The X3 was one of BMW's most long-neglected models, introduced in 2004 and only now getting a serious update. During the seven-year interim, BMW developed substantial power-train and cabin technology, all of which benefits the 2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i.
This new-generation X3 hits the road with BMW's renowned turbocharged 3-liter, six-cylinder engine, an automatic transmission with eight gears, a navigation system featuring some of the lushest maps in the industry, and new connectivity featuring in-dash Google search. The X3 also becomes the torchbearer for BMW Bluetooth streaming audio, heretofore unavailable in BMW cars.
A five-seat SUV, or Sports Activity Vehicle in BMW's terminology, the new X3 does not look radically different from the previous version. And as the new generation is slightly larger than the old, there is no shame in mistaking it for an X5. The big changes for this car are in the tech.
Recent BMW models show a dual character, with a default, rather blah, personality in which everything feels a little loose, suitable for grocery runs and slogging through suburban traffic. But hit sport mode and everything tightens up, with the cars going from paunchy middle-aged couch potato to lean athlete.
That sort of schizophrenia afflicts the new X3. Leave it in its Normal drive mode and the gas pedal produces a muddy response, like spurring a lazy horse. The transmission makes full use of its tall gears, keeping the engine speed low to maximize fuel economy.
The ride quality never goes soft, but a good amount of travel in the suspension becomes obvious when going over bumps or cornering. And in the turns the ride height makes itself felt, letting inertial forces have their way with the car. However, among all this sloppiness, the steering feel remains engaging, a hint at what the X3 can really do.
As seen in just about every other BMW model, and newly come to the X3, a rocker switch on the console takes the car through Normal, Sport, and Sport Plus settings. The Sport settings not only sharpen throttle response, turning that lazy horse into a thoroughbred, but also cause the active suspension system to tighten up.
This suspension system is one of the X3's new high-tech performance features, using sensor data to dynamically adjust actuators in the suspension, enabling it to deal better with driving style and road conditions. Putting the suspension in Sport mode keeps the tires in contact with the pavement. Going over a series of humps in the road at speed, you can feel the car push its wheels down, maximizing grip and never taking air.
However, BMW has a further technology, active roll control, that it does not make available on the X3. As well as the active damping works in Sport mode, it cannot completely counteract the car's high center of gravity. In fast cornering, the X3 still feels tippy.
The X3 uses an electric power-steering system, and BMW has this tuned better than any competitor. It always feels tight, giving substantial road feel. This steering response also suggests that the X3 is aimed at people who really enjoy driving. Typical commuters will get tired of the constant road input from the wheel. Not present on the car CNET tested was BMW's Variable Sport Steering, a system that adjusts the ratio dynamically depending on driving style, another tech point in the X3's favor.
Twin scroll turbo
Like many of its siblings, the X3 xDrive35i gets BMW's direct injection 3-liter straight six-cylinder engine fitted with a twin scroll turbocharger. Making 306 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, this mill has continually proven excellent in every application. It maintains its performance in the X3, providing the right amount of push and efficiency for this little SUV.
Jumping on the gas from a stop causes some initial hesitation, a frequent problem with modern cars. But once the X3 sorts itself out, it powers forward with a satisfying exhaust note, pushing occupants back in their seats. BMW claims zero to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds for the X3.
Some of that hesitation seems to come from the new eight-speed automatic transmission, an otherwise superb piece of engineering. Using BMW's signature alien-looking shifter, this transmission has Drive, Sport, and Manual modes, with shift paddles on the steering wheel as an option.
As mentioned above, Drive mode pushes for the high gears, letting the engine run at a low 1,500rpm when cruising on the highway. Even in passing maneuvers, it shows a little hesitation before stepping down a gear or two. Sport mode is more aggressive, keeping the engine speed higher, but it doesn't tap into all the X3 has to offer. Going into a corner in Sport mode, the transmission keeps to a moderate gear, although it will step down harder when you give it the gas.
The real fun comes in Sport Plus mode and switching the transmission to Manual shifting. Sport Plus not only tightens the suspension and sharpens the throttle, but also engages BMW's Dynamic Traction Control, essentially dialing down how much the electronics interfere. The result is real sport driving, as it lets the back end rotate out in the corners.
Manual shifting complements Sport Plus well, as each pull on the paddles results in a hard gear change, with little feeling of torque converter slush. While flogging the X3 over twisty country roads, we found it took turns at around 40 mph easily, fourth and fifth gears keeping the engine speed at a powerful 5,000rpm to 6,000rpm.
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.