The end of the line is nigh for the current BMW X3, the car-based soft-roader that really has been a crossover hit for the Bavarians.
My understanding is that the Magna Steyr plant in Graz, Austria, will stop building the first-generation X3 (the E83 in BMW internal speak) next month. By then, BMW will have sold 600,000 X3s worldwide. A stunning success.
The second-generation 2012 X3 (code-named F25) is set to be built at BMW's plant in Spartanburg, S.C. The production line is, apparently, ramping up as I write this. Look for a January 2011, introduction - and also look for the ZF-built, eight-speed automatic transmission now in the X5. But I am getting ahead of the story here.
The point is, we are in the last months of the first-generation X3. At this point in the lifetime of a vehicle, manufacturers play around with content and pricing to keep demand alive and dealers happy until an all-new model arrives. That explains in a nutshell the X3 xDrive28i ($39,900).
This Bimmer is a present to Canadians and BMW Canada's dealers who for years have been pounding the table for a sub-$40,000 X3. The Americans only get the X3 xDrive30i ($45,900) with all its fancy gear, but we not only have that X3, but also the 28i with its 215-horsepower inline-six-cylinder, "leatherette" interior - with no true leather option - and manual seats.
The $6,000 discount - not including the $1,000 factory-to-dealer incentive in play right now, from X3 "A" to X3 "B" - buys you less performance and the numbers tell the tale: BMW says the 28i does 0-100 km/h in 8.9 seconds, which is about 1.5 seconds off the 260-hp 30i. But here's an oddity: the less powerful 28i manages exactly the same fuel economy as the lustier 30i (12.2 litres/100 km city, 8.3 highway), and both use premium fuel.
With all the engineering wizardry available in Munich, you'd think these people could do better. Perhaps the day dialling in fuel economy was on the agenda, the sun came out and all the best engineers went down to Munich's English Garden. It's a huge park along the river where locals go to sip cold beverages and listen to oom-pah-pah bands.
But I digress. Fuel economy and engine performance aside, this cheapest X3 drives as well as the pricier one. It's a sporty performer, though let's not forget the chassis engineering here was done about a decade ago.
The competition hasn't been sleeping all this time. The steering is quick, but the steering feels quicker in the Infiniti EX35 (297 hp, $41,250). The brakes are strong enough, but the pedal is softer than in the Acura RDX (240 hp, $39,990).
Ride quality, however, is almost perfect for this class. The suspension is firm but not stiff. Moving about in the city or on the highway is a strong point. Credit perhaps might go to the 28i's smaller wheels and slightly less aggressive rubber (P235/55HR17 versus the 30i's P235/50HR18). Perhaps that helps explain the comfy road manners.
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Of course, BMW's xDrive AWD system is standard. It's a solid bit of engineering, too - xDrive moves engine power around to accommodate the driving conditions. The result is a surefooted rig with tight driving responses. Really, the X3 will hold a corner at surprising speeds.
So the dynamics are up to BMW standards, as is the build quality. The paint, the finishing and the way the controls operate are all solid, in a no-nonsense BMW kind of way. Also take note that you can have this X3 in any colour you like, as long as it's black or white. Space Grey Metallic paint will cost you $800.
Options include a $1,100 Executive Package that includes a heated steering wheel and a panoramic moon roof. A Bluetooth wireless setup is another $800 and BMW lists a $400 administrative feel for special colour, interior or equipment orders.
But buyers cannot upgrade to real leather upholstery and power-operated seats aren't available. The air conditioning is purely manual, too. One redeeming feature is the sand beige interior with soft aluminum trim. BMW is notorious for its standard black cockpit, so this flash of colour is hugely welcome.
As is space. The X3 has a fairly roomy back seat and the cargo hold behind it is quite large for the class. The rear seats fold flat, which, of course, means, you can do a Costco run - not that BMW owners admit to such indignities. My big warning: the X3 is pretty narrow, so rear passengers sitting three abreast will feel pinched like sardines in a can.
The point of this X3 is to give buyers who crave the BMW propeller logo an affordable option. At this, this version of the X3 succeeds. But the lack of some basic features sold in Toyota Corollas - power seats, for instance - works against the 28i's appeal. At least the driving is all BMW.
If this X3 demands too many compromises, you always have the option of moving up or waiting until the 2012 model arrives.
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2010 BMW X3 xDrive28i
Type: Compact crossover
Base Price: $39,900; as tested, $40,700 (including freight)
Engine: 3.0-litre, six-cylinder, DOHC
Horsepower/torque: 215 hp/185 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 12.2 city/8.3 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Acura RDX, Lexus RX350, Infiniti EX35, Cadillac SRX, Land Rover LR2, Lincoln MKX, Mercedes-Benz GLK, Volvo XC60