We have to take issue with the saying, “You never get a second chance to make a good impression.” Having been a firm believer in that saying, we weren’t expecting much as we took delivery of a 2004 BMW X3 2.5i Sport. Like many, we’ve become a bit jaded, thanks to the “radical” design stylings of the now infamous Mr. Bangle. So when we caught a first glimpse of the X3 in a spy photo, we thought, “Oh great- here we go again.” We’re happy to report that the X3 not only looks better than it does on paper, but performs better than we ever could have imagined.
We took delivery of the X3 and were given the opportunity to drive it in an environment where few X3s are likely to go: off-roading. And while the X3’s off-road performance isn’t on par with the likes of Land Rover, it is surprisingly competent. On more civilized surfaces, the X3 does BMW proud by delivering one heckuva driving experience. But more on that later.
The BMW X3 is available in two flavors: the X3 2.5i and the X3 3.0i, and true to BMW’s identification system, the 2.5 and 3.0 moniker refers to the engine configurations. The X3 2.5i receives BMW’s 2.5-liter inline six-cylinder and delivers 184 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque. The X3 3.0i takes advantage of BMW’s trusty 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder that delivers 225 horsepower and 214 pound-feet of torque. No matter the flavor, all X3’s ship with BMW’s xDrive, a seamless and intelligent all-wheel-drive system.
In addition to supplying more ponies, the X3 3.0i delivers a more comprehensive set of standard luxury options than the X3 2.5i, but it does so at a price premium. Our X3 2.5i was nicely equipped with BMW’s premium package ($3800), the sport package ($1500), a five-speed automatic transmission ($1275), cold weather package ($750), park distance control ($700) and privacy glass ($350). Add all of those options to the X3 2.5i’s base price of $30,300, and our sticker price came in at just under $40,000. Expect to pay an additional $3000 for the 3.0-liter option. No matter how you slice it, that’s a lot of cash.
The X3, despite it’s substantial size, is considerably lighter than its bigger brother, the X5. Weighing in at around 4000-pounds, the X3 is almost 700-pounds more svelte than the X5 3.0i. Size-wise, they’re about the same, with the X3 riding on a slightly (1-inch) shorter wheelbase, and with an overall length that’s just 4-inches shorter than the X5. Surprisingly, the X3 offers more cargo room than the X5 – BMW claims the X3 has 30% more cargo capacity with the seats folded flat, and 26% more cargo capacity with the seats in their upright position.
Once inside, we found the X3 bore a striking resemblance to its bigger, older brother. With a relatively high seating position and the familiar BMW dash and instrument configuration, there’s no mistaking the X3 for anything other than pure BMW. The interior, as comfortable, spacious and ergonomically correct as it is, did suffer from a bit of a “plastic” feel. The vast amounts of textured plastic, combined with sparse wood accents gave the X3 a slightly cheapened feel. Further confirming our suspicions was the tinny “clank” that the doors made when pulled closed. Call us silly, but we’re used to the vault-like thud of older, larger BMWs.
The view from the X3 is superb, and we especially like the large, panoramic sunroof option. It gives the cabin an open, airy feel, especially in the back seats, where shoulder room is at a bit of a premium. Passengers riding in the rear seats will find leg room to be similar to the X5.
On the road, our X3 2.5i Sport was a joy to drive. Handling was typical BMW – spot on, with accurate steering that offered excellent feedback. No matter how hard we charged into a corner, the xDrive and multi-link rear suspension provided endless grip, and gave the X3 a solid, sure-footed feel, with no hint of typical 4×4 understeer. And as great as the xDrive system was at speed, it was even better at slow speeds.
In parking situations, the xDrive system automatically rolls back power to the front wheels to allow for easier low-speed maneuvering. Give the X3 a strong kick at start-up, and the xDrive delivers a nearly perfect torque split to both front and rear axles to allow for maximum grip. At highway speed, the ride is tight and slightly firm, conveying an almost sports-car-like feeling. We experienced none of the jolting or jarring that other publications have complained about.
Taking the X3 off road really allows it to show off. Flying down bumpy, uneven, back-woods fire-escape roads, the X3 rode and drove like an off-road veteran. The suspension handily swallowed the ruts, bumps and other irregularities while the interior remained silent. Perhaps most impressive was how competent the X3 was in slick, muddy conditions, despite wearing 50-series tires that were primarily designed for paved applications. We believe this is a testament to xDrive’s capability.
The X3 supplies hill descent control, an option that automatically provides controlled descents under slippery conditions, requiring no pedal input from the driver. Place the X3 in hill descent mode, and the X3 automatically modulates the brakes to help descend the steepest and most slippery of hills without any drama.
Speaking of drama (or lack thereof), both the brakes and the 5-speed automatic transmission performed flawlessly. The brakes were typical BMW – stellar, with great bite, control and feedback. We hauled our X3 from 70 to 0 in just 153-feet, which is amazing for a vehicle of this size. The ZF-sourced transmission offers three modes: sport, normal and manual, and true to our race-loving nature, we chose the sport mode and liked it best. Shifts were precise and crisp, and in sport mode, the transmission held its gears longer and downshifted with more precision.
All in all, we really enjoyed the BMW X3 2.5i, and were especially impressed by its off-road manners. We’ve read the complaints from other journalists about the ride quality, the power (or supposed lack thereof), and the viability of a small Bavarian sport-ute, but we think they’re full of hooey. We found the 2004 BMW X3 to be purposeful, fun and competent, offering a great compromise between sport, utility and practicality. So whether you think of it as a smaller brother to the X5 or a bigger brother to the 3-series wagon, think of it as we did – fondly.
– Great off-road ride, with superb traction and handling
– Seamless xDrive system and automatic transmission
– Excellent interior room with typical BMW ergonomics
– Superb brakes
– Great driving dynamics
– No iDrive
– 2.5-liter could use a little more oomph
– Tinny sound/feel to doors
– Price can escalate quickly as options are added