It's amazing what phenomenal cars BMW builds. Take our new long term X3 3.0i. This was a car I initially loathed having when it was first announced it would be our long-termer from BMW. I've had previous experience in these things, some of it off road too. And it wasn't something I looked forward to driving again at the time. It took a weekend of endless rain (something that never happens in these parts) and being surrounded by drivers who don't have a clue about wet vehicle handling to make me realize what a great car the X3 is and that I had been looking at it all wrong.
Our X3 3.0i lists at a base price of $36,300. Add the paint ($475), the Cold Weather ($750), Premium ($1800), and Sport Packages ($1500), as well as 18-inch wheels ($500), power folding mirrors ($250), luggage net ($150), park distance control ($700), Xenon headlights ($800), navigation system ($1800), premium sound system ($675), satellite radio preparation ($75), privacy glass ($350) and the destination charge ($695), we end up more than $10k above list. That's a lot of gadgets, but it feels right for a BMW. In a way these gadgets are what give the car the German luxury feel we've come to expect. Surprisingly, many components I surmised were options are actually standard on the X3, such as the panoramic moonroof, aluminum interior trim (not one of my favorites), adaptive light control, rain sensors and automatic headlights, and the multi-function steering wheel. Though pricey when fully optioned out like ours, the X3 is still a viable alternative to potential 3- and maybe even 5-Series buyers looking for an elevated driving position.
Before I tell you how great the car is, I have to make my usual rants. To start, the car looks especially ghastly in the metallic, scarlet lipstick-color ours came in. It reminds me of an old Porsche commercial that showed German engineers selecting colors for the then-new 993 by pointing out random brightly colored objects, one of them being a stick of lipstick. A color like that looked good on a Carrera, not so for the X3. It's not just me either; most first impression comments we've received have been on the choice of color.
However you want to look at it, the X3 is really hurting in the aestheticsdepartment. It lacks the width and aspect ratio that give the X5 its presence. It looks rather skinny, and the edgy features seem to accentuate its oddity more than anything else. I can't say exactly what's wrong with it, but it reminds me of the scrawny kid at school, the one who just looked wrong but I could never figure out why. One thing I did pick out was the massive fender gap. The low-profile tires and added ride height made for an odd combination.
It was in pondering this combination while sloshing through massive rain puddles that it finally struck me-I had totally misunderstood this car. The reality is that the X3 is no more an SUV than an Audi Allroad Quattro. It's more akin to a 3-Series wagon with a ground clearance complex. That's why it rides, steers and rolls like a 3 Series, but with even more everyday practicality, if that's possible. The added ride height only translates to a different view of the road without the added suspension slop. Nevermind all the critics and their rants about the ride quality; they were expecting an SUV with conventional SUV performance. Gaining acceptance by the masses has never been easy for innovators and visionaries.
Weighing in at 400 pounds more than the heaviest 3 Series, the X3 still handles beautifully at seven-tenths. The extra weight does make the car feel a little sluggish from a dead stop, but once at speed, the 3.0-liter Double VANOS engine is quite responsive. The six-speed manual transmission helps add some pep into the equation. I'd say there's even enough power for me to properly express my road rage.
With this epiphany, I ignored my instincts to avoid excessive weight transfer and started driving the car like a normal 3 Series: flying around corners, heel-toeing through on-ramps and having a darn good time. The harder I pushed, the less I could find to complain about. In so many respects, on public roads, the X3 would not lose much to its lower 3 Series counterparts.
Conversely, an SUV's appeal of added ride height, visibility and clearance finally became apparent after my first rain-soaked weekend in the X3. Sitting so high gave a hugely better perspective in such bad driving conditions and reduced the effect of other cars' rooster-tails. The huge fender gaps and immense suspension travel boosted my driving confidence when it came to the puddles of death that normally pull lower cars right into the curb. This vehicle would be my choice for rainy day transportation.
On the inside, the X3 retains classic BMW styling, like our previous long term Z4, in terms of design and layout. Everything is quite simple and the layout is accented by long swooping lines in the dash and the doors. The navigation and stereo controls are integrated into the same panel of buttons and knobs. All the navigation controls are essentially directed through the right push-button knob using logic similar to that of the iDrive system.
All things considered, I'm happy to have the X3 in our fleet. It is the best balance of everyday practicality, driving pleasure and moderation. And it's perfect for those rare days I feel like blending in with the commuting masses.
Total mileage: 1010
This month's fuel economy: 18 mpg with easy break-in driving
This month's costs: $105
Faults: Long shift throw and non performance-oriented clutch feel
Thumbs up: Great handling and visibility
Thumbs down: Having to look at it