When the BMW X3 was first launched, way back in 2004, it was somewhat of a bargain basement BMW, and it suffered a few flaws. The first was an obviously cost-cut interior and the second was a seriously harsh ride. Although the X3 was thematically similar to the pioneering X5, it was very much a step down not only in price but also in execution.
Nuzzling up to the X5
With the smaller and (presumably) cheaper BMW X1 poised to enter the U.S. market, it's not surprising that the new X3 has grown larger, more sophisticated, and much closer to the X5.
The new styling certainly looks more akin to the X5, particularly as it's laid out on a body that is 3.4 inches longer. Other dimensions have increased as well, but more modestly. Width is up by 1.1 inches and height and wheelbase have grown by a fraction.
More so than the new design, the new X3's interior has been upgraded, and now feels like a full-fledged member of the BMW family. Materials are rich and the layout of the dash and the controls -- complete, naturally, with iDrive -- is familiar.
From one engine, to two
Then there's the powertrain. The previous version was available with a lone, 260-hp straight six. Now there are two engine options: a normally aspirated six (240 hp), in the xDrive 28i; and a turbocharged version of the same 3.0-liter (300 hp), in the xDrive 35i. That latter serves also as the base engine in the X5 (and both engines appear elsewhere in the BMW lineup).
Previously, BMW gave X3 buyers a choice of an automatic or a manual transmission, both six-speeds. A manual is rare in this segment, and now it's even rarer, as BMW has dropped it; in the U.S. market, the new X3 comes with an eight-speed automatic only. As before, all-wheel drive is standard, and has a sporty, rear-biased (40/60) default torque split.
When the new X3 35i paid a visit to the Ann Arbor home office, associate editor Eric Tingwall characterized the eight-speed automatic as overactive and abrupt. I couldn't agree more. With sport mode selected, the combination of so many gears, very aggressive throttle mapping, and instant-on engine power can lead to some wildly hyperactive responses from the powertrain. Strangely, I haven't experienced that with this engine and transmission pair in any other BMW.
Things are a lot less frenetic in normal mode, where the turbo six can still rocket the car ahead at the flex of a right ankle. BMW advertises a 0-to-60 time of 5.5 seconds, which is a lot faster than the old model's 7.1 seconds. (The normally aspirated, 240-hp 3.0-liter does it in a claimed 6.7 seconds.)
Toggling between modes is done with the optional Driving Dynamics Control selector. There are normal, sport, and sport-plus modes, which control throttle and transmission mapping, steering effort, stability control programming, and damper firmness (with the additionally optional electronic damping control).
Dialing up Sport-plus mode is useful for recreating the punishing ride of the old X3. Most people, though, are likely to appreciate the improved ride quality of the new car, as served up by the normal mode.
Looks like an X5, drives like an X5, priced like an X5
Besides the Driving Dynamics Control system, there is a long list of optional features and packages on the X3, but those whose check boxes with gleeful abandon are in for a nasty surprise. At first glance, the X3 seems quite reasonably priced, in the context of its competitors. The base xDrive 28i, at $37,625, is actually less expensive than the previous car, while the turbocharged xDrive 35i, at $41,925, is a couple thousand dollars more. Still, both X3 models nestle between the two Audi Q5s in price, and they straddle the Mercedes-Benz GLK 4Matic. But start piling on the option packages, and the xDrive 35i (in particular) can zoom towards the $60,000-dollar mark. That's plenty rich for a compact crossover -- it also is deep into X5 territory. Sophistication, evidently, does not come cheap.
2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i
Base price (with destination): $41,925
Price as tested: $52,025
3.0-liter twin-turbo six-cylinder engine
8-speed automatic transmission
xDrive all-wheel-drive system
Dynamic Stability Control w/Brake Drying, Brake Stand-by, Start-off Assistant, and Brake Fade Compensation
Hill Descent Control
4-wheel disc brakes w/ABS and Dynamic Brake Control
Xenon adaptive headlamps w/LED corona rings
LED adaptive brake lights
Audio system w/AM/FM/CD/MP3 and iPod and USB adapters
18-inch Y-spoke wheels
Dynamic Damper Control
Fineline Siena wood trim
Options on this vehicle:
- Power tailgate
- Keyless entry and ignition
- Cargo net
- Rear side-window shades
Cold Weather Package
- Heated steering wheel
- 40/20/40 split rear-seat backrest
- Heated front and rear seats
- Headlight washers
- Garage-door opener
- Panoramic moonroof
- Auto-dimming mirrors
- Lumbar support
- Storage package
- Interior light package
- Backup camera with top view
- Park Distance Control
- BMW Assist w/enhanced BT & USB
- Navigation system w/real-time traffic information
Roof rails in aluminum satin
Key options not on vehicle:
Sport Activity Package
- Sports leather steering wheel with shift paddles
- X-line exterior trim
- Sport seats
- Roof rails in aluminum satin
M Sport Package
- 19-inch wheels
- High-gloss roof rails
- M Sports leather steering wheel with shift paddles
- Performance control
- Sport seats
- Aerodynamic kit
- Anthracite headliner
- Sport automatic transmission
- Shadowline exterior trim
19 / 21 / 26 mpg
3.0L I-6 turbo
Horsepower: 300 hp @ 5800 rpm
Torque: 300 lb-ft @ 1300-5000 rpm
Curb weight: 4222 lb
Wheels/tires: 18 x 8.0-in wheels, 245/55R18 tires
Competitors: Audi Q5, Cadillac SRX, Mercedes-Benz GLK