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MOTORNET: Two Cars, One Engine

Two Cars, One Engine

SCOOP MOTORNET with Karl Ferguson
Images by Neil Mackenzie -

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The BMW X3 and the latest 1-Series may not have a great deal in common on the surface. After all, one is tagged a Sports Activity Vehicle by BMW’s PR department, while the other an upmarket hatch competing with the likes of the VW Golf and Alfa Romeo 147.

But luckily for potential punters, one thing the two models do have in common is BMW’s sensational new two-litre common-rail diesel engine. Gone are the days when diesels were something you might only associate with a quirky French estate. BMW have shown a strong commitment to performance diesels from the outset and the latest offering is no exception.

1 Series BMW Hatchback
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Of course, the desirability of the 1-Series was never in question. For a start, it’s affordable. Entry level models start at $38,900. And while its styling may lack the inherent beauty of the Alfa Romeo 147, it certainly has presence… not something that can be said for some of the more derivative hatch designs currently on offer. In the end though, it is the driving dynamics that will see punters taking them out the showroom door. Excellently weighted steering, a superb six-speed automatic gearbox combined with firm but manageable ride quality and superb handling, make the little BMW a dead cert. True, many will buy it more for the badge than for how it drives, but at least they can take comfort in having bought a vehicle that for once lives up to the marketing hype.

Until the six-cylinder versions arrive, the SE-spec only diesel is definitely the performance choice of the current range. With 120kW of power on tap and 340Nm of torque, the little BMW is quite the power house. BMW claim the manual will do the 0-100km/h sprint in 7.9 seconds and comfortably reach a top speed of 220km/h. It’s not a bad sounding engine either, and when you nail the accelerator, it certainly delivers on the goods. Like many diesels, it performs best in the middle of the rev range, but will still rev happily through the top end if pushed. The really good news though is that it combines performance with frugality. BMW claim a combined urban-highway economy figure of 5.7 litres per 100km and as little as 4.6 litres per 100km on the extra urban cycle for manual vehicles – decidedly welcome figures given the current cost of fuel.

The BMW X3 is not quite as brand-spanking new as the 1-Series, but it is still fresh-faced enough to continue to attract interest. For BMW, it was a natural progression to further develop the X range following the success of the larger X5. Interestingly though, rather than produce, say an X7, BMW downsized with the X3, effectively taking on the SUV crossover market—vehicles that are more akin to raised wagons than fully fledged off-road vehicles.

With the X3, BMW is making a clear statement—what people want in an SUV is a vehicle you can take to the ski slopes, but one that still feels and handles like a car. The X3 feels small and compact in comparison with most full-sized SUVs, and even the most hesitant of drivers won’t find the ride height of the BMW intimidating, which is all in keeping with BMW’s “SUVs should feel like a car” approach.

X3 Interior
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It’s also an attractive vehicle, although doesn’t quite have the presence that the larger X5 projects. Some of the rear angles of the vehicle don’t work particularly well and the heavily indented side panels of the X3 give the impression of an overly busy design. There is no mistaking its BMW origins though, and that has to be a good thing.

Only a five-seater, the X3 nevertheless offers plenty of practical interior room. The seats fold easily away and there isn’t a huge difference between the cabin volume of the X3 and the larger X5. Unfortunately, the cabin isn’t quite up to BMW’s usual standards (or the 1-Series for that matter). Some of the materials feel cheap to the touch, the dashboard in particular, and equipment levels are not particularly generous, though these differ from model to model and can be upgraded.

There are three engines on offer; an in-line 2.5-litre and 3.0-litre six cylinder, and of course the new diesel. The X3 diesel is broadly the same as the 1-Series diesel however they have different power outputs and slightly different power characteristics. The X3’s diesel manages slightly less power, developing 110kW at 4,000 rpm and 330NM of torque. But there’s a good reason for this. Though the X3 is more a "lifestyle" all wheel drive vehicle rather than a full-fledged SUV, it still requires a gentler power delivery than a passenger car for the times its transmission has to cope with low grip environments, such as getting up a snow covered ski-field access road.

X3 In Profile
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It’s certainly no slug though offering plenty of low end grunt and managing a respectable 0-100km/h time of just over 10 seconds – a performance figure many sedans would be proud of. Similarly, fuel figures are a reminder of what can be achieved by more ‘car’ derived SUVs with BMW claiming a combined urban and highway figure of 7.2 litres per 100 km. That certainly compares favourably with many station wagons, particularly petrol powered variants.

The driving dynamics of the X3 are pretty impressive as well. The vehicle is never going to rival the road-holding characteristics of the superlative 1-Series, but for an SUV, albeit a “soft-roader,” the X3 can still hold its own. Under steer is kept to a minimum, and the steering is for the most part neutral, while offering reasonable levels of feedback to the driver. Road holding is impressive, although the ride is a little disappointing. As with many BMWs now, the X3 comes equipped with run-flat tyres, which don’t add to the overall ride comfort and given the condition of many New Zealand roads, comfort is something to be considered before any potential X3 purchase.

The six-speed manual transmission is up to BMW’s usual high standard, although some may find the pedal placement, which is markedly to the left, a little off-putting and may opt for a self-shifter. There was no opportunity to test the X3’s off-roading ability, but you can expect at least as good a performance as, for example, a four-wheel-drive Subaru, if not better. In other words, the odd dirt track shouldn’t present a problem!

At $79,900, the manual only X3 diesel is no lightweight in the price department either. Having said that, few other European manufacturers offer a similarly sized off-road vehicle, so it compares quite favourably with full-sized SUV competitors. Meanwhile, the manual diesel 1-Series weighs in at $54,900, and in SE spec has better levels of equipment than its X3 diesel cousin. Regardless, the diesel option presents a very compelling argument for those wanting both good fuel economy and performance. With the X3d and 120d, it’s a clear case of having your cake and eating it to.

1-Series Hatchback From Rear
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X3 From Rhe Rear
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