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2009 BMW X3 xDrive 3.0i
Overpriced and under-performing
By Ken Glassman, Jun. 18, 2009

BMW makes some excellent vehicles. Unfortunately, the X3 isn’t one of them. After spending a week with this vehicle, I found little to like about it, and much to dislike. My negative opinion about the X3 was magnified even more after I spent only about an hour in the comparatively-priced Infinity EX35, that I drove immediately afterwards.

FAST FACTS

1. The BMW X3 starts at $39,700.

2. Just one engine is offered, a 260hp 3.0L straight-six.

3. Once a pioneer in its segment, X3 was first launched in 2003 and a badly-needed replacement is due out soon.

First, let me clarify something. The X3 isn’t a bad car. Nobody makes a bad car anymore. (I take that back, I drove a Smart fortwo, and that’s a bad car). The X3 is still a BMW, which means the fit and finish are good, it runs well, it handles capably and it feels solid. It’s just overpriced, and it under-delivers in so many areas. And on top of that, it just has so many annoyances that put me off.

The X3 is billed by BMW as an SAV, or Sport Activity Vehicle. That’s BMW’s not so clever way of trying to make it seem different from the rest of the competition of small SUVs, or Sport Utility Vehicles. Tomayto, tomahto – potayto, potahto, it’s all the same thing. In fact, it’s more of a utility vehicle than some of the competition because its taller roofline offers more cargo space.

SUFFICIENT POWER BUT SLOW-TO-ACT TRANSMISSION

The X3 is powered by BMW’s 3.0-liter in-line six-cylinder motor that is tuned to put out 260hp and 225 ft-lbs of torque. That’s enough to power the 4,067-pound car away from stoplights with enough oomph to satisfy most drivers, and the engine is smooth and quiet. The mileage is rated at a respectable 17 city and 24 highway, and both numbers were fairly accurate in my weeklong experience. It wasn’t until I drove the Infinity EX35, with its standard 3.5-liter, 303hp engine that the X3’s power felt inadequate.

The engine is mated to a 6-speed automatic with Steptronic shifting. The transmission works fine in the automatic mode, but I found the shifts in the manual mode to be slow, especially from 1st to 2nd to 3rd. And when you came to a stop, the Steptronic downshifted into 2nd gear rather than first. I don’t know what the reasoning is behind that, but it annoyed me. I found no complaints, however, with the four-wheel anti-lock disc braking system, or the speed sensitive steering.

OVERLY FIRM RIDE, WITH LOTS OF BODY ROLL

BMW’s usually have a firm to stiff suspension set up. I’m usually good with that, and prefer a firm ride to a spongy one, but it just doesn’t work in the X3. The ride quality on smooth highway roads was acceptable, but on ordinary city and suburban streets, every bump, and undulation caused to car to pogo up and down for several seconds after riding over the dip. The buckboard ride got old after a short time. It wasn’t as nervous and bouncy as a trail-rated Jeep Rubicon, but it was definitely more truck-like than car-like.

That being said, you’d expect the compensation for the harsh ride would mean flat cornering, but the X3 had about the same amount of body roll as other SUVs, like the Hyundai Santa Fe, and much more than the Infinity EX35.

The X3 has a full time all-wheel drive system as standard, and all the electronic goodies like Dynamic Stability Control, which includes Brake Drying, Brake Stand-by, Start-off Assist, and Brake Fade Compensation, and Engine Speed Sensitive Steering. Those are all features that provide the driver with peace of mind for when the weather or road conditions get dicey, or for off-road use.

There is also a button to engage the Hill Descent Control should you find yourself out on terrain making an SUV commercial for TV. But the reality is that 90 percent of all X3s won’t see anything more off-road than the grass next to the kid’s soccer field, so giving up comfort for everyday on-road use seems silly. Some of the other standard features I do like are the rain-sensing wipers, automatic headlight control, the tire pressure monitor system, and the 4-function on-board computer.

