BMW's new all-wheel drive X3 proved itself worth of the roundel emblem by taking first and second place in the 2004 AlCan 5000 Winter Rally in February. Sixteen vehicles entered, 14 finished, and four were European cars. The AlCan 5000 is a time speed distance rally.
Three 2003 BMW X3 3.0's started, along with one 1989 325iX, and one 2003 Audi S4. The Audi finished dead last, and one BMW X3 joined a tired Mitsubishi Montero on that did not finish list. It was my X3.
The AlCan 5000 is billed as the longest, toughest, coldest winter rally in the world. Cars shove off in Seattle, Wash., move quickly north into Canada all the way to the Arctic Ocean, eight days later, and then backtrack part of their way to Anchorage, Alaska.
The event consists of nearly 5,000 miles of driving, most of it north of the Arctic Circle, in 10 days. Road surfaces run the gamut from dry pavement to wet pavement, snow, ice, slush, gravel, dirt and mud. Temperatures ranged from a high of 47*F to a low of -21*F. Rallyists drive by day and by night, although nightly stops at places of lodging provided at least the opportunity for what was euphemistically called sleep, before pressing on once again in several hours.
Running north into British Columbia on the first day, it does not take long before Canada's overwhelming wilderness envelopes the vehicles. We had breakfast in Seattle. By dinner two days later, we had seen falling boulders, a family of mountain goats, and a small herd of buffalo--and that was just on the road.
When British Columbia yields to the Yukon Territories on the fourth day, Arctic trees begin to appear--black spruce the grow short and spindly the further north you drive. Whitehorse is the big city. The fifth night is spent in Dawson City, near the base of the Dempster Highway that leads to the Arctic Circle and the Northwest Territories.
Books have been written about the Dempster, and for good reason. The beauty and danger are beyond any road I've ever driven. The road surface is permafrost--permanently frozen ground, covered by snow and ice for about 600 miles.
My X3 was co-driven by Paul Duchene and navigated by Katy Wood had fallen victim to our sixth place position on Day Six. At the time, X3s were in first and second place. The team of Henry Joy, Satch Carlson and Russ Kraushaar had damaged a front control arm in the first of three ice races. It literally broke in half in the parking lot of the fuel station/motel/restaurant at Dawson Corners, at the base of the Dempster Highway, and the same exact place where my 325iX fuel pump died during the 1998 Rally of the Lost Patrol. Duchene is a veteran journalist, presently writing for Sports Car Market.
We had our own problems, but none were mechanical. Wood, our navigator, had essentially quit the team, declaring that she would ride with Duchene and I only during timed sections. We didn't get to try that out, but I was not optimistic. We were in sixth place, and it did not look like we'd be advancing to the top three under these circumstances. To ensure a one-two BMW victory, Duchene and I gave up our control arm and left our X3 in Dawson Corners. It was flat bedded down to Dawson City to meet a fresh control arm Fed Ex'd in by BMW of North America. The idea was, we would pick up our X3 on the way back, and at least finish the rally. Unfortunately, someone at the tire shop where it was parked decided to move it under it's own power. Without a front control arm on the right side, the suspension torqued and ripped the CV joint out of the front differential, ruining the right axle shaft. Our X3 and our rally were finished. Duchene, Wood and I were passengers in other vehicles throughout the rest of the vent--Wood rode separately.
The X3 victory is even more significant in that the trucks were totally out of their element, which is, arguably, the New Jersey Turnpike. Six Suburu's ran the AlCan 5000, including one WRX. Rallying is Suburu's forte, not BMWs, and the competition was fierce but BMW bested the Japanese at their own game. Now, rallying is all about the navigator and driver in that order, but to win you need a good vehicle as well. There's no discounting the X3, in or out of its element. BMW's electronic xDrive all-wheel drive system works seamlessly under normal driving conditions, transferring power between front and rear wheels as dictated by DSC and yaw sensors. On the way to Wal-Mart, you'll never even notice the system is functioning.
We saw none of the ride quality or "BMW-ness" issues raised in X3 reviews appearing in the elite automotive press. In fact, I cannot image what the hell they are talking about with the ride. It is entirely subjective, ride quality, but to our team and me it seemed perfect. The other X3 teams voiced similar opinions. "BMW-ness" changes and evolves with models and body styles. The same thing happened in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. In case you've been stranded in the South Pacific, we happen to be in the middle of one of those changing and evolving periods right now.
Unfortunately, despite this victory, rallying is not xDrive's forte. The electronics that make the truck a dream drive for suburban moms with no winter driving skills worked us in competition. Pressing the DSC switch on the console can roll DSC parameters back, but the electronic nanny cannot be completely turned off--and it can roll those parameters forward again if it thinks you're going to crash. It did exactly that throughout the ice races.
ABS brakes are integral to the xDrive function, so they cannot be turned off. ABS maintains steering capability under maximum braking on snow and ice, but a trained winter driver can stop faster on these surfaces without ABS.
Adding to the challenge, BMW gave us automatic transmissions. Automatics are unsuitable for TSD rally competition, which requires constant minute speed adjustments. It is extremely difficult, and the slushbox hunting up and down for gears makes it more difficult. Manual mode was all but worthless, as it would still shift by itself. It did help reduce the gear hunting on normal transits, through. And it eventually stopped shifting into its vaunted sixth gear. In short, all the reasons we hate automatics were very much in evidence.
At the last ice race at Big Lake outside of Fairbanks, the Joy, Carlson, Kraushaar X3 had total X-drive electronic meltdown. DSC stayed on regardless of the switch, and the thing reverted to RWD. However, the winning X3 of Ronald Ahrens, Gary Webb and Peter Schneider performed flawlessly.
At the end of the rally, it was clear that the X3 is perfectly suited to its market. If I had a need for a four-door all-wheel-drive truck, there is no doubt I would choose an X3 3.0-liter, six-speed manual, with sport package. If BMW will grant more say in the way the vehicle is equipped and prepared, I would happily run the AlCan 5000 again at it's next running in 2006.
And next time, there won't be any parts donations.