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.
After years of neglect, BMW finally updates its smallish SUV.
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.
Like its siblings, the new X3 gets BMW's active suspension technology and programmable throttle response.
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.
BMW fits the new X3 with an eight-speed automatic transmission, letting the engine run at more efficient speeds, and also offering excellent manual shifting performance.
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.
BMW uses direct injection and a twin scroll turbo to maximize efficiency from this 3-liter straight 6-cylinder engine.
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.
The X3's maps show excellent 3D rendering of buildings in major cities.
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.
Google search is integrated with the navigation system, complementing the onboard POI database.
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 music search screen is as difficult to navigate as the POI search.
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|