The 2006 BMW X3 is available only with the 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine.
The X3's drivetrain is equipped with BMW's xDrive all-wheel-drive system, Dynamic Stability Control and Hill Descent Control, all designed to give it tenacious grip and secure control in less than favorable conditions.
The X3 is quick and fast, considering its heft. The xDrive puts it at the head of the class when weather or road goes north. It's roomy, both for passengers and cargo. And just as important, it's replete with safety features, both active and passive.
BMW X3 3.0i ($36,800)
The 2006 BMW X3 gets a few new exterior touches. Most noticeable are the body-color front and rear bumpers. There's the traditional twin-kidney grille, of course, its chrome vertical slats complemented by a chrome strip along the base of the side windows.
From the front, the stance looks much the same as the X5, with fenders tautly blistered over wide and widely spaced tires, giving the X3 a BMW-like, road-grabbing face. This is no real surprise, as the X3 is but 0.7 inches narrower than the X5; its track is within 1.5 inches of the X5's track, which is the distance between the left and right wheels.
The X3 looks like the X5 in side view as well, though the cut line from the front wheel wells to the front doors was eliminated for a cleaner look. A mild character crease bridges the space between the fender blisters, and a relatively low beltline adds openness to the side windows. The trademark dogleg in the rear quarter window has been stretched a bit, however.
Physical measurements support the visual similarities. The X3's 110-inch wheelbase is less than 1 inch shy of the X5's. (The wheelbase is the distance between front and rear wheels. Overall length comes up short of the X5's 183.7 inches by only 4 inches. The X5 is just 1.5 inches taller than the X3.
From the rear, the only marked difference between the two is the single, double-tipped exhaust exiting on the left side where the X5 sports dual exhausts exiting at the corners.
The display for the optional navigation system is one of the most thoughtfully positioned of the lot, rotating up out of the top center of the dash, gray instead of black, so it's visible to driver and navigator but nestled unobtrusively halfway down in the recess where it stows when not in use.
Passengers will climb in over aluminum doorsill trim with the BMW logo and will find refined interior trim and materials. We like the Maple Sycamore dark wood trim.
The front seats are supportive and comfortably bolstered. The standard seats are more comfortable than the Sport seats and quite adequately restrain the occupants' posteriors when the road turns winding. Seatbelts feel right, properly tensioned. Ranges of seat adjustment are extensive, to the point a six-footer can enjoy major amounts of headroom and actually put the steering wheel and forward footwell well out of reach; at these extremes, however, rear-seat legroom is seriously diminished.
In terms of roominess, the X3's interior compares favorably with its most likely direct competition, the Lexus RX 330 and Infiniti FX35, giving up an inch or so here and gaining the same there. In many measures it bests the more expensive X5. There's almost an inch more legroom in front and about half an inch more in the rear, for instance. Front-seat headroom is about a half inch less than in the X5, but rear-seat headroom is nearly an inch greater. On the downside, the X3's rear seat is quite firm and virtually flat, like a church pew, where the X5 and the others offer more form fit and comfort. The X3's rear center head restraint is fixed, offering no vertical adjustment.
Cargo area, at 71 cubic feet, is impressive, exceeding the X5's by 2 cubic feet with the rear seats folded, and slotting in between the RX 330's 84.7 cubic feet and the FX35's 64.5. Caesar the 170-pound mastiff was happy here, with the second row of seats flipped down.
Storage areas are numerous and flexible, many fitted with netting that stretches to accommodate odd shapes and medium-sized water bottles. Rear-door map pockets forfeit several square inches to the Europeans' unabated addiction to ash trays, however.
So much for the tape measure. Where the X3 disappoints is in the intangible and tactile, how the interior looks and feels. Textures and materials have been improved, but there's still no mistaking the X3 for one of BMW's luxury sedans. There are two front cup holders, but the one mounted on the center console is sized more for soda pop cans than coffee cups or water bottles and looks like an afterthought, something cobbled together and glued in place forward of the armrest/storage bin. The passenger cup holder pops out of the end of the dash by the door, where it gets bumped by knees when the passenger is climbing in or out of the car. Door closings are followed by a hint of a hollow echo, instead of the solid thunk we expect of BMWs.
