2013 BMW X3 xDrive28i: Driven

January 25, 2013
Last year, in several of BMW's mainstream models like the 3-Series and 5-Series, the German automaker did what might have a few years earlier been the unthinkable for the U.S. market: replaced its much-loved naturally aspirated in-line six with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Now for 2013 BMW has done the same to its X3 crossover.

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.

After spending just over a week with the 2013 BMW X3 xDrive28i, we think it's worth taking the even more economical 28i for a drive, even if you're pretty decided on the turbocharged six-cylinder xDrive35i. Simply put, it's quick, and it's confident, with plenty of power to spare and as much as most American drivers will ever need. 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 does indeed do a better job in feeling like a six than Ford's EcoBoost 2.0-liter in the Ford Escape (as well as the Range Rover Evoque). And the key to that is the turbo's very quick spool-up, as well as peak torque reached at a diesel-like 1,250 rpm (all the way up to 4,800 rpm).

Quick, strong, almost diesel-like

Factor in the quick, ratcheting-yet-isolated shifts of the eight-speed automatic transmission here, and the character of the powertrain is muted and smooth yet precise and responsive. And with a Driving Dynamics Control system, you can select between several 'attitudes,' like Eco Pro, to best fit your priorities.

In this model we kept it in the Normal driving mode most of the time, as switching to Eco Pro tended to bring out a bit of lag in the powertrain—and whether it was in the engine controls or the transmission, we found ourselves counter-intuitively driving in a less-smooth (and perhaps less fuel-efficient) way. The behavior, even in Normal, is conservative—in a good way. Gently ease into the accelerator, and the eight-speed shifts early, keeping revs low and mileage high.

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 other critical note that we have to add about the new four in the X3 is its diesel-like sound at idle, especially when cold—to the degree that a diesel-aficionado friend asked if it was one, as we were in a parking structure and waiting for the windshield to clear. Somehow, also more so than in the 3-Series and 5-Series, you tend to hear the direct-injection sounds up front, as well as outside.

Refined on the road; still not focused on the trail

On the topic of refinement, the first-generation X3 didn't ride well; its interior appointments didn't altogether feel luxury-level; and it didn't even handle all that well. But the current, second-generation X3 that went on sale for 2011 and continues today is far, far better in all those respects. Despite the mandatory run-flat tires that the North American X3 runs on, ride quality is pretty good—although it's on the firm side. And the one thing you're not going to find much of for the X3 is a rugged side. While there's more than eight inches of ground clearance, the level of harshness and reverberation in the cabin, on a short gravel stretch, indicated that this is not a vehicle you'd gladly take far off pavement for comfort's sake. Additionally, we did notice more harshness as the temperatures plummeted in a cold snap.

The X3, which we drove in winter in Michigan, proved itself a great cold-weather vehicle. The heated steering wheel was a welcome feature, and the heated seats actually heat up through the back, not just from below. We also love the ability—in the X3 and in other BMW vehicles—to select warm air from the dash vents at first on a cold but sunny winter day and then switch to cooler air once warmed up.

The sport seats in our X3 actually feel a bit too firm when you first get in, but for a couple of three-hour highway blasts they provided the perfect kind of support—along with extendable thigh cushions.

Soft-touch everything

Inside, with the current generation of the X3 BMW has done a lot to keep the look and feel premium. All the materials from the middle of the doors on up are soft-touch, with really nice-looking grains, and the net effect is that the cabin has a muted ambiance that helps soak up harsh sounds both from conversations inside the car and, we suspect from the outside.

At about 183 inches long and 74 inches wide, with a wheelbase of 110.6 inches, the X3 is now a step bigger than most of the mainstream compact crossovers like the Toyota RAV4 or Ford Escape, but it's sized almost identically with the Audi Q5 and a bit shorter than the Cadillac SRX.

The current generation of the X3 drives a bit more like the X5, and a bit less like the firmly sprung 3-Series wagon on stilts. If anything, the X3 feels a little more compliant and allows a little more lean than before—to the benefit of handling—and the 28i in general felt a little lighter and more nimble than we remembered from the six-cylinder model. Though we have to add that if you're expecting the level of driving engagement that you've experienced before in BMW vehicles, you might be happier with a 2013 BMW 3-Series Sports Wagon.

Our car has 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.

The turbo four proved very fuel-efficient, too. Over about 700 miles of driving in wintry Michigan—with most of those miles either in suburban errands or high-speed highway cruising—we averaged more than 24 mpg.

Charming, but pricey at $52k

The bottom-line price for our 2013 BMW X3 xDrive28i was a eyebrow-raising $52,345. That included—as most BMWs you'll find at the dealership—a long list of options, like the $1,150 Sport Activity Package (aluminum-satin roof rails, sport seats, sport steering wheel, X-line exterior trim, anthracite headliner); the $3,450 Premium Package (universal garage-door opener, panoramic moonroof, ambient lighting, additional storage); a $3,200 Technology Package (rearview camera, Park Distance Control, navigation with real-time traffic, BMW Assist); a $1,300 Convenience Package (xenon headlamps, rear side sunshades, and Comfort Access entry); Premium Sound ($950); and a $700 Cold Weather Package with heated front seats and a heated steering wheel.

What we found, in the end, is that the current X3 is neither first and foremost a rugged off-pavement machine nor a vehicle honed for curvy mountain roads. What it is, is a vehicle that makes a lot of sense for American suburban families who want a vehicle that's roomy inside and very luxurious, yet fuel-efficient and responsibly sized—yet without a doubt, a BMW from the driver's seat.

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