2011 BMW X3 Review

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The Car Connection
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The Car Connection

The Car Connection Expert Review

Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
November 18, 2010

BMW finally has a crossover that's as good as its cars. The 2011 BMW X3 looks fantastic; performs like a sport sedan; and has a comfortable, top-notch interior.

Now that it's assembled in South Carolina, the 2011 BMW X3 is a newly minted citizen, and clearly, it went overboard studying for its naturalization exams. The formula for success: Make it bigger, make it faster, make it richer—but don't make it too off-roady.

The new X3 ticks all those boxes, from its low-profile tires to its gently curved roof. It's grown in almost every dimension, and gained a great new interior with more second-row seat room. (It's almost the size of the original X5, now.) It looks fantastic, inside and out. It's fast enough to blur any memory of its stiff-riding, cheap-cabin ancestors.

The 2011 X3 doesn't need much explanation in its differences and distinctions from the outgoing model. It's visibly, physically larger, and it's much more attractive in a car-like way. Forget the trending to rugged, blocky SUV shapes you've seen at other brands, on other vehicles—the X3 swoops it up now with a character line delivered like the same cues on a 3-Series wagon.

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The X3's interior, as well, will convince you that this crossover's an acceptable substitute for the rear-drive glory that the turbo 3-Series sedans muster. The dash arcs to envelop controls and angles them at the driver, adding to the more sedan-like air surrounding the new SUV. Whether it's the big, clear dials in the instrument pod, the simplified audio and climate switches, or even the off-centered iDrive controller, the X3's cabin seems more rested and at ease with its mission.

BMW says it's paid special attention to upgrading the interior materials, too, and it's immediately obvious. Tough textures have gone soft, in the proper ways. A large LCD screen links into the connected-driving zeitgeist, and there's a head-up display on offer that projects all the information essential to driving in a discreet section of the windshield.

In the U.S., BMW is offering the 2011 X3 with a choice of two six-cylinder engines. The base X3 xDrive28i is normally aspirated, and churns out 240 horsepower and 230 pound-feet of torque, while the 35i gets a 300-hp turbocharged six capable of getting to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds. That's nearly as quick as the 3-Series sedan, not to mention a few generations of M3 derivatives. The sole transmission this time around in the X3 is an eight-speed automatic, but it includes paddle-shifters.

Although mild off-roading isn't completely off the 2011 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 can flex to send 100 percent of available power to either end of the vehicle. More electronics bedazzle the suspension and steering, but in the 2011 X3 they've been configured to encourage set-and-forget driving. It's still classic MacPherson strut and multi-link rear suspensions, with electronic shocks grafted on and tailored with a Driving Dynamics Control switch located near the gearshift lever. 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.

Upsizing pays off inside the 2011 BMW X3. It's nearly 3.4 inches longer overall, 1.1 inches wider, sits 0.5 inches taller and has that same numeric increase in ground clearance. Much of the added length is made available in the rear seats, where the X3 has been mid-pack with other luxury utes like the Cadillac SRX, Audi Q5 and Mercedes-Benz GLK-Class. There's soaring headroom all around, and behind the front seats, nice rectangular nacelles that might even fit a pair of size-13 feet.

Safety features include all the usual airbags, anti-lock brakes, and stability systems. In Sport mode, drivers of a navigation-and-iDrive-equipped X3 can customize that Sport mode for differing levels of stability control.

A revamped features list shows, indirectly, some of the cost benefits of bringing the X3 in to the American family. A big, bright 8.8-inch LCD screen looms front and center on navigation-equipped vehicles. Leather seating, a big panoramic sunroof, dual-zone climate controls and a full iPod integration kit are available, many of them to be made standard on the turbocharged version, though final specs are yet to come.

