Editor's note: This review was written in April 2011 about the 2011 BMW X3. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2012, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
The BMW X3 may have been a pioneer among compact luxury crossovers, but a number of competitors — including the Audi Q5, Mercedes-Benz GLK-Class and Volvo XC60 — have entered the fray since its debut as a 2004 model. Now, with the second-generation X3, BMW has new metal to take them on.
The 2011 BMW X3 is still the small luxury crossover of choice for driving enthusiasts, but its substantially more forgiving suspension tuning should make the new version far more appealing.
I tested the base xDrive28i, which starts at $36,750; with options, our test car's sticker price was $43,875. For a side-by-side comparison with the competitors mentioned above, click here.
Ride & Handling
One of my lasting memories of the prior-generation X3 was its extremely firm ride, which led to a choppy driving experience on rough roads. It was disappointing, to say the least, because BMWs often strike an impressive balance between decent ride comfort and top-tier handling. In the old X3, such comfort was nowhere to be found.
Fast-forward to 2011 and the new X3, and the experience is significantly better. The redesigned X3's suspension is much more forgiving on potholed pavement — much the same way a 3 Series is — but maintains the balanced handling that earns BMW respect in enthusiast circles. Toss the X3 into a corner, and after some initial body roll it steadies itself and gives you confidence to go faster. There's no getting around the fact that the X3 isn't as rewarding to drive as are BMW's cars — its taller stance degrades the driving experience — but it's one of the most fun-to-drive compact luxury crossovers available today.
Contributing to the driving experience is the X3's standard rear-biased xDrive all-wheel drive. The system does a good rear-wheel-drive imitation when accelerating out of a corner; the X3 squats a little over its outside rear wheel and holds the line it's on.
There was a time when you could bulk up your forearms just by commuting in a BMW, but today they have much more power-steering assistance, resulting in lighter, easier steering; driving up and down the spirals of a parking garage is a breeze. While this comfort-oriented nature may draw scorn from BMW purists, it's the right choice for a luxury crossover.
Going & Stopping
The xDrive28i's 3.0-liter, inline-six-cylinder engine is unexpectedly stout, and it makes this two-ton crossover pretty quick; BMW cites a zero-to-60-mph acceleration time of 6.7 seconds, and you never get a sense that the engine's working hard. A more powerful xDrive35i with a turbocharged six-cylinder is offered, but the base model is by no means underpowered.
Contributing to both acceleration performance and fuel economy is the X3's new eight-speed automatic transmission (a manual gearbox isn't offered). The addition of two more forward gears versus the old X3's automatic results in more optimized ratios, and the drivetrain gets an EPA-estimated 19/25 mpg city/highway. That's ahead of the all-wheel-drive Mercedes-Benz GLK350 (16/21) and the base engine in the all-wheel-drive XC60 (18/24), but it trails the base turbo four-cylinder in the Q5 (20/27).
Not all is well with the drivetrain, however, as more than one editor complained of accelerator lag, primarily during standing starts. Kickdown response is also lacking; there's a noticeable pause from the time you floor the gas pedal until the transmission drops a few gears for passing power. A Sport mode is included, and it helps enhance the drivetrain's responsiveness by keeping the transmission in lower gears longer.
Despite decent pedal feel, it's difficult to come to a smooth stop in the X3. Whether it's the fault of the automatic transmission stepping down through the gears or the crossover's standard Brake Energy Regeneration system, the result is jerky stops.
The X3's redesigned interior continues the sparse, minimalistic design approach that BMW favors, but it does a better job of integrating the center screen, which serves as the display for the standard iDrive system.
Unfortunately, the quality of the materials inside degrades the lower you look. While our test car was fitted with a nice-looking upper dashboard and classy optional wood trim, the center control panel was plain. As your eyes move down to the door pockets, you see they're made of cheap-looking shiny plastic, complete with rough edges that say "economy car" more than "luxury crossover."
Another aspect our editors panned was the X3's optional leather upholstery, which lacks appropriate richness. In terms of cushioning and support, though, the front bucket seats are comfortable.
It's nice to see the X3 bucks the trend of decreasing visibility that plagues many new cars. It has thin roof pillars and lots of glass, resulting in good all-around views.
Backseat legroom is acceptable for adult passengers. The seat cushion, though, is too low to the floor, leading to a knees-up seating position that reduces thigh support. Unfortunately, the 60/40-split backrest doesn't recline.
For a full list of safety features, visit the Standard Equipment & Specs page.
X3 in the Market
The compact luxury crossover segment has undergone a revolution since the first-generation X3 debuted. Both the Q5 and GLK-Class have become popular sellers, while X3 sales have lagged behind.
The redesigned X3 puts BMW in position to retake some of the market thanks to its more forgiving ride. Despite some shortcomings, it's still luxurious enough to cut it in this segment, and its more competitive starting price that's about $2,000 less than the 2010 X3 won't hurt, either.
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