Destined to be hugely popular, because it wears the blue and white propeller, but less than convincing in petrol form. We’d wait for next summer’s 3.0 diesel

What is Munich playing at? The X3 is to the 3-series what the X5 is to the 5-series. Yet its wheelbase is just 25mm longer (yes, just one inch), overall length is but an additional 102mm, width varies by only 10mm and height by 46mm. The X3’s 480-litre boot is 15 litres bigger and, in most important dimensions, interior roominess is virtually identical.

Their 3.0-litre engines both develop the same 228bhp, while the money difference between the £32,015 X3 and its marginally higher- priced challenger is a mere £1130, or 3.5 per cent. In other words, the two could hardly be closer. And because it’s 235kg lighter, the X3 is quicker – 7.8sec to 62mph versus 8.5sec – and uses nine per cent less fuel.

Of course, we’re dealing here with the top X3 model (versus the bottom X5 model), for that is BMW’s (lucrative) way of launching new cars. Already, BMW GB has announced a £28,615 2.5-litre X3 and confirmed the summer ’04 arrival of the 3.0-litre turbodiesel, that’s expected to be priced almost identically to the 3.0-litre petrol. More affordable, four-cylinder petrol and diesel engines are in the pipeline, to further distance X3 from X5, but there are no plans for an X3 V8. Still, that bizarre size similarity remains. What we can be sure of is that the next-generation X5, due in 2006, is certain to be pumped up in all major dimensions.

Drive them and you’ll feel the difference, the engineers claim. So we did and, yes, the X5 is more macho, while the X3, aimed at a younger buyer, is lighter on its feet, the driving position not quite as commanding as the taller, older model. However, they are really not that different.

‘We have two offerings [in the same class],’ admits one senior Munich marketing man. ‘You can have two varieties of apples,’ he says, explaining that there is a size below which Americans won’t take any SUV seriously. That size, apparently, is defined by the X3.

BMW says the X3 is built on a new platform. True, but only up to a point. In fact, the front suspension is derived from the X5, the rear from the 3-series four-wheel- drive.

The X3 does, however, adopt BMW’s new design language. No, the X3’s not quite as radical as other recent BMW designs, but it is going to split opinion just the same.

Inside, the X3 adopts plenty of Z4 touches and its generally simple flavour. However, where the sports car’s dashboard (apart from the instruments, of course) is symmetrical, the X3’s centre console, with its pop-up monitor, is back to being slightly biased towards the driver in the more usual BMW fashion. Small instruments, offset pedals, an excessively wide console and some pretty ordinary plastic bits don’t create a positive first impression. Sadly, the interior just doesn’t establish the quality image we’ve come to expect from Munich.

You sit higher than in an estate, lower than in most off-roaders, and visibility is excellent. Light controls mean the X3 is easy to drive and BMW’s brilliant 228bhp in-line six is all but inaudible, so it already feels refined. I’m quickly aware, however, that the extra weight and high overall gearing (for constant speed economy, says BMW) blunts the X3’s performance. Wring the engine out and the acceleration is swift, but in reality it needs frequent gear changes, with fourth becoming the universal ratio, leaving sixth largely for motorways. Peak torque of 221lb ft arrives at 3500rpm and, though the engine is tractable and beautifully smooth to the 6500rpm red line, the rev counter needle spends plenty of time on the high side of 3000rpm. Our test car also produced an unusual drone on light throttle openings on the motorway.

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The optional sports suspension fitted to the test car is a mixed blessing. Body control is excellent and not just for an off-roader. The chassis conceals the high centre of gravity and, once the driver understands that the steering is relatively low geared and demands large wheel movements – by car, not off-roader, standards – the X3 can be hustled. The sports suspension’s failing is poor ride quality, at least on the Spanish roads we drove it on during the launch. Standard suspension is better, more absorbent and still firm enough for the X3 to be driven quickly. The engineers hint at the sports suspension being a sop to the marketing department.

The X3 (and soon-to-be-facelifted X5) introduce a new and more elegant all-wheel-drive system, developed with Magna-Steyr, that employs a multi-plate clutch to control the flow of power to the front axles. The clutch is located between the end of the gearbox and the driveshaft to the front wheels. It doesn’t just wait for one of the wheels to spin before applying the brakes to shift the power, but uses the DSC sensors to recognise the need for all-wheel drive before any wheel loses traction. In start-up mode, up to 12mph, the clutch locks to ensure maximum traction, then the system distributes power as required until, at speeds above 112mph, it only drives the rear wheels. Impressive and certain to be copied.

Even so, by its very character BMW acknowledges that the X3 is not a serious off-roader, its dynamics being heavily biased towards on-road behaviour. That, BMW perfectly understands, is what the majority of customers want. They will, no doubt, love the X3. The intriguing question is going to be, how many will come down to a decision between X3 and X5?

Peter Robinson

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