A revamped feature list shows, indirectly, some of the cost benefits of bringing the 2011 BMW X3 in to the American family. Prices for the 2011 X3 are in alignment with the rest of the class, yet BMW is less stingy with standard features compared to some rival models. Automatic climate control, eight-way power seats, a basic iPod and USB adapter, Bluetooth, HD Radio, and a 205-watt, 12-speaker sound system are all included even in the base X3 xDrive28i model.

The 2011 BMW X3 isn't expected to reach dealerships until the first quarter of 2010. Yet since several major review sources have already driven versions, we've compiled this review.

8

2011 BMW X3

Styling

With a swoopy, attractive exterior, and a clean, uncluttered new look inside, the pert new 2011 BMW X3 is clearly differentiated from other blocky luxury crossovers.

The 2011 X3 doesn't need much explanation in its differences and distinctions from the outgoing model. It's visibly, physically larger, and it's much more attractive in a car-like way. Forget the trending to rugged, blocky SUV shapes you've seen at other brands, on other vehicles; the X3 swoops it up now with a character line delivered like the same cues on a 3-Series wagon.

While most sport-utes have seen huge nose inflation (all the more canvas for hideous outsized grilles) the X3's nose tapers more quickly, its kidney-shaped nostrils flaring more widely. The contours are more pronounced over its longer body, and capped by pert little LED taillamps that could easily fit on any BMW passenger car.

Inside, the dash arcs to envelop controls and angles them at the driver, adding to the more sedan-like air surrounding the new SUV. BMW says it's paid special attention to upgrading the interior materials, too, and it's immediately obvious. Tough textures have gone soft, in the proper ways. A large LCD screen links into the connected-driving zeitgeist, and there's a head-up display on offer that projects all the information essential to driving in a discreet section of the windshield.

It's a calming influence at work. Whether it's the big, clear dials in the instrument pod, the simplified audio and climate switches, or even the off-centered iDrive controller, the X3's cabin seems more rested, de-cluttered, and at ease with its mission.

Review continues below
8

2011 BMW X3

Performance

The new 2011 BMW X3 delivers sport-sedan-like performance in its more versatile, accommodating package.

In the U.S., BMW is offering the 2011 X3 with a choice of two six-cylinder engines. The base X3 xDrive28i is normally aspirated, and churns out 240 horsepower and 230 pound-feet of torque, which the automaker says should be good for a 0-60 mph cruise of 6.7 seconds—faster than the prior edition and its similar engine.

Although at the time of this writing The Car Connection hasn't yet driven the base model, we have spend a driving day with the single-turbo six-cylinder X3, tweaked to 300 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque. BMW promises a 0-60 mph time of 5.5 seconds to 60 mph with this powertrain, along with a limited top speed of 150 mph. Those numbers approach the figures generated by the 3-Series sedan, not to mention a few generations of M3 derivatives; it's the kind of straight-line acceleration that confuses your brain, which thinks that this kind of ride height automatically translates to "plodding."

The sole transmission this time around in the X3 is an eight-speed automatic. There's no manual option, but the automatic is staged so lower gears boost grunt, while upper gears lock up via a torque converter to help fuel economy. Available paddle shifters (in a crossover!) are a mixed message: they keep you from removing a hand from the wheel, but we couldn't find any gear indicator on any of the LCD screens.

More electronics bedazzle the suspension and steering, but in the 2011 X3 they've been configured to encourage set-and-forget driving. It's still classic MacPherson strut and multi-link rear suspensions, with electronic shocks grafted on and tailored 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. For better or worse, the X3 feels best in Sport mode, with swifter steering 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 2011 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.

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9

2011 BMW X3

Comfort & Quality

With a comfortable, well-designed interior, superb detailing, and top-notch materials, the 2011 BMW X3 does everything the last-generation X3 didn't and is now a standout in the class.

With seating for five, the X3 also now has a large 19-cubic-foot rear storage area that swells to 56.6 cubic feet when the rear seats are folded down. On U.S. versions, the rear seats split 60:40, or optionally, in 40:20:40 segments for better flexibility. The cargo area itself is lovingly detailed, with rich carpet, some of the most refined seatback latches we've ever seen, and metal cargo rails with zero tolerance for poor fit.