The X3 readily swallows mile after mile of high-speed highway. It feels confident in the wet, and really shines on dusty, gravel-strewn back roads and slushy boulevards. With the X3, a driver can accomplish feats that normally require the talents and reflexes of an accomplished rally driver, a benefit of the xDrive all-wheel-drive system working with BMW's multifaceted Dynamic Stability Control. Unerringly, just about the time the driver senses the X3 begin to slide and intuitively readies a saving countersteer, the xDrive calmly tucks the rear end back in line. It's a superb system.
The five-speed automatic is smooth and precise in normal, everyday driving. Just put in Drive and go. When pushing it in the slippery stuff, the automatic frees the driver to focus on braking, accelerating and steering. This can be a lot of fun. When so inclined, the driver can use the Steptronic feature to hold the transmission in a specific gear, manually shifting up or down as the incline or traction dictates or invites.
The six-speed manual transmission, on the other hand, is everything people who know and like BMWs have come to expect and appreciate. Shifts are smooth and precise, clutch engagement predictable and gears properly spaced to keep the engine in the sweet spot of its power band, although it is geared a bit high for relaxed long distance cruising. In short, we prefer the automatic.
Acceleration is silky and linear, thanks in part to an advanced intake design that leaves the manifold free of buffeting butterfly valves. The 3.0i records 0-60 mph times of 7.6 seconds for the manual and 7.9 seconds for the automatic. While not blistering performance figures, considering the X3's weight, neither are they shameful.
The optional Servotronic steering is flat-out wonderful. It's speed-sensitive, adding more assist at low speeds, and invisibly altering the steering ratio, so the car turns more with less steering input. Parallel-parking is a breeze, as are quick, mid-block U-turns. As speed increases, assistance diminishes and the ratio slows, making for good on-center feel and sure lane changes. Perhaps most telling about the Servotronic steering is its transparency; unless a driver moves directly from the X3 to another vehicle without the feature and suddenly has to crank in more steering at slow speeds, it'll likely not be noticed at all.
Braking is smooth and sure, with solid pedal feel allowing linear, smooth, gradual stops when desired, unlike many over-assisted systems increasingly popular on high-end cars and SUVs.
This BMW doesn't offer the quietude of a Lexus, however. The exhaust note that initially sounds pleasingly sporty can become an irritating drone after awhile at constant speeds. Wind noise reaches levels surprising for a BMW, and this is without any crosswise racks on the standard roof rails. Enough tire rumble penetrates the cabin to suggest the desirability of some additional sound-deadening materials.
Safety features are impressive and add to driver confidence and enjoyment. The xDrive system uses an electronically controlled array of clutches to disperse the engine's torque among the four wheels the instant it's needed, even to the point of sending 100 percent of the traction to any single wheel. Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) works to rein in the car when it's over-extended in cornering or emergency maneuvers; electronic throttle control reduces engine power when necessary to regain traction. The antilock brake system (ABS), allows the driver to maintain steering control in a panic braking situation. Electronic brake-force distribution (EBD)
The BMW X3 is hard to beat for people who want BMW's heritage look, powertrain and packaging, but desire the flexibility a sport-utility vehicle offers, or vice versa. The xDrive, Dynamic Stability Control and Hill Descent Control combine to offer excellent handling, grip, traction, stability on gravel roads, muddy two-tracks and snow-covered backroads. Overall fit is to the marque's standards, but the interior finish is disappointing. Leaving the options boxes unchecked yields an affordable and capable SUV that requires no apology, and judicious checking lets even a cost-conscious shopper have the desired luxuries.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard is based in Northern California. Greg Brown contributed to this report.