The BMW X3 compact crossover SUV got more efficient for 2013 with a new engine and new standard features, including automatic stop/start on all models. The naturally aspirated inline-6 once used in the base xDrive28i disappeared, replaced with a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 found in many other BMW models, including the X1, Z4, and 3 Series. Although smaller than the outgoing engine, the new twin-scroll turbo was slightly more powerful and offers improved fuel economy.
For 2014, each X3 gains some standard equipment, including a universal garage door opener, auto-dimming inside and outside mirrors, 40/20/40 split folding rear seats, ambiance lighting, BMW Assist Call, and BMW TeleService. The navigation system, now called iDrive 4.2, includes a new idrive rotary controlled with integrated touchpad.
The X3 was last redesigned for 2011. The exterior is tasteful, with classic BMW design cues such as the signature twin-kidney grille. Inside, the interior is luxuriously appointed, with a surprisingly generous amount of cargo space behind the second row. A power liftgate is standard on all X3 models.
The BMW X3 comes in two model choices. The 2014 BMW X3 xDrive28i is powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that makes 241 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. The 2014 BMW X3 xDrive35i contains a 3.0-liter turbocharged inline six-cylinder, rated 300 hp and 300 pound-feet. Both engines are mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters.
BMW's xDrive all-wheel-drive system comes standard on all X3 models. The X3 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, down to 40 percent sent forward to assist with traction when needed.
During our test drive, the BMW X3 xDrive35i demonstrated some of the best poise and isolation we've ever experienced in an SUV on gravel roads. Its suspension system, which uses a double-joint spring-strut mechanism at the front and a multi-link system at the rear, makes it the best-handling X3 to date.
The automatic stop/start system is invasive, however, and makes an obvious shudder when the engine turns off or starts up again. The driver can switch it off, but it resets back to on every time the car is started.
All 2014 BMW X3 models are equipped with BMW's Driving Dynamics Control, which allows drivers to select from four driving modes that range from sporty to thrifty. The system adjusts the suspension as well as the level of steering assist. A mode dubbed Eco Pro can reduce fuel usage by up to 20 percent, according to BMW, by optimizing engine, transmission, brakes, climate control and electrical settings. A special display on the iDrive screen shows where the vehicle is saving energy and coaches drivers on how to be most efficient.
Fuel economy estimates for the 2014 BMW X3 are 21/28 mpg City/Highway with the 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 in the xDrive28i, according to the EPA; and 19/26 mpg City/Highway with the 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-6 used in the xDrive35i. Premium fuel is required with both engines.
When it comes to small luxury crossovers, the 2014 BMW X3 beats most competitors on cargo space, including the Mercedes-Benz GLK350. The X3 is perhaps the best choice in the segment for those looking for practicality without compromising sporty driving dynamics, but those attributes don't come cheap. Price-wise, the X3 reaches into larger SUV territory, overlapping with more practical people movers like the Acura MDX and Lexus RX 350. From a size standpoint, the BMW X3 competes with the Acura RDX, Audi Q5, and Mercedes-Benz GLK-Class.
The lines of the latest BMW X3 are crisp and familiar. Up front is the usual forward-leaning BMW kidney grille, and the headlight assembly is large and emphatic. BMW says the twin round headlights combined with the round fog lamps form a triangular light pattern that is characteristic of BMW's Sport Activity Vehicles. The upper edge of the headlight assembly is accented by chrome trim, and BMW's signature Corona Rings are used as the daytime running lights. When equipped with the optional xenon high-intensity discharge headlights, the Corona Rings and daytime running lights are provided by bright white LEDs.
The profile of the 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 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.
The interior of the BMW X3 is welcoming, with tasteful surfaces and a tidy arrangement of components. 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 the windshield is commanding. 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 looks tidy and 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. Storage compartments and cupholders are present at every turn.
The navigation system uses an 8.8-inch high-resolution display featuring a trans-reflective screen, said to be the largest in the vehicle segment.
The rear cargo area provides 27.6 cubic feet of space with the rear seats in place, or 63.3 cubic feet with the rear seas folded down. Rear-seat backrests are now split 40/20/40, and each of the three segments can be folded down individually, if desired.
The BMW X3 handles well and we found it to be extremely smooth, with much of the sound of the car's undercarriage effectively attenuated. Even on gravel roads, the X3 is quiet and unruffled. 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. The X3's stable but well-cushioned chassis covers rough ground with little transmission of sound or vibration.
Big 12.9-inch disc rotors inside 18-inch wheels, shod with 245/50R18 tires, slow the X3 xDrive35i's 4222-pound mass with real authority, backed up by ABS. Run-flat tires on 19-inch wheels are available for the xDrive35i. The base-level xDrive28i has the same brakes and tires.
BMW employs an electric steering assist system, and its engineers have not done a bad job of overcoming the feedback challenges attendant to this burgeoning 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 the norm 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 inline-6 in the xDrive35i is responsive and powerful, driving the biggish vehicle from rest to 60 mph in about 5.5 seconds, and on to a governed 130 mph track speed. The 8-speed automatic transmission provides for close-ratio staging and quick responses to a dig at the accelerator pedal.
At the same time, the X3's 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, outstanding poise, plus impressive space and comfort, ought to attract all those earlier X3 fans back to this current one, along with a horde of fresh converts.
The BMW X3 offers a smooth ride and sharp handling. A roomy interior for the class offers a comfortable ride for passengers and plenty of space for hauling stuff. The six-cylinder engine in the X1 xDrive35i delivers lots of power, while the four-cylinder X1 xDrive28i costs less, and gets slightly better fuel economy.
Barry Winfield filed this report for NewCarTestDrive.com after his brief test drive of the X3 xDrive35i near Atlanta, with Laura Burstein reporting from Los Angeles.