BMW has gone all-turbo with its sedans already, and for 2013 it happens for the X3. What had essentially been the unthinkable just a few years ago is now reality: Instead of the sweet, much-loved normally aspirated in-line six-cylinder engines, there's a 2.0-liter Twin Power four in the X3 xDrive28i and a 300-hp turbo six in the xDrive35i.
Essentially, it's the same 2.0-liter 'N20' TwinPower four that's offered in those other cars--making 240 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. That's the same power, but 39 pound-feet more torque than last year's engine. And the payback is significant: EPA fuel economy ratings get boosted to 21 mpg city, 28 highway, up from 19/25 for last year's six-cylinder xDrive28i.
BMW says that the X3 28i accelerates to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds, but even that feels a bit conservative; it's the most fleet-footed of the new-generation turbo fours, and foot to the floor, it moves, with no hesitation. With direct injection, Double-Vanos variable camshaft timing and Valvetronic variable valve timing, and twin-scroll turbocharging, the BMW four spools up very quick, with peak torque reached at a diesel-like 1,250 rpm (all the way up to 4,800 rpm).
Factor in the ratchet-smooth shifts of the 8-speed automatic here, and the powertrain's character comes across as muted and smooth but responsive. Driving Dynamics Control can change all that, as drivers select from among its modes, from Eco Pro to Sport+.
With the turbo-6 engine in the 35i models, 60 mph comes in just 5.5 seconds, on the X3's way to a 150-mph top speed. Those numbers bring "3-Series" to mind, and for good reason--they're almost enough to knock off some recent vintage M3s. Of the crossovers that claim car-like handling, the X3 backs it up best, with much of the 3-Series' excellent road manners left intact despite the tall-wagon body.
Just as in the 3-Series and 5-Series, the X3 comes with Auto Start-Stop, which smartly shuts the engine off when you're at a stoplight, with your foot on the brake pedal. The moment you even start to lift pressure off the brake, the engine restarts--quite seamlessly most of the time. What disappointed us in this application was the way in which the engine shut off--with a full-body shudder that actually shook the X3's body on its tires if we'd already rolled to a full stop. Whether it's different engine mounts, the taller body, or something else, it's less refined here.
The X3's user-configurable suspension and steering are executed better than those in some other BMW vehicles. The basic suspension is still classic BMW, with MacPherson struts and a multi-link rear. The electronic shocks grafted on can be adapted to the driver's tastes with a Driving Dynamics Control switch located near the gearshift lever. Normal, Sport and Sport Plus modes are offered, and they adjust not only the dampers, but the throttle, transmission and steering feel according to the selected mode. It's a BMW--so it's not a shock that it feels sharpest in Sport mode, where the electronics set up swifter steering responses and tauter ride feel. The steering needs another round of fiddling, as it builds up cornering feel even during lower-speed turns and lane changes but doesn't unwind with much feel or linearity.
A good compromise may be the available Variable Sports Steering, which is essentially just a good variable-ratio rack, providing a relaxed feel on center, at high speeds, but allowing you to more easily maneuver at lower speeds, around tight corners. And we dare say we got more steering feel through the unit, surprisingly, than through the base electric steering system that's now included in the sedans.
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.