If the economy in the last couple years has taught us anything, it’s that nothing is forever. From the equity in our homes to the values of our 401(k) plans, many of us have stood witness as traditional pillars of strength have fallen to pieces in our midst. In the case of BMW’s X3, its place at the top of the premium compact utility segment was fairly short-lived. When it first came to market in 2004, it was virtually in a class of its own, sharing the stage only with Land Rover’s modestly popular Freelander. But within just a couple years, Acura, Infiniti and Audi moved in, and as a result sales of the small BMW peaked early (2005) and slid consistently as each new competitor ate a piece of its pie. The all-new 2011 X3 should bring that streak to an end for BMW faster than any bailout package could end unemployment. Here’s why.
When you get the experts from Munich talking about the original X3, they practically admit that they misread the market in terms of what customers expected in a small BMW activity vehicle. Frankly, the main priority was on sport sedan handling, while attributes like refinement and comfort took a back seat. What we got was a slightly awkward looking tall 3-series wagon with a cheap-ish interior and a stiff ride. It felt cold and minimalist in a way that could have worked for a German vehicle targeted at busy thirty-something lifestylists, but just didn’t. In the same way that retirees, not post-collegiate hipsters, flock to Honda Elements and Nissan Cubes, the X3 ended up appealing to BMW-owning family types with new demands (strollers, T-ball practice) more than cool singles who snowboard and mountainbike their weekends away. The novelty of a small BMW SUV wore off quickly, especially when the new competition was a little more traditional (read: comfortable and luxurious).
BMW was listening to our critiques and complaints, and yours as well, as it moved forward with the second generation of the vehicle. The all-new-for-2011 model retains the original X3’s strongest attributes — namely its “just right” proportions and its distinctive greenhouse — but abandons everything we loved to hate about it. The chassis is more compliant, the interior finally looks like something that deserves the blue and white roundel, and the sheetmetal is far less awkward looking. In essence, the new X3 is a slightly scaled-down version of the ever-popular X5.
Dynamically, the 2011 X3 blows its predecessor out of the water, starting with a choice of six-cylinder engines. The base-model X3 xDrive28i packs a 240-horse version of the venerable N52 naturally aspirated 3.0-liter six that also sees standard duty in the 1-, 3- and 5-series. We drove the optional turbocharged xDrive35i model, which puts out 300 horsepower and 300 lb-ft and is paired exclusively to BMW’s exceptional eight-speed automatic gearbox. There is no longer a manual transmission option, and that may leave some BMW faithful feeling betrayed, but the eight-speed ‘box (standard also on the 28i) is more efficient as well as more appropriate for the type of duty that probably 99% of X3s will actually see. The single-turbo 3.0-liter (designated N55) is gutsy, delivering not only a 5.5-second zero-to-sixty time, but also the charming appeal of perceptible turbo whine under load. This same engine is more endearing in the X3 than in our long-term 535i for some reason, prodding us to keep it on boost as often as possible. We suspect most new X3s will roll out the door with the less powerful engine, perhaps on attractive lease deals, and that’s fine; but for performance enthusiasts, the 35i model will be the only one worth getting, especially once it becomes available with an M Sport package later in the model year.
The chassis gets some major improvements as well, the highlight being the electronic dampers that come with the optional electronic damping control system. Like other BMWs, the dampers’ firmness can be switched on the fly, in this case between Normal and Sport settings. The new model does away with the conventional MacPherson strut suspension in favor of a double-pivot setup in front, and uses a five-link rear suspension in back. The ride is firm, but no longer harsh like before, even with the standard 18-inch wheels the 35i wears (28i models get 17s standard). The old X3 always looked and felt a little under-tired, and the larger overall rolling diameter on the new model certainly works to the vehicle’s advantage. So too does an additional 92 mm of track width, which leaves the new X3 feeling much more planted on the road, not to mention much better looking. Runflat tires are once again standard, and the electrically driven power steering delivers a surprisingly natural feel at the steering wheel.
