BMW's X3 -- the small SUV that critics love to hate -- has finally earned a comprehensive rethink. Born seven years ago two strides behind the also controversial X5, the original 3-series-based X3 excelled in handling but suffered from a brutal ride, cramped accommodations, austere furnishings, and a dear price. In spite of those shortcomings, the Austrian-built X3 sold well and earned an avid following, in large part because BMW implemented numerous year-by-year course corrections.
Now the new X3 leaps from long-gone E46 3-series underpinnings to the more competent E90 platform. Magna Steyr, BMW's original manufacturing and development partner, is out of the picture and production has been relocated to BMW's Spartanburg, South Carolina, assembly plant (where X5 and X6 sport utes are also manufactured for worldwide distribution). The third leg of the X3's revival stool is a combination of usefully larger dimensions and beneficial powertrain changes.
EVOLUTIONARY EXTERIOR DESIGN
All of the X3's birthmarks-including the rising character line through the rear quarter window--are still clearly evident in this second generation. Thanks to a 3.5-inch increase in track width (front and rear) and a 1.2-inch gain in overall width, the precursor's awkwardly tall proportions have morphed into a more confident, securely planted shape. A modest 0.6-in. increase in wheelbase combined with a 3.1-inch overall length stretch have done wonders for access and interior room. (Note: all dimensional changes are approximate since final specifications have not yet been released.) Proof that BMW engineers took this revival seriously is the fact that the new X3 is a few pounds lighter than the original thanks to more aluminum in the suspension and a shift to thinner-gauge high-strength steel in the body shell.
The new X3 has effectively taken over the size category vacated by the X5 when it grew for the 2007 model year. This leaves room in the lineup for the two-inches-shorter X1 crossover due next year.
A CABIN THAT WARRANTS NO APOLOGY
Inside, there's nearly no trace of the bygone hard-plastic era. The optional leather trim is French-seamed to a faretheewell with attractive contrasting stitches. A new electronic display screen located at the top of the center stack is a permanent fixture for all models whether or not a navigation system is purchased. Centrally located twin cupholders are also standard fare, BMW's nod to our penchant for road-going refreshments.
To no one's surprise, an I-Drive controller is finally standard X3 equipment. Seven support buttons surround the main rotary knob and BMW insists that the latest improvements make this system intuitively easy to use. One remaining I-Drive annoyance is BMW's illogical use of MLS to abbreviate MILES.
While there are incremental gains in front seat space, the real breakthroughs are found in the X3's second row and cargo hold. A lower and much wider door opening provides significantly easier entry. With the rear wheel wells moved further outboard, there's additional hip and elbow room. A lower center tunnel and additional space between the center console and the rear seat facilitates side-to-side transfers. While the center seating position is stiffly padded to accommodate a fold-down armrest with cupholders, there is ample head, leg, and shoulder room to carry three adults in a pinch and two in comfort. Moving the outermost weather seals from the body to the door has greatly reduced the chances of soiling trouser legs upon entry.
Moving the rear wheels outboard and increasing the hatch's opening width has done wonders for the space and utility provided by the cargo hold. Door panel pockets are now large enough to carry 1-liter beverage bottles.
ADDITIONAL INFOTAINMENT GEAR
Handy Bluetooth cell phone communication and convenient IPod hookups are now standard in the X3. Auxiliary audio connection sockets are more logically located and steering wheel mounted paddle shifters are included with the optional sport package. BMW intends to offer a fuel saving automatic engine stop-start system at some unspecified point in the new X3's lifetime.
With the optional Dynamic Drive Control, one console switch adjusts the dampers, throttle response, and transmission shift points. The usual Normal, Sport, and Sport Plus positions are provided. By dialing into I-Drive, it's also possible to decouple chassis and powertrain settings in the Sport Plus mode.
In spite of a wealth of added creature comforts, the X3's steering column tilt and telescope movements are still managed by a simplistic single-lever release instead of the power adjuster that is common fare in the $40,000-plus crossover category.
TWO POTENT SIXES BUT NOT A STICK IN SIGHT
The powertrain report is a mix of good and bad news. As before, all-wheel drive is standard X3 fare. The base model, which will be labeled X328i, will be powered by the normally aspirated 3.0-liter six that has been available since this crossover's birth. A single-turbo 3.0-liter six should give the more upscale X335i class leading power and torque. While no ratings have been released, BMW engineers tout 12-percent more horsepower, 27-percent more torque, and 9-percent better fuel economy than current editions of this engine. If those prognostications are true, the X335i will have at least 330 horsepower in its holster.
When the crunch of CAFE regulations arrives in a few years, BMW will likely add both a turbo-diesel and a four-cylinder gasoline engine to the X3's powertrain menu.
While the current X3 is one of the few crossovers offered with a manual transmission, its replacement will drop the stick shift option. BMW cites a low take rate and certification costs as the obvious reasons. Between both of the available six-cylinder engines and the drive wheels, there's a smooth shifting and fuel economy boosting 8-speed ZF automatic transmission with a handy manual-mode and optional paddle shifting. Unfortunately, this transmission is programmed to deliver an automatic upshift at the redline in its manual-shift mode.
The standard on-demand all-wheel drive system, still called Xdrive, is shared with the big brother X5. Power to the rear axle is provided by a permanently engaged mechanical connection. A computer controlled multiplate clutch routes a measured amount of torque to the front axle. In normal driving the torque split starts at 40:60 f:r with adjustments as needed to maintain forward momentum in slippery or aggressive cornering conditions. To help the open front and rear differentials keep the wheels turning and to minimize understeer, the Dynