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Drive Life : November 12th 2010
1HERSA1 F025 SPECIAL REPORT FOUR-WHEEL-DRIVES The big idea BMW has taken a new broom to its X3 range, writes Chris Harris. In a country where pick-up trucks, food servings and soft drinks are notoriously oversize, it seems appropriate that BMW's American-built X3 mid-size soft- roader has been upsized to almost the same dimensions of the original X5, the company's first full-size sports utility vehicle SUV. But the bigger, beefier, second- generation X3 is still dwarfed by the US's Detroit-built workhorses, particularly on the 12-lane interstate highways around Georgia and South Carolina, as Drive experienced recently at the international launch. Despite its growth, the new model is 20 kilograms lighter and more powerful and efficient than its predecessor. Efficiencies are achieved by using more lightweight materials and the introduction of fuel-saving technologies, including an eight- speed automatic transmission in conjunction with an auto engine stop/start as standard. The latter two make their debut as a pair. Whereas the original X3 was widely criticised as having the least BMW-like driving characteristics and questionable interior build quality, the new model addresses these concerns. BMW says the combination of a broader footprint, rear-biased four-wheel- drive system, a choice of improved suspension arrangements, balanced chassis and electric power steering (an X-model debut) amount to a more involving drive. Based on our first impression, we're inclined to agree. Admittedly, though, much of our test loop involved billiard table-smooth roads and lethargic highways -- not a fair representation of Australia's lumpy and harsh gravel surfaces. Once we found anything resembling an Australian-style surface, our test cars coped well through a rough patch of roadwork despite running on 18-inch alloys and lower-profile, run-flat tyres. The chief assessor of driving dynamics for BMW Group, Heinz Krusche, says the company has been working closely with its five run-flat tyre suppliers to reduce the side-wall stiffness for improved comfort. As a result, deflated travel distance has been reduced from 150 kilometres to 80 kilometres, which, BMW stresses, are conservative recommendations. Only one engine variant available on test is relevant to Australian buyers, the diesel- powered 20d, which wasn't fitted with an auto -- the only gearbox bound for local showrooms. The X3 will debut initially with a familiar 2.0-litre turbo diesel as the sole engine variant when it arrives here about March. BMW Australia says there will be ''no substantial price increase'', meaning the 20d should remain within striking distance of the previous model's $62,200 price tag. Other engine variants expected in the not-too-distant future include a 28i powered by a 190kW/ 310Nm, 2.8-litre petrol six from the 528i saloon and a range-topping 30d featuring a 3.0-litre, turbo diesel six-cylinder, which, in its current guise across various models, delivers 180kW of power and 520Nm of torque. Both will also receive the eight-speed auto. The spotlight for now, however, remains on the volume-selling 20d, with four out of five Australian X3 buyers opting for the previous entry-level diesel model. Tuned for modest gains, the 20d's engine delivers 135kW of power from 4000rpm (up 5kW) and 380Nm of maximum torque between 1750rpm and 2750rpm (up 30Nm). Economy, meanwhile, improves by a claimed 14 per cent to 5.6 litres per 100 kilometres (from 6.5L/100km) and carbon dioxide emissions by 15 per cent from 172g/km to 147g/km. We averaged 7.4L/100km to 7.8L/100km of fuel use during our test, which also involved a light- duty off-road course. While most X3s are expected to see only sealed bitumen, at least owners will be pleased that their soft-roader can comfortably traverse a dirt road or moderately steep descent. This is made easy by the standard hill descent control function, which maintains a pre- determined speed. Inside, the new model's 83-millimetre-longer and 28-millimetre-wider body directly benefits both rear-seat passenger legroom (which easily caters for 180-centimetre-tall occupants) and added boot space of 550 litres extending to 1600 litres with the 40/20/40 split-fold rear seat flat. Up front, the X3 mimics the driver's cockpit of late models with tactile and rubberised steering wheel-mounted buttons, quality, soft-touch materials, the now- intuitive iteration of the iDrive multi-function controller and a handy electric park brake. Where the original X3 looks narrow, slabby and has little road presence, the latest version gains a much-needed dose of steroids, borrowing styling cues from the larger and muscular X5. Exterior highlights include angular headlights with trademark dual round LED daytime running lights (when fitted with xenon headlights), a broad kidney grille, T-shaped tail-lights and strong concave and convex body surfaces that copy some of its bigger brother's athleticism. Though it could still benefit from even more road presence, the new X3 is a welcome leap forward from its woeful predecessor.
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