BMW’s xDrive all-wheel-drive system is standard on all X3s, and it remains true to the company’s rear-drive heritage by sending sixty percent of the torque to the back under normal conditions. All of the torque can be sent to the rear wheels if circumstances demand it, thanks to an electronically controlled center differential. The X3 also uses electronics and the braking system to generate torque vectoring in severe cornering for more responsive, neutral feeling performance. All said, the new X3 finds the sweet spot, that middle ground between sporty handling and a comfortable ride, that its predecessor never quite discovered; it’s the electronics that deserve all the credit for making the 4222-pound vehicle feel like maybe two-thirds its weight.
The new model gains only 200 pounds over the outgoing version, about half of that from the addition of the turbocharger and its associated plumbing. The minimal weight gain is largely due to the fact that new X3 is only slightly larger than before, growing just 3.4 inches in length and 1.1 inches in width. Only the additional width is immediately obvious, giving the X3 a more muscular appearance by allowing the wheels to stretch well beyond the width of the greenhouse. The original X3 looked really narrow from most angles, but that’s all gone now. The “skinny” front fenders are also gone, replaced with a more substantial front clip that starts with a very upright pair of classic kidney-shaped grilles. No more does it look like a Converse high-top in profile.
The bodywork is more emotional than the first generation, owing to designer Erik Goplin’s clever use of surfacing. The concave/convex side sculpting that has become a BMW hallmark of late gets a mild kink in the form of the sloping character line on the front fenders. As Goplin explained it to us, it represents the two sides of the X3’s character: the go-anywhere spirit is represented in the mountain peak, and the long, straight line that carries rearward represents the open road. The slight twist plays off the unique rear quarter window design of the X3, which still rises slightly before the Hofmeister Kink. Heady stuff, we know, but that added flair helps set the new X3 apart from the competition. On models with HID lighting, the dual-round headlights are accented with blue-white LED corona rings, giving the face of the X3 a more menacing presence on the road. The larger, T-shaped taillamps are LED as well, and little details abound, such as the fully flush roof rails.
The interior represents perhaps the biggest divide between the old and the new X3. Gone are the stark surfaces and low-rent plastics, replaced with flowing lines, subtle details and quality materials at every turn. Topstitched leather and quality vinyls make up most of the door and seating surfaces, and the dashboard itself is covered in nicely textured soft-touch plastics. Designer Ulrich [TK] created distinctive spaces for the driver and front passenger, orienting the center stack toward the business side of the cockpit, and dressing up the passenger’s side with softer details like wood trim. By using the electronically shifted automatic exclusively, BMW was free to design real cupholders, something X3 drivers will certainly appreciate.
Other concessions to real-world functionality include a larger rear seat area that takes full advantage of the extra 0.6 inches of wheelbase. Access to the second row is generous as well, a major consideration for those still loading little ones in car seats (or large adult passengers for that matter). The rear seat folds 60:40 in its standard configuration, but an optional 40:20:40 setup can be ordered for even greater flexibility. Actual cargo space was really never a problem, for the X3, and the new model continues the tradition with a full 19 cubic feet behind the rear seats, and up to 56.6 cubes with the seats folded. The cargo hold is remarkably cube-shaped as well, with full-width access at the hatch opening for better versatility.
In an era when deflation is the new inflation, BMW has done a backslide on the pricing to keep up with the times. The base model X3 xDrive28i comes in at $37,625, a full $2100 less than the 2010 X3 that it replaces, and with better standard equipment. The upmarket X3 xDrive35i we drove will start at 41,925, just a few-hundred shy of its most likely competitor, the 270-horsepower Audi Q5 3.2 quattro.
The 2011 X3 will arrive in dealers right before Christmas, with the official start of sales beginning on January 1. The market it will enter is crowded, but still growing in volume. BMW has done its homework though, and it reflects in all the major improvements made to the new model. We’d be surprised if the X3 doesn’t return to the top spot.
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