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BMW is riding high on the crest of a wave at the moment, with 2003 set to be its biggest ever year for sales.

The MINI is doing phenomenally well with all the various models selling by the bucketload, from the frugal new diesel to the mad Cooper S Works.


The wide range of 3-series models continues to sell in massive numbers, especially into the corporate market where company car drivers are enjoying extended choice lists which include more premium badge cars.

And recently the all-new 5-series went on sale, designed by the same man responsible for the controversial 7-series.

The fact BMW is heading for an all-time sales record this year is significant because sales of premium badge vehicles are on the up generally.

BMW's top man, Dr Helmut Panke, chairman of the board of management at BMW AG, is predicting that the premium market will increase by 50% in the next few years while the volume market worldwide rises by 30%.

That's a lot of extra sales for the premium marques to capitalise on and one model which will help BMW is the new X3 sports activity vehicle.

As the junior version of the towering X5, the X3 features a clever xDrive all-wheel drive system, which apportions power to the wheels which have the most grip, and Hill Descent Control, a feature borrowed from Land Rover when it was still under the German company's ownership.

Not that all this clever hardware will be needed because the X3, like the X5, will be spending the majority of its time as an urban warrior.

There are several nice design touches, such as the scollops which flow from the grille to the windscreen to echo BMW's classic trademark kidney grille. But unlike the X5, which has true road presence, the X3's styling doesn't convey that rugged image.

The black plastic bumpers dominate the car's styling too much and might look better if they were colour coded.

Also, the car seems too narrow and the front and rear light clusters are not big enough to make any styling impact.

Inside, the dashboard follows the simplistic design theme of the Z4, with all the major controls housed in a slim central binnacle.

Overall, quality is up to BMW standards, but some plastics, such as the cupholders and door handles, which feel as though they belong in a car of this class and price. And price is another large factor with the X3. Entry-level 2.5-litre models will cost £28,615 on-the-road when deliveries begin in May.

That's a lot more than its supposed rivals, including the Land Rover Freelander and Nissan X-trail.

But such is the lure of the BMW brand that the firm is sure to sell all 5,000 cars it has been allocated in the UK for 2004. Even a full year sales target of 10,000 units will be easily reachable.

And you can guarantee that user-chooser drivers will take a fair chunk of those sales, especially when the 3.0-litre diesel model arrives later in 2004.

Behind the wheel

JUST as the X5 redefined the parameters by which SUVs are judged on the road, so the X3 will repeat that feat in the sports activity sector.

While the X3 screams lifestyle from every design cue, the on-road driving experience is similar to a conventional saloon, thanks in part to the centre of gravity being not too far above the road. The only model available to drive at the media launch was the 3.0-litre petrol with the five-speed automatic gearbox. With 231bhp the 3.0i has enough grunt to shift its weight along with relative ease.

On smooth roads the X3 rides quietly and assuredly and wind noise in the cabin is well suppressed, even at high motorway speeds. But on bumpy roads the X3 is less composed, especially with the optional 18-inch wheels fitted. But those optional wheels do make the X3 handle very well. Grip levels are high and body roll is kept well in check. It's only if you push too hard that the X3's front wheels step out of line, but it is easily controllable.

With a commanding seating position and plenty of interior space, the X3 is a well thought-out vehicle.

It's hard to gauge the X3's off-road ability as the test course on the launch was hardly demanding, but with Hill Descent Control the X3 can handle fairly steep and slippy inclines.

Driving verdict

THE X3 drives like a conventional saloon but has the added bonus of limited off-road ability. You can guarantee the lifestyle contingent will be clamouring to get their hands on the X3.

Fact file
Model 2.5 3.0 3.0d
Engine (cc): 2,494 2,979 2,993
Max power (bhp/rpm): 192/6,000 231/5,900 204/4,000
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 181/3,500 221/3,500 302/1,500
CO2 emissions (g/km): N/A 276 (293) 224 (243)
Fuel consumption (mpg): N/A 24.7 (23.3) 33.6 (31.0)
Max speed (mph): N/A 130 130
0-60mph (secs): N/A 7.8 (8.1) 7.9 (8.2)
Transmission: 6-sp man, 5-sp auto
On sale: May 2004
Prices (OTR): 2.5i £28,615, 2.5i Sport £29,665, 3.0i auto £32,015, 3.0i auto Sport £33,015

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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