The BMW X3 is all-new for 2011. BMW's first X3 was a successful model for the company, selling 150,000 copies in the USA and more than 600,000 units worldwide. Now, with its all-new second version of the X3, built in a new assembly hall at BMW's Spartanburg, South Carolina, plant, BMW has taken pains to address the aspects of the first-generation model most commonly criticized: rear-seat space and ride quality.
The all-new 2011 BMW X3 boasts significantly better rear leg- and elbow room, and its cargo space is now claimed to be the class leader before the rear seatbacks are folded down, at 27.6 cubic feet. Quoted dimensions for rear legroom indicate an increase of a full inch (to 36.8 inches), while headroom is up two inches over that of the first-generation X3.
The 2011 X3 also features completely redeveloped suspension technology, with a new double-joint spring-strut mechanism at the front and a multi-link system at the rear.
The 2011 BMW X3 comes with a choice of engines, a 3.0-liter inline-6 and a turbocharged version of the same engine. They get essentially the same fuel economy, but the turbocharged engine has more power. Otherwise the two models, xDrive28i and xDrive35i are nearly identical, though the turbocharged model comes with slightly larger wheels.
Our brief test drive in a 2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i suggested that the X3 now demonstrates some of the best poise and isolation we've ever experienced in an SUV on gravel roads.
Combined with a tasteful exterior redesign that holds onto BMW's usual design cues, but makes the previous version look suddenly dowdy and dated, the new X3 has the latest in safety and convenience systems to coddle its owners. Operating efficiency, too, has been given a boost by the fitting of an 8-speed automatic transmission.
BMW's xDrive all-wheel-drive system, standard on all models, retains as much of a rear-drive feel as it can muster, using a multi-plate clutch to vary rear-to-front torque split from fully 100 percent committed to the rear to 40 percent sent forward to assist with traction.
An optional electronic damping control system is available to vary shock response according to conditions, with a driver-selectable three-position switch to focus its operation to the driver's intended activity. This so-called Performance Control switch also affects the level of steering assist, and the xDrive all-wheel drive system by selecting a 20/80 front-to-rear torque-split in steady state driving and also providing some so-called torque-vectoring influence in corners by braking an inside wheel. These new technologies may prove decisive to buyers searching for the latest in safety and dynamic systems.
The crisp new lines of the 2011 BMW X3 seem more familiar than novel at first sight, but the design soon dates the previous car, and you need to see old and new side by side for the full import of the new look to be absolutely clear. Up front is the usual forward-leaning BMW kidney grille. The headlight assembly is large and emphatic, and is integrated with a detailed front apron which uses contrasting colors and various apertures to provide plenty of surface excitement. There are six contour lines sweeping down to meet at the kidney grill for a sculpted appearance.
BMW says the twin round headlights combined with the round fog lamps form a triangular light pattern that is characteristic of its SAV design. (BMW calls its SUVs Sport Activity Vehicles.) The upper edge of the headlight assembly is accented by a chrome trim, and BMW's signature Corona Rings are again used as the daytime running lights. When equipped with the optional Xenon headlights, the Corona Rings and daytime running lights are provided by bright white LEDs.
The profile of the new BMW X3 is characterized by flared wheel arches and short front and rear overhangs. Three creases in the car's side add detail to the silhouette, with the X3's signature upper contour line (at door-handle level) rising steeply from the front wheel arch area, then tapering toward the rear light clusters. This line is echoed by two subtle lines following the contour line above the wheel arches.
Horizontal lines abound at the rear, with contrasting angles at the rear glass and lights providing perspective. The designers have used concave planes and a recessed license plate area to alter the reflective dimensions, adding a sculpted effect. The taillights are positioned well to the outside, and have a distinctive mushroom shape that allows the outboard lenses to be substantially larger than the shapes in the tailgate. LED light bars are intended to create a distinctive BMW nighttime design signature.
When compared to its predecessor (pre-2011), the new X3 is a half-inch taller, 3.36 inches longer, 1.1 inches wider, and features a half-inch more ground clearance. It rides on a wheelbase that is just 0.6 inches longer, at 110.6 inches.
