- Curvy looks
- Upgraded cabin
- Responsive drivetrain
- Handling is balanced
- Ride quality better than average
- Electronic steering feel
- Expensive options
A great-looking crossover with its most carlike performance yet, the BMW X3 also has more interior room and better materials than before.
Today's X3 is German at heart, but it's built here in South Carolina--since last year, when the latest version went into production here. At the same time, BMW redesigned it, making it longer, wider, more spacious, more appealing, and most importantly, more like its energetic 3-Series sedans.
It's not the first luxury crossover you might think of when the pavement turns to dirt, but the X3 hits all its marks. The badge brings in image-conscious buyers while the newly suave styling telegraphs exactly the brisk acceleration and grippy handling to come.
On styling alone, the new X3 is a big improvement over prior versions. It's more gently curved from nose to tail, with a light application of the sculptured panels that brought uncomfortable change to the 7-Series and 5-Series before BMW settled down its styling pens and integrated the grabby surfacing in a more restrained way. The cabin's grown up, too, with a dramatic upgrade to its finishes and the clarity of its controls.
This year, a pair of six-cylinders are available. The base 240-horsepower in-line six does an estimable job of pushing the chunky X3 down the road, to 60 mph in less than seven seconds. But it's the turbocharged, 300-hp version that pings all the right BMW hotspots: its 0-60 mph times of 5.5 seconds aren't far off the mark set by the M3 of a couple generations past, and while there's no manual transmission available, the 8-speed automatic has paddle shifters to keep drivers engaged. Every X3 has sophisticated road manners, generated by a combination of electronically controlled all-wheel drive biased to send torque to the rear wheels, and a well designed independent suspension that offers up excellent ride quality.
The current X3 is nearly the size of the original X5 SUV. Not surprisingly, the usable space inside is noticeable, especially in the back seat. Head room soars throughout the vehicle, and the space under the front seats will make size-13 back-seat passengers happy. As an option, the back seat can split, flip, and fold to boost the X3's usefulness.
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.
Now that the BMW X3 is built in the U.S., its features cater to American tastes. Every model gets power features, power seats, automatic climate control, a USB port, HD Radio, Bluetooth, and a 12-speaker, 205-watt audio system. The iDrive systems add an 8.8-inch LCD screen strapped to the dash. A panoramic roof, leather, and iPod integration are options.
2012 BMW X3
Pert, swoopy new lines give the latest X3 a much more invigorating look.
More carlike and more attractive, the new X3 is longer, wider, more impressive, and more closely related visually to other BMW vehicles than its predecessor, not to mention the larger X5.
The X3 cares not a whit for the blocky, rugged past of the SUV. Big, bold character lines cut down its doors like the curves on a 3-Series sedan. The nose drops low, and steers clear of the bluster that trips up compact crossovers trying to mimic "real SUV" cues. The tail is capped with small, LED-lit taillamps shaped like those on a 5-Series or 3-Series sedan. Functionless details hit the dumpster; this BMW pays more attention to surfaces and details.
Inside, the latest X3 sports a dash gently composed in arcs that encase the controls and bend them toward the driver. BMW has upgraded interior materials, and it's obvious. Tough plastics have gone soft, all around the cabin. A big LCD screen connects the X3 to the interface-driven present, and there's a head-up display on the options list that can project driving info on a discreet portion of the windshield. There's a calming influence at the controls in this X3. 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.
2012 BMW X3
Sport-sedan manners have arrived to crossovers, thanks to the X3.
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.
2012 BMW X3
Comfort & Quality
Superb details and excellent fit and finish make the X3's larger interior all that.
Larger inside, on a longer wheelbase, the new X3 can seat five passengers more comfortably than in previous editions. The current model is 3.4 inches longer, 0.5 inches taller, 1.1 inches wider, and clears the road an inch higher than the last-generation crossover.
The upsizing means the X3 is no longer middling in terms of size. The firm, properly angled front seats are surrounded by copious head and leg room. Second-row passengers have even more space--it's where the added length is most noticeable, and where the X3 takes the lead over vehicles like the Q5 and GLK Class. The back seats have room carved out for feet, under the front seat, and head room soars. No theater-style seats here, though--and that makes the X3 a better ride for back-benchers, since the higher ride height can make some other utes less comfortable in sporty driving.
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. 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. Overall, the new 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?
2012 BMW X3
The X3 gets the Top Safety Pick award, but other crash scores aren't in yet.
Now in its second model year, the BMW X3 has some, but not all, of its crash-test scores in the win column.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reports the new X3 gets "good" ratings for all its relevant crash tests, which means the crossover is an IIHS Top Safety Pick. However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn't yet tested the latest X3. We'll update this review if that information becomes available during the model year.
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.
2012 BMW X3
Base X3s are well-equipped, but ticking all the option boxes can send its pricetag over the $50,000 mark.
BMW's far less stingy with connectivity and infotainment features in this new X3 than in past versions. All models now have standard power front seats; automatic climate control; Bluetooth; and an audio system with 205 watts of power, 12 speakers, a USB port, HD and satellite radio.
Models outfitted with the available iDrive system also get a large 8.8-inch LCD screen that displays information from the audio, phone, and navigation systems, and comes bundled with real-time traffic information and full iPod integration.
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. Conclusion Base X3s are well-equipped, but ticking all the option boxes can send its pricetag over the $50,000 mark.
2012 BMW X3
Who'd have guessed? The stronger turbo engine gets better gas mileage than the outgoing base six.
BMW's improved the gas mileage of the X3 crossover in this new generation, but more change is coming in the 2013 model year with a turbocharged four-cylinder replacing today's normally-aspirated six in the X3 xDrive28i.
Until then, the less powerful version of BMW's classic in-line six actually gets worse fuel economy than its stronger turbo companion. The xDrive28i is rated by the EPA at 19/25 mpg--but the 300-hp xDrive35i earns 19/26-mpg ratings. Both versions get the benefit of an eight-speed automatic, and it's not difficult to see the new turbo four hitting a 30-mpg highway rating, or better.
BMW offers a start/stop system in European X3s with six-cylinder engines, but it doesn't put the fuel-saving technology on U.S. versions.
For comparison, the X3 stacks up slightly worse than the Volkswagen Touareg, which rates 19/28 mpg, and the Audi Q5, which gets EPA ratings of 20/27 mpg. It's marginally better in the city cycle than the Range Rover Evoque, at 18/28 mpg.
Conclusion Who'd have guessed? The stronger turbo engine gets better gas mileage than the outgoing base six.