When the BMW X3 was launched in 2003, the sports activity vehicle (SAV) got a lot of flak from reviews here and abroad. The chief complaints of economy-grade interior treatments, lack of power, harsh ride qualities and a relatively high asking price contributed greatly to its low sales volume. In order to boost sagging SUV sales, BMW recently launched the 2007 X3, with the hope that purchase order numbers will be as good or even better than its X5 sibling.

Spot the difference

In a two-day event last week, a select number of motoring journalists were given the opportunity to drive the new X3 to and from the Punta Fuego resort in Nasugbu (Batangas). This writer was matched with Manila Bulletin senior reporter Aris Ilagan and a manual transmission (m/t) silver BMW X3 2.0d (diesel).

On the way to the vehicles this writer had to gaze hard to spot the new X3's exterior and interior changes. At the front, a larger and more prominent kidney grille sits above a redesigned front bumper and a new color-coded spoiler. New dual circular headlights with light sources and reflectors housed beneath a clear glass cover provide the "six-eye face" distinctive to BMW X models. This look is further enhanced by fog lamps arranged on one line extending diagonally to the outside from the main headlights to the wheels, 18-inch light alloy wheels on the 2.5si (gas) variant or 17-inch light alloy wheels on the 2.0d.

Viewed from the side, the profile of the new BMW X3 stands out via a discreet wedge shape enhanced by a lower character line. This specific contour line is taken up in the lower side area of the front and rear air dams, and emphasizes the sleek and stretched look. New rear light clusters feature rods of LED lights that provide a striking view at night, while also giving the SAV a clear distinction during daytime.

Inside, the SAV sports a new multi-function three-spoke steering wheel, whose geometry and two-tone hues now closely resemble the current model BMW 3-Series. Galvanized metal accents on the doors, center console and the steering wheel, along with leatherette highlights (with a stylish surface grain) reflect the interior's sportiness and sophistication. Various storage boxes within the dashboard, doors and front seat backrests provide ample storage for all sorts of bric-a-brac. The front occupants get more than one cupholder, as the driver's cupholder is located in the center console and the shotgun passenger's cupholder is under the rightmost airconditioning vent.

Better performance

The P 3.19 million X3 2.0d totes a common rail injected four cylinder, 150 hp/330 NM engine mated to a six-speed m/t. The engine has more than enough pulling power for overtaking and has gobs of torque at low rpm (2000-2500 rpm to be exact), vindicating BMW's confidence in eschewing forced induction in favor of natural aspiration for the X3 2.0d. The aforementioned six-speed m/t has rather tall gearing, but provided decent passing opportunities in third and fourth gear on the twisty highways leading to Punta Fuego. Also, it takes awhile to get used to the gas-clutch pedal feel of the 2.0d's m/t, with throttle stiction that makes gentle inputs tricky.

Handling-wise, there's little body roll, steering felt moderately heavy yet precise (another nod to the BMW 3-Series) and tarmac handling is great, thanks to the grip from the 17-inch 235-series Michelin Pilot MX 04 tires. Overall the suspension is composed, but the rear suspension felt rather harsh, especially over broken tarmac.

After staying overnight at Punta Fuego, this writer and Ilagan drove back to Manila using the other X3 variant, the P 3.75M petrol-fed automatic transmission (a/t) X3 2.5si. This unit totes a variable Valvetronic controlled inline six cylinder, 218 hp/250NM engine mated to a six-speed a/t.
The 2.5si's engine has a composite magnesium-aluminum crankcase that reduces weight, providing a (claimed) 0-100kph time of 8.5 seconds and a 210 kph top speed. The six-speed a/t has a new electronically controlled torque converter lock-up rationale that monitors the position of the gas pedal and current driving conditions to select the appropriate gear. During road testing (using the a/t's manual mode) on the winding tarmac of Tagaytay, this writer felt that the 2.5si's a/t ratios were evenly spaced (save for third gear) and that downshifting only occurred at three-fourths or full throttle, making passing opportunities easy.

As with its 2.0d brethren, the X3 2.5si's has little body roll, moderately heavy yet precise (another nod to the BMW 3-Series) steering and great tarmac handling. Overall the suspension was composed, but the rear suspension felt rather harsh, especially over broken tarmac. Off-road the suspension dampens just enough not to disturb occupants, but the road traveled by this writer and Ilagan was a hard earth, dust and pebbly road, not soft earth.

Some might criticize BMW for letting the X3 languish too long before implementing all the enhancements. If the original X3 were as good as this one, it might have avoided the early dissatisfaction and enjoyed even more success.