Upsizing pays off inside the 2011 BMW X3. It's nearly 3.4 inches longer overall, 1.1 inches wider, sits 0.5 inches taller and has that same numeric increase in ground clearance. Much of the added length is made available in the rear seats, where the X3 has been mid-pack with other luxury utes like the Cadillac SRX, Audi Q5 and Mercedes-Benz GLK-Class. It's midpack no more: while the front passengers have copious head and leg room and swell chairs to ride in, the second-row passengers get it even better. There's soaring headroom all around, and behind the front seats, nice rectangular nacelles that might even fit a pair of size-13 feet. And those three-across riders in back also sit at nearly the same height as the front passengers—there's almost none of the theater-style seating nonsense that can give bigger utes a tippy feel.

Overall, the new 2011 X3 is so much more sophisticated in design and execution, especially inside, that it renders the prior X3 generations into early used-car oblivion. Who would want dark, hard, plasticky controls in a two-year-old, off-lease X3 when this version's innards are silky as pate?

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8

2011 BMW X3

Safety

The 2011 BMW X3 has a respectable set of safety features, and it could be better than average among taller crossover wagons in avoiding an accident.

Standard safety features on the 2011 X3 include all the usual airbags, active front head restraints, anti-lock brakes, and stability systems. In Sport mode, drivers of a navigation-and-iDrive-equipped X3 can customize that Sport mode for differing levels of stability control. A stability-control mode with a higher threshold of intervention also aids traction and confidence in snow.

The new 2011 BMW X3 hasn't yet been crash-tested or rated for safety by either of the major U.S. agencies. The last-generation X3 wasn't tested by the federal government, though it did do well in IIHS tests, with top 'good' frontal and side-impact ratings.

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8

2011 BMW X3

Features

You could potentially spend a bundle on the 2011 BMW X3 if you check a lot of option boxes, but the base model is better equipped than many rival luxury crossovers.

A revamped feature list shows, indirectly, some of the cost benefits of bringing the 2011 BMW X3 in to the American family. Prices for the 2011 X3 are in alignment with the rest of the class, yet BMW is less stingy with standard features compared to some rival models. Automatic climate control, eight-way power seats, a basic iPod and USB adapter, Bluetooth, HD Radio, and a 205-watt, 12-speaker sound system are all included even in the base X3 xDrive28i model.

In up front and center on navigation-equipped vehicles, there's the latest version of iDrive, with a big, bright 8.8-inch LCD screen, and they include full iPod integration and enhanced USB connectivity. Real-time traffic information is also included.

Other noteworthy options—most offered in somewhat pricey packages—include heated front and rear seats, xenon headlamps with adaptive light control, a panorama roof, and a power tailgate. A head-up display, which projects some gauge readouts onto the windshield is also now available. Oddly, while a 60/40-split rear seatback is standard, a 40/20/40-split rear seatback with fold-down armrest is optional.

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6

2011 BMW X3

Fuel Economy

The 2011 BMW X3 will likely have respectable mileage ratings for its class—though on an absolute family-car scale, nothing to wow.

At 17 mpg city, 24 highway, last year's X3 model was far from a segment leader. Yet the introduction of the new eight-speed—two more than last year—automatic transmission allows a wider span of gears and an even taller highway cruising ratio. That, and the new-generation engines, should aid fuel economy, so we expect 2011 ratings to be no lower, possibly a mile per gallon higher. And don't expect the more powerful xDrive35i to be any worse on fuel; in BMW's other vehicles it's proven to be just as fuel-efficient, if not better, than the non-turbo six.

BMW won't yet be bringing its engine start/stop system, which is offered in other markets and saves fuel at stoplights, to the U.S., however.

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8.2
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Styling 8
Performance 8
Comfort & Quality 9
Safety 8
Features 8
Fuel Economy 6
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