New & Used BMW X3: In Depth
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The BMW X3 slots between the larger X5 and compact X1 in BMW's lineup. It also counts the new BMW X4 as a sibling, one with a sleeker shape but slightly less interior space.
MORE: Read our 2015 BMW X3 review
As one of the anchors of the luxury crossover segment, the BMW X3 first showed up in U.S. showrooms with six-cylinder engines, manual and automatic transmissions, and an advanced all-wheel-drive system that used input from stability control to determine where to route power. It also featured a relatively small interior with inexpensive-looking trim and had a very firm ride.
In almost every model year of that first generation, BMW tweaked the X3's looks or hardware. In 2007, the engines were updated, and ride and steering were revised, while the cockpit was refurbished with better materials--a noticeable improvement all around. Toward the end of its first generation, BMW dropped all engine variants save for the 260-horsepower, 3.0-liter in-line six-cylinder engine. A brisk performer, the X3 remained responsive and eager.
BMW introduced its second-generation X3—the current model—for the 2011 model year. In its first redo, the X3 grew slightly and also saw handling and ride improvements, with options like selectable steering modes and adaptive suspension. At launch, BMW offered two versions of its ubiquitous 3.0-liter inline-six—a normally aspirated version making 240 hp and a turbocharged, 300-hp variant. Both were paired with a new eight-speed automatic transmission and a version of BMW's familiar xDrive all-wheel-drive system.
The current X3's styling has adopted some of the latest BMW curves, though in this iteration it's a much happier mix than in some of the early examples of this design theme--the 7-Series and 6-Series of the early 2000s, to be specific. The X3's upgraded interior brought new clarity and richer materials front and center.
BMW now offers a choice of three engines in the X3. The base setup is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, available with either rear- (sDrive28i) or all-wheel (xDrive28i) drive. A 2.0-liter turbodiesel xDrive28d costs just a bit more and makes all-wheel drive standard while improving greatly on fuel economy. The top engine is a turbocharged inline-six in the xDrive35i. All are paired with the ZF eight-speed automatic that was introduced at the beginning of this generation.
With carlike ride and handling, and 0–60 mph times of 5.5 seconds on the top model, today's X3 sits atop the luxury-crossover class in almost every regard. It's also a safety winner: the IIHS has named it a Top Safety Pick. And entertainment's finally on the menu: the options list includes an excellent navigation system, iPod integration, HD Radio, Bluetooth, and a big panoramic sunroof.
The X3 was mostly carry-over for 2012. The 2013 model year marked a major turning point for the X3, as the base in-line six was dropped in favor of a turbocharged four-cylinder engine with nearly identical power ratings to the outgoing six and improved highway fuel economy. Then 2015 marked the introduction of a rear-wheel drive "base" sDrive28i, as well as a new xDrive28d turbo-diesel model.
To keep things fresh, the 2015 X3 got some exterior and interior design tweaks, including a new grille, a new headlight design, and some cabin trim updates. The X3 also received BMW's latest iDrive controller, which incorporates a touch pad, as well as some newly optional active-safety features. BMW also launched a coupe-SUV version of the X3, dubbed X4, for the 2015 model year. Like the X6 is to the X5, the X4 is a more stylish but less practical take on the traditionally styled X3.
The X3 is likely to get a new six-cylinder engine soon, as BMW has begun replacing the N55 engine with a new single-turbo B58 six making 320 hp and 330 lb-ft. It could arrive for the crossover as soon as the 2016 model year.