The interior of the new 2011 X3 is welcoming, with tasteful surfaces and a very tidy arrangement of all necessary components. Typical BMW dark dashboard moldings contrast with lighter lower sections and carpet colors. High-grade wood trim accents are used sparingly on the center console, door cappings, and above the glovebox.
The view out through the windscreen is commanding, and big mirrors provide a good spread of rearward visibility to deal with the inevitable blind spots that occur in cars with vertical D-pillars.
A fourth-generation iDrive multi-media controller keeps control-button proliferation to a minimum, and the dashboard seems tidily organized.
Anyone with a passing acquaintance with BMW ergonomics will have everything working within seconds; strangers may take a few minutes more, but they'll doubtless appreciate the quality feel of the switches and controls. A fat-rimmed three-spoke steering wheel incorporates various satellite switches for the audio system and cruise control, and the ambiance is at once functional and luxurious. The optional navigation system uses an 8.8-inch high-resolution display featuring a trans-reflective screen said to be the largest in the vehicle segment. Storage compartments and cupholders are present at every turn.
The three rear seats are certainly roomier than in the previous car, and the luggage compartment provides between 19 and 56.6 cubic feet of space depending on how the rear seats are arranged. Rear-seat backrests split 60/40 and can be folded separately or together. The rear seats that come with the optional ski pass-through have three segments (40/20/40) that can also be folded down individually.
It's clear from the first few yards in the new X3 that the model has made great strides in chassis sophistication. In the xDrive35i we tried in Atlanta, Georgia, on the international model intro, the sensation is of a stable but well cushioned chassis that covers rough ground with little transmission of sound or vibration.
In fact, on the short off-road course provided by BMW, our colleagues showed a distinct tendency to approach ridges and cut-offs at too high a rate of speed. (Of course, we didn't make this mistake.) The quiet and unruffled way this car swallowed the imperfections in a rough gravel road was extremely illustrative of how seriously BMW took criticism of the first-gen X3.
The same is true of the car's behavior on a paved road. It's extremely smooth, with much of the sound of the car's undercarriage effectively attenuated. Luckily, this commendable compliance does not translate into a sloppy ride. Indeed, ride-motion control is exemplary, so progress is smooth and flat, just the way it should be.
Big 12.9-inch disc rotors inside 19-inch wheels shod with 245/55R18 tires slow the xDrive35i's 4222-pound mass with real authority, backed up by standard ABS. The base-level xDrive28i has the same brakes, but uses 17-inch wheels and 225/60R17 tires.
BMW has adopted an electric steering assist system, and its engineers have not done a bad job of overcoming the feedback challenges attendant to this burgeoning new technique. In the X3, wheel weighting verges toward hefty, perhaps a tad too much so, accompanied by quite a bit of self-centering torque, but this should not be confused with real steering feel.
Nonetheless, clear and readable off-center response combines with very accurate path control to imbue the steering with a sense of virtual feedback feel that the mechanism itself does not impart in great measure. Better get used to it, because EPS (electric power steering) will soon be ubiquitous on passenger cars. The rest of the X3 chassis allows sporty driving with plenty of attitude control, and, with the optional electronic damper control, surprising adaptability.
The turbocharged engine in the xDrive35i is responsive and powerful, driving the biggish vehicle from rest to 60 mph in about 5.5 seconds (6.7 seconds in the normally aspirated xDrive28i), and on to a governed 130 mph with a series of brief romps up the tachometer dial. The 8-speed automatic provides for close ratio staging and quick responses to a dig at the accelerator pedal.
At the same time, the broad torque band allows relaxed cruising at low engine speeds that will calm passengers and save on fuel. The combination of a relatively compact overall size, excellent power, newly imparted poise, plus improved space and comfort, ought to attract all those X3 fans back to this new one along with a horde of fresh converts.
Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 19/25 mpg City/Highway for the X3 xDrive 28i, 19/26 mpg City/Highway for the X3 xDrive35i. Premium fuel is required.
The new X3 builds on everything that made it BMW's top-selling SUV and adds space for rear passengers, a ride smooth enough to satisfy the strictest critics, and all the latest drivetrain and chassis technologies at BMW's disposal. The base xDrive28i is actually cheaper than the model it replaces, while the fast and refined xDrive35i extends the range in terms of equipment and performance.
Barry Winfield filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his brief test drive of the X3 xDrive35i near Atlanta.