Iñigo S. Roces / Iñigo S. Roces | May 18, 2009 00:00
Enviable performance, curious classficationIt's an uphill battle for aspiring SUV owners. Say you own one these days and the reception isn't always positive. SUVs have a pretty poor reputation when it comes to safety, economy and practicality and big brutes like the American SUV's only aggravate the image.
But don't start looking at that station wagon brochure just yet. SUVs aren't about to die yet. In fact, they're only going to get better. The current crop of SUVs are making some positive changes. Perhaps one of the most radical would have to be the BMW X3.
Yes, the X3, and not its more popular brother the X5. It's not simply a smaller X5, but a vehicle radically different from the common SUV mold.
Being the sporty brand that BMW is, you can bet the X3 isn't something slow and soggy. Neither is it so massive it would need a V8 to pull it along. It would have to have the luxury expected of a German marquee, yet still retain the practicality associated with the 3-er.
Based on the 3 series sedan, the X3 is takes up just as much real estate as its sedan donor would. The first generation was meant to be a sporty one, with the agility of a sports car but the ground clearance of an off-roader.
Now some years older, the X3 has been revised a great deal from its first iteration. Gone are the large black ‘tough' look plastic bumpers, replaced with smaller portions and more painted areas. Little chins in the corners are a new sight. A slight change in the headlights and taillights make a big difference to make the formerly odd looking X3 a little bit more appealing.
Inside is a very dry corporate looking interior awash with black and titanium matte everywhere, hardly an exciting start to what's supposed to be a game-changing SUV. Yet, it still employs a dash that you'd expect to see in a sedan more than an SUV — more emphasis on form than the generally tough and boxy theme that one usually expects.
Air con, stereo and climate control stack up neatly, leading to the stick shift with Steptronic and eventually the premium leather seats. Add to that 8 way power adjustment and a three memory setting and getting comfortable is as easy as holding a button. The steering itself is fairly simple with just a round mound for the horn and steering mounted control on one side and cruise controls on the other. The luxury and subtlety still don't make it feel like an SUV at all.
Then at the very center of the dash sits BMW's best accessory yet, satellite navigation (fitted as standard on all X3's). The quaint little device is a navigation, multimedia and MP3 device all rolled into one. Best of all, you can take it out of the car. And for anyone that thinks this all sounds so complicated, the BMW Nav is thankfully very easy to use. Simply touch the screen, press through the menus and you'll be fiddling with it for hours. Left on its own, the Nav simply shows a road map of your location, marked by a little SUV. How immediate it is can be adjusted by the + and - buttons. It can simply show you where you are or guide you to a particular address, shopping mall or any point of interest. There's also an audio function but as it's routed through the car's stereo, there will be no music while in use. Of course, the Philippines isn't the easiest country to map and while practically every road has been mapped, the U-turns and one ways may not reflect in the map, nor will the directions you get be 100% correct. There's still some amount of error, but some common sense in conjunction with it will likely steer you in the right way.
Back to the car, the BMW still continues to surprise. The 2.5 liter paired with a 6-speed auto provides a lot of grunt for an engine this size. The "SI" letters mean this car's power plant is part of the new line of magnesium-alloy-blocked 24-valve DOHC N52 series inline sixes. This line of engines produces higher output, better performance, refinement, weight saving and economy than previous engines with the same displacement. And it certainly feels like it. It's a flexible engine that can be as exciting and audacious or as smooth and economical as you want it to be thanks to intelligent throttle control and a six-speed auto. It accelerates the X3 easily, although the gear shifts could use some smoothening out.
The real treat to this car is the handling. After all, its donor 3 series chassis is possibly one of the best in its class. It doesn't disappoint. It may be high off the ground, but it turns like a sports car. The steady, heavy-weighted steering returns nothing but confidence to the driver, with loads of grip and a balance that seems nearly impossible to unsettle, even over a bit of gravel. It's one of those rare few cars that feels in control, all of the time.
Of course when driven leisurely, the X3 can also be quite sublime. Much of the harsh ride that the previous model was known for has been subdued. The softer ride, paired with great insulation and relaxing tunes from the sound system can truly drown out the world.
To say the BMW X3 is an SUV, probably may not be the most accurate description as its size, practicality and economy are certainly far removed from the stereotype. It's just as agile if not better than any sedan and while economy may only be at par with one, the SUV body and high clearance certainly make up for it in practicality. The price will easily be a sticking point, but the new Navigation system as standard adds a lot of value to an already impressive car. It's just, quite unfortunately, in a very peculiar niche. Yet if you fancy yourself as a sophisticated chap with a love of the outdoors, but harbor an honest preference for paved roads yet still yearn for an SUV that doesn't look like one but… oh you get the point.