BMW outfits the latest X3 with a choice of normally aspirated or turbocharged six-cylinder engines. With either, there's sedan-like acceleration on tap, and the power blends ideally with the X3's nimble handling and ride.
Base X3s have a 3.0-liter in-line six that produces 240 horsepower and 230 pound-feet of torque. It's a price leader, in the uniquely BMW fashion, but it's not a punishment for past deeds. With it, the X3 is capable of accelerating to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds--better than past versions of the X3, and quicker than some of its European sport-sedan competition, too.
We're far more familiar with the brilliant turbocharged version of this engine, the 300-hp, 300 lb-ft edition that sizzles to a 60-mph accel time of 5.5 seconds, and to a top speed of 150 mph. Automatically, those numbers bring "3-Series" to mind, and with good reason--they're almost enough to knock off some recent vintage M3s. It's just the slightest bit confusing to your mind, since the X3 rides tall like a crossover, but launches with every bit of the authority of a great 3er.
Both models come with an eight-speed automatic. No manual transmission is offered, but with so many gears on call, BMW's tasked some with turning in that low-end grunt, and others lock up with a torque converter to produce good, if not great, fuel economy numbers. We'd take the paddle shifters any day, but with a question as to why BMW doesn't display the chosen gear anywhere on the gauges.
BMW has engineered the X3's steering and suspension better than it has some of its recent vehicles. The multi-link rear end and front MacPherson struts are classic BMW, but they can be updated with active dampers and a Driving Dynamics Control system that tailors drive systems to the owner's taste. BMW builds in Normal, Sport and Sport+ modes; select one and the shift points, throttle tip-in and steering feel remap themselves.
It's a BMW, so it's hardly a shock that the 2012 X3 feels best in Sport mode, where the electronics set up swifter steering responses and tauter ride feel. The ride quality isn't harmed at all--it's not meaningfully cushier in Normal mode, but there's head toss all the time, the burden of carlike handling imposed on tall vehicles--and the steering bulks up to BMW's usual heft. The steering feel could use more fiddling, as it builds up cornering feel even during lower-speed turns and lane changes but doesn't unwind with much feel or linearity.
Although mild off-roading isn't completely off the BMW X3's roster of capabilities, the road is still the priority. All X3 models come with BMW's xDrive all-wheel drive system, which splits power delivery 40/60 percent and is especially good for maintaining traction and poise when the road surface is slippery. It can flex to send 100 percent of available power to either end of the vehicle. A Performance Control system fixes the split at 20/80 when the corners grow close and tight, and other programming in the strong brakes clamps down on the inside rear wheel to cut a tighter path.