Helping the handling is BMW's xDrive all-wheel drive. This system lacks the sophistication of some of the competition, for example not employing torque vectoring across the rear axle. It seems more to strike a balance between assisting in cornering and also helping the X3 keep traction in slippery or off-road conditions. The system defaults to a 40 percent front-60 percent rear torque split, but dynamically moves torque fore and aft to compensate for wheel slip.
For more practical purposes, the direct-injection engine, eight-speed transmission, and electric power steering all aid the X3's fuel economy, rated at 19 mpg city and 26 mpg highway in EPA tests. We saw an average of 21.4 mpg through a course of city traffic, freeway, and sport driving. That mileage isn't stellar, but the X3 doesn't pretend to be a fuel sipper.
The X3's cabin also benefits greatly from its 2011 update, as BMW's electronics have advanced considerably over the last decade. The navigation system's maps, stored on the hard drive, show rich topographic terrain, 3D-rendered buildings in cities, and satellite imagery when zoomed out to a scale of 1 mile. Only Audi sports better-looking maps in its navigation systems.
These maps show on an 8.8-inch LCD, one of the largest currently used for automotive infotainment systems, which is capable of a split-screen display. The driver can easily select auxiliary information for the right-side screen, such as trip or music info.
And the X3 gets one of BMW's newest features, having Google Search integrated with its navigation system. Requiring an account with the BMW Assist telematics service, this lets you enter a search term and receive a list of local location results. The results are name-based, rather than content-based, so entering the term "hammer" brings up businesses with hammer in the name rather than places you can buy a hammer.
This connected-car feature also returns results for fuel and stock prices and other data. The navigation system offers the typical points-of-interest database with locally stored locations as well.
But finding locations using the points-of-interest database is not easy, nor is choosing music from a connected iPod or the car's hard drive. The interface does not always make it clear what to do next to find a location or enter an address. And it requires too many inputs to find and set a location or start music playback. For example, when browsing for music you might scroll through a list of artists. After you select one, nothing happens, as you then have to scroll down to the Start Playback option. BMW needs to simplify this interface.
That problem is partially dealt with through voice command, a new system first rolled out in the 7-series. This new voice command system lets you, for example, enter an address by speaking the entire string, such as house number, street, and city. The system parses each part, then shows what it thinks you said on the screen. The only drawback here is that if it gets one part of the address string wrong, such as a difficult street name, you can't correct only that one part, instead having to repeat the whole thing again.
The new voice command system also offers in-depth control over music playback. Similar to what Ford Sync pioneered, you can now select an artist or album name for any music stored on the car's hard drive. In testing, the system proved very good at recognizing names even for obscure artists. That music recognition comes thanks to the car's Gracenote database, as does the album cover art that shows up on the playback screen, a nice touch.
Along with its onboard hard drive and iPod integration, the X3's stereo can play every modern digital audio source, including HD and satellite radio. Bluetooth audio streaming, although old hat for other automakers, is a new feature for BMW. In the X3 it presents the usual limited controls as in most cars, such as pause and skip tracks. Music selection is all done on the paired device.
The X3 has two USB ports, one in the console and one in the glove box. The console port lets you plug an iPod cable directly into it, rather than the Y cables required for previous BMW models.
The standard audio system uses 12 speakers and a 205-watt amp, producing a fairly typical sound for BMW cars. Rich, with deep tones, this system sounds fine, although audiophiles will find it a little muddy in the midrange. BMW offers an upgrade, with 16 speakers and 600 watts of amplification to satisfy more discerning ears.
Voice command works well with the car's phone system, responding when drivers say the name of the person they want to call. The car also makes the phone's contact list available on the LCD, along with recent call history. BlackBerry owners get additional functionality, with the car able to read incoming e-mails out loud.
The X3's rearview camera is as full-featured as it gets, showing not only trajectory and distance lines, but also warnings for objects behind the car. This camera can be upgraded to an around-view system. The only other driver assistance feature available for the X3 is a head-up display, but BMW holds back features such as blind-spot detection and adaptive cruise control.
BMW is a leader in automotive technology, both in the power train and cabin. The 2011 X3 xDrive35i shows off the latest refinement of BMW's 3-liter straight six-cylinder engine, and a new eight-speed transmission, combining efficiency and power. The suspension uses active elements to make this car grip the pavement.
Cabin tech is also excellent, with detailed 3D maps and a full range of audio sources for the stereo, a new voice command system, and cutting-edge connected-car features. BMW has a good stock of driver assistance features, but it only makes a couple available for the X3.
Design is BMW's only real weak point. Although the X3 is easily identified as a BMW, the look is more conservative than attractive. It enjoys the general practicality of most SUVs, with a usable cargo area and seating. The onscreen cabin-tech interface has a few quirks that make it tough to use while driving.
|Model||2011 BMW X3|
|Power train||Turbocharged direct-injection 3-liter straight 6-cylinder engine, eight-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||19 mpg city/26 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||21.4 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional hard-drive-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Onboard hard drive, Bluetooth audio streaming, USB drive, satellite radio, HD radio|
|Audio system||205-watt 12-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$53,015|