ROUGH AND STIFF LEATHER, PLUS A TERRIBLE GPS SYSTEM

Because BMW bills the X3 as a luxury SAV, I was expecting a lot more from the interior. The test car came with the overpriced Premium Package, which means leather seats with lumbar support, a garage door opener, a digital compass in the mirror, auto dimming mirrors and Bluetooth capability. Good thing they didn’t call it the Value Package, because the $2,800 cost seems pretty steep for what you get. Besides, the leather was stiff and had a pebbled texture which, rather than luxurious, looked like it should have been upholstering a football instead of an automobile seat. I half expected to see Wilson or Spaulding burned into the seatbacks.

The press car also had the $1,800 GPS navigation system. It was by far the worst GPS system I’ve ever encountered in a car. Not only was it difficult to program and use, (despite not having the torturous iDrive system) the screen displays were poor, and the voice commands were lacking. The voice would call out the Interstate, or highway number it had you turn on to, but did not announce the street names once you got off the highway. Just “Turn left at the next street.” It also wasn’t very accurate, announcing that I had arrived at my destination at least a half-mile before I got there. Another time, it had asked me to turn right onto the street I lived on, when I needed to turn left to actually get there. I’d skip the expensive factory option for a better, less expensive aftermarket unit.

And BMW engineers must take pleasure in making it as difficult for the driver to operate their controls as possible. They never miss an opportunity to make you go through five steps when two will do, or use one switch or knob when they can mount a second. It makes the use of the radio, or heating controls more difficult and distracting. Now obviously, if you own the car, you will adjust and learn the quirks of the systems over time. But it still doesn’t mean that it needs to be as difficult as they make it. I’m sure that it causes many owners to just not use some of the features their systems offer, because it’s just too much of a hassle.

Storage in the cabin is also minimal, with a small glovebox and center console. The glove box does have a rechargeable flashlight in it, which is a nice touch. One feature I did like was the huge panoramic moonroof, which runs from the front of the cabin to the behind the second row of seats. The rear portion doesn’t open, but the front opening part is larger than most moonroofs are, and it lets in quite a bit of sunlight making the cabin feel bright and roomy. The wind deflector keeps out the wind effectively, but it is fairly noisy. Roof rails come standard on the X3, but if you want to actually carry something on the roof, you’ll have to pay more for the cross members to use it.

CRAMPED SECOND-ROW QUARTERS, BUT PLENTY OF CARGO SPACE

Seating space in the cabin is adequate but only for four people. The rear center seat gives about as much shoulder and hip room as the middle seat on an airplane… and even less legroom. If you’re going to make it work at all you’ll have to straddle the driveshaft tunnel and the rear AC vents. It’s also a bit of a chore getting into those rear seats, as the rear wheel wells intrude into the door area, so you’ve got to be limber to navigate ingress and egress from back there.

Those rear seatbacks split 60/40, and fold down to enlarge the already spacious cargo area to an impressive 71 cubic feet. But the Infinity EX35 has convenient switches in its cargo area that power their rear seatbacks up and down, which is a great feature that the Bimmer should have.

Like all BMWs, the X3 starts out at a reasonable sounding price, but the options quickly boost the MSRP. My test car started at $39,700, but ballooned to a bottom line of $48,600. Those options, either priced individually or in a package, seem quite expensive and many of them are packaged in such a way that you’ll need to order extra packages just to get the features you really want.

THE VERDICT

The BMW X3 is overpriced, less luxurious, and in so many ways, less enjoyable to drive and live with than most of the competition. The Infinity EX35 has better performance, equal or better handling characteristics, a more comfortable and luxuriously appointed interior, an excellent GPS system, more user friendly controls, and some luxury amenities not found on the BMW. I’d check out the competition in this competitive segment before you make up your mind.

PLUS
  • Large cargo area
  • Large Panoramic Moonroof
  • All-wheel drive
MINUS
  • Poor ride quality
  • Complicated controls
  • Questionable value

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