By ROGER HART
America’s seemingly insatiable appetite for sport/utes has car companies staying up late trying to fill that need. Case in point: BMW’s new X3.
What had the Muncheners staying up late was just how were they going to get this new product to customers. The SUV market is a 6-million-unit-per-year worldwide bonanza (with the United States taking upward of 4 million of those), with no slowdown in sight. The SUV market remains the fastest growing segment worldwide, so any delay in getting the vehicle built can really add up in lost sales. BMW pales in comparison in size to its neighboring German competitors, Mercedes-Benz and the Volkswagen group, not to mention many of the world’s other truck builders.
So when it came time for the X3 to go from the drawing board to the production line, BMW didn’t have a plant in which to build the vehicle. Rather than finding a new location, building a plant and hiring and training a workforce—at least a two-year proposition—BMW looked for a company that already had all that in place.
Enter Austrian firm Magna Steyr Fahrzeugtechnik AG, with a long history of not only building vehicle components for a variety of automakers, but assembling vehicles, too. MSF built a new body shop and assembly line in its facility in Graz exclusively to build the X3. A workforce of 2500 is building 300 X3s per day, or 75,000 of the trucks annually. This is the first time BMW has turned over the assembly of one of its vehicles to an outside company. All X3 production will come from this plant. “The only way we could get this vehicle to market this fast was to outsource the assembly to Magna Steyr,” said BMW chairman Helmut Panke.
Of course the big question is will this outsourcing of the assembly of a vehicle result in the same type of quality BMW customers have learned to expect? Other German companies, notably Mercedes-Benz (with McLaren and Karmann) and Volkswagen (with Karmann), have farmed out assembly with no apparent quality repercussions.
“The quality is at the same level as at BMW plants,” Panke said. And while BMW must pay MSF to build the vehicle, the chairman added BMW would still make a profit. “In the end, we’re not suffering. Yes, it’s not the same margins, but this was absolutely the right decision to make in order to get this vehicle to market fast.”
How fast? The CS1 concept vehicle at the Geneva show in 2002 contained design cues that held over to the concept xActivity at the 2003 Detroit show. The X3 production model made its North American debut Nov. 7-16 at the South Florida International Auto Show in Miami and appeared in dealer showrooms for people to view by Thanksgiving. The first customer cars will arrive around the first of the year. That’s less than two years from first inkling to real-world sales. In the car world, that’s blazingly fast.
Much as with the 6 Series (AW, Nov. 24), BMW headed to the parts bin for some X3 components, primarily for the powertrain. For the United States, the X3 will come with either a 2.5- or 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine, both of which we have come to appreciate. The X3 3.0i boasts 225 hp at 5900 rpm and 214 lb-ft of torque at 3500. The X3 2.5i offers 184 hp at 6000 rpm and 181 lb-ft at 3500 rpm. Both come with a six-speed manual transmission. A five-speed Steptronic automatic transmission is optional. The X3 3.0i—the only version we were able to sample on our test drive—will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 7.6 seconds with the manual, 7.9 with the automatic, according to BMW.
Not off-the-shelf is the X3’s all-wheel-drive system called xDrive, a fresh development that allows infinitely adjustable and fully variable distribution of torque front-to-rear. Through wheel-speed sensors, the system immediately recognizes any need for a change in power distribution from the rear wheels to the front wheels, and it responds swiftly, often before the wheels begin to lose their grip. We experienced the system’s quick response on our first drive through rain-slicked mountain roads in southern Spain. Driving a little too hard into a corner, the X3 started to push a bit as the front wheels lost traction. Almost immediately, power to the front wheels was cut back and the tires quickly regained grip and we made the corner. No drama.
The xDrive system works in conjunction with the eighth generation of BMW’s dynamic stability control system. At the heart of the system is an electronically controlled multi-plate wet clutch used to distribute the power fore and aft, with the clutch never really locking up.
“There’s always some slip in the clutch,” says Bert Holland, X3 product manager. “It’s through the advent of the electronics that the system works.” Despite the constant slipping, Holland says the clutch should last the life of the vehicle. The xDrive system is also on the next-generation X5, due out later this year.
Under “normal” conditions, the system is set up to send 60 percent of the power to the rear wheels, 40 percent to the front wheels.
“In the end, we’re still BMW,” Holland says of the rear-power bias. “But how much power is sent where depends on road conditions, gear choice, engine torque and the steering wheel input. Electronics manages all this to send the right amount of power to where it will do the most good.”
The multi-plate clutch acts as a power divider and can, in extreme instances, lock both axles together, or, if need be, completely disconnect the front and rear axles. The flow of power to the two front and two rear wheels is handled through the dynamic stability control using the electronic brake function. If one wheel begins to spin, brake force is applied to that wheel while the differential feeds more power to the other wheel. Where the power needs to go is determined based on information from sensors for wheel speed, yaw rate, throttle position and steering wheel angle. We had the chance to drive the X3 3.0i on an off-road course that was, ironically, partially closed due to heavy rains on the Costa del Sol. “Terrible conditions,” said one course worker. But several sections were open, including a couple of steep descents and rocky ascents, and we found the xDrive worked quite well in the slippery conditions. We purposely tried to slide the X3 sideways around a gravelly corner and found, through the magic of all the electronics, the vehicle tracking exactly where you pointed the wheels. While the X3 may not be considered any sort of serious off-roader, with nearly eight inches of ground clearance and the ability to ford almost 20 inches of water, its capabilities will far exceed most customers’ needs.
Standard tires are 235/55R-17 H-rated Dunlop all-seasons mounted on cast alloy wheels. A Sport package will be offered with 18-inch wheels and tires. A standard tire-pressure monitor is included. The Sports package also upgrades the suspension, keeping the same ride height, but offering firmer springs, dampers and antiroll bars.
Inside, the X3 offers a relatively high seating position with ample leg- and headroom even for those over six-foot tall. Back seat legroom is a bit tight for the above-mentioned tall people, but only the very tall will complain. Luggage space is actually greater than in the X5. The 60:40 rear seat folds flat, opening up an expansive cargo area. The floor is outfitted with fastening rails with four lashing points to secure cargo, and BMW has an optional bike rack that accommodates two bikes inside. The cargo area is accessed via a single-piece tailgate hinged at the top.
The interior is standard BMW, with brushed aluminum highlights accenting the door handles and center console. If the navigation system is ordered up, a fold-down screen tops the center stack. In an effort to keep costs down, BMW chose not to include iDrive, its at-times confusing electronics system control found in the 7, 6 and 5 Series.
There is a long list of optional equipment, including bi-xenon headlights, infrared reflecting windshield, park distance control, a panoramic sunroof and rain-sensing headlights, among others.
We found the X3 to have very good on-road manners and the vehicle seemed quite capable off-road. Even though it is billed as a compact SUV, from the driver’s seat, with its high H-point and good view of the road, we didn’t feel like we were driving a small vehicle. BMW’s 3.0i six was more than up to the task of hauling the 4023-pound vehicle. The X3 will carry more than a 1000-pound payload and can tow up to 3748 pounds. And if we hadn’t been told the assembly of the vehicle had been outsourced, we never would have known. The X3 drove, looked, felt and smelled like a BMW.
BMW priced the base model X3 2.5i at $30,995, which is more than a base 325xi ($30,245) but less than the 325xi sports wagon ($32,845), and substantially less than the base X5 3.0i ($40,995). That should ensure those workers in Graz will be in for a bunch of overtime.
2004 BMW X3 3.0i
# ON SALE: Now
# BASE PRICE: $36,995
# POWERTRAIN: 3.0-liter, 225-hp, 214-lb-ft I6; awd, six-speed manual
# CURB WEIGHT: 4023 pounds
# 0-60 MPH: 7.6 seconds (mfr.)