naturally, some credit also has to be given to the octo-tranny. Here though, despite what certain late-70s sitcoms might have you believe, eight is more than enough. While great when you put your boot in it and, above 30mph, slick as the salesperson who talked you into the optional $800 metallic paint charge, it’s a bit fussy around town. The shifts aren’t rough, and the X3 has plenty of low-end poke, but it is a little disconcerting to be already in fourth gear a heartbeat after leaving the line. It’s like riding shotgun with someone short-shifting at 1500 revs: a trifle jerky.
Flicking the shifter into “sport” mitigates the effect, but if you like to downshift to engine-brake, you’ll find yourself having to hit it repeatedly to come down from the higher gears. Coming off the freeway, I was hammering at the control like a whack-a-mole.
These are minor quibbles, and I’ve another: the electrically-assisted steering is… well, “numb” would be an overstatement, but certainly there’s not all the feel there that one could wish. Essentially the X3 is so well-balanced and handles so nicely, that I’d prefer just a tiny bit more BMW 3-Series flavour.
All is forgiven because they fixed the ride. The old X3’s feet of clay were its legs of concrete. Specifically, someone seemed to have constructed the suspension out of granite, bits of old cathedrals and depleted uranium. The new one is immeasurably better: it’s still firm in a German way, but instead of a foaming-mouthed scream of, “Ve haff ways of makink you talk!” every time you hit an expansion joint, it’s simply communicative. “Zo, tell me a little about yourself.”
Verdict then: really, I only have one problem with the X3, but let me leave that ’til last. It’s quick enough to be entertaining, roomy enough to be practical, priced well enough to fit into your driveway at a minor premium above less aspirational metal (and given BMW’s leasing programs, probably at a payment par with optioned-out prole-wagons), rides well enough to be a good tourer and isn’t even that expensive to keep in high-test. In short, it’s a Bayerische Motoren that really Werkes.
The only problem with the X3? The guaranteed sales success Bimmer’s going to see with this chariot means we’re never going to see a 335is wagon. Sad trombone.
BMW provided the vehicle and insurance for this review.