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BMW X3 2 5 Si - X Envy


Do you know why Mount Everest is the tallest peak in the world? Because there are peaks that are shorter than Everest. For the same obvious reason, I am considered to be on the ‘heavy side’ because there are a lot of people around me who are on the ‘lighter side’. In short, one cannot exist without the other. Life, dear reader, is all about comparisons; while it is nice to be the tallest peak in the world, it is not so nice to be considered on the ‘heavy side’. Trust me.

The poor BMW X3. From the day it was conceived, it was considered an inferior being to the X5 which, let me add, is on the ‘heavy side’ as far as SUVs go. But the world never had any problems with the big X5 – actually, they loved it, lapped it up in large numbers and gave it an iconic status too. BMW, meanwhile, decided that the X3 was not worthy of being built alongside sporty Beemers in Germany and not even with the lumpy X5 in America – instead they chose the Steyr factory in Graz, Austria, to build it. That was almost five years back. Today, the X3 has proven its cred and is considered a worthy alternative to scores of soft-roaders that populate roads the world over. And let me tell you, in the world of brawny 4x4s, soft-roader is a word that has very dismissive undercurrents.  

Picture a Honda CR-V, bring in a bit more solidity to its build, add some nice textures and surfaces, and lastly, plonk inside a BMW powerplant which has sinned in its last life so badly that it cannot power a sports-car, and you get the X3. And that, of course, is a big compliment to the CR-V, which in its new iteration has been selling so well that it got to be subsidising the Japanese firm’s lacklustre F1 efforts this year. If you are buying a CR-V in the UK, you end up spending just about 4,000 pounds over the price of a similar spec X3 – alas, despite both being imports, in India you need to pay almost double the money. While Honda cannot import enough CR-Vs, which retail for a not-so-low Rs 22 lakh, paying Rs 42 lakh for an X3 (ex-showroom, Mumbai) seems a bit odd. That kind of money can buy you genuine 4x4 hardware like a Toyota Land Cruiser or a Mitsubishi Montero. But then, they are not BMWs. The X3 was conceived to play second fiddle all right, but it was well thought-out the way Munich handles their cars. They ensured that it is smaller every which way you look at it, but also made sure it went around corners well and could handle powerful petrol and diesel engines. But where they got a bit carried away was on the design front.   Front on, it looks as if the designers had parked an X5 as they built a scaled-down clay version before sending it to production. The profile was, in all probability, outsourced to a bunch of Korean workers who were suspended for creating a series of automotive oddballs under the Ssangyong banner. The rear end seems finished by a bunch of confused interns who were finally coming to terms with not wearing torn jeans to work. And if I ever get to meet the guy who signed off those headlamps, I will slap him gently before shaking his hand. Aargh. But then BMW design was going through tremendous change when the X3 was a piece of sketch. There were pro-Chris Bangle board members and there were those who wanted to send him to Mercedes-Benz so that he ruined their cars as well. The world was just about coming to terms with the vision of a design supremo whose work is now being considered fundamental and hence copied without shame. There was no way Bangle would have passed those headlamps, nor the Korean kink on the C-pillar. He would never have hired designers in torn jeans. And if he did, I don’t want to believe it.

I feel better, having vented all that anger, yet the problem is almost everyone around me – from the neighbour who thought it was an Audi to knowledgeable colleagues – they all love it. Maybe they are all very twisted people or they have not seen the sheer beauty of BMW sedans. To me, the car looks a tad too long and not wide enough, and hence lacking the divine proportions that grace cars from Munich. In case you are wondering, I like the X5 a lot – despite the girth – because it is still a balanced design.Inside, the conscious effort to set it apart (read less special) from the X5 continues – but it is still a very pleasant place to be in. Our test car came with a baseball-glove coloured leather and it blended well with black plastic and quality wood-like inserts. The effect could have been even better with anodised aluminium panels instead of wood. The front seats are a work of art and overall ergonomics is typically test-bookish BMW. You don’t get an iDrive option, but you do get an extra-long sun-roof as an option – brilliant on a rainy day and not so in Mumbai heat. A superb sound system and an annoying (in India) yet useful parking sensor vie for your attention, with the audio system winning almost every time. Airconditioning is splendid for a car of its class and BMW’s export division has understood the Indian summer pretty well. 

Now let us get on with the operative part – driving in city environs where it is meant to be king. Fortunately or unfortunately, I was lucky to live with the new X5 for over a good period of time only last month and I found it too hot to handle. As in, I found it so comfortable to drive that I was doing enough commuting at illegal speeds to be sharing a room with Abu Salem instead of writing this piece. Otherwise, you never felt the size of the X5 in traffic – it had grace, poise and then enough performance to chew sports-cars to bits. And it was a diesel. So you would think that the X3 failed to impress me, right? Wrong. Very wrong. 

With a 2497cc classic inline-six that spits out 215 bhp at 6500 rpm, there was not a dull moment with the X3. And its narrower footprint helped matters. It can beat scuttle fish and stray dogs in the point-and-squirt department and you somehow end up doing speeds on the wrong side of 100 kph. Always. It can make distant specks of fellow traffic as you floor the pedal in sport mode, as the speedo is hoisted to 100 kph in 10.62 seconds flat. Given the road, the X3 will keep pace with a 3 Series sedan almost all the way to 210 kph – its top speed. Like in the 3 Series, the X3 is packed to the gills with electronic aids such as Dynamic Stability Control, Dynamic Traction Control, Dynamic Brake Control and Dynamic Stupid Driver Control. Okay, sorry about the last one. All that trickery ensures that you keep it the right side up unless you are trying your best to enter the Limca Book of Records for executing the maximum number of rolls by an Indian in a BMW or something equally wild. 

What is very unlike the 3 Series and perfectly loveable, is the steering. This is where BMW enters CR-V territory and teaches the Japanese a chapter in tractable yet easy-to-steer mechanical brilliance. Sure, you may feel it is overservoed if you are used to new age BMW sedans and secretly wish that it tightened as the speeds increase, still. That makes it easy to park and those who have tried a three-point parking manoeuvre with a 3 Series will appreciate it a great deal.On the twisties, the X3 is not as sharp a driving instrument as the sedans are and nor can it match the X5. But understand the dynamic limitations and the X3 becomes a good partner in making rapid progress to your favourite hill station. That said, the existence of the X3 makes you appreciate the engineering that goes into the X5. Sad.   The biggest off-roading stunt that I managed with the X3 was to go over a kerb so that I could park it perfectly outside a mall – now I didn’t need to use the automatic differential brake and the Hill Descent Control to do that. Nor will you need them – as long as you boast about the existence of these bits to those who drive normal cars, since they are bound to think that you go white water rafting after parking the car in the middle of the river every weekend. It is your 42-odd lakh after all! 

All said, the BMW X3 is a very effective car in the urban jungle. People recognise it to be a BMW, there is no match for it in the Mercedes stable, it is narrow enough to pilot through congested streets and it is as safe as most modern cars. And then it has a bomb of an engine, at least in petrol guise, that can separate the men from the boys. If you like the idea of SUVs and if you think the X5 is far too expensive a concept for you to be persuaded, the X3 is tailor-made for you. 

It is entirely up to you to decide whether you should go for two CR-Vs in different colours or spend the money on a Land Cruiser which can be all the vehicle one would ever need. I am going to throw my weight around the BMW Press Office to see whether they can stretch the X3’s time with me for another week – after all, its looks are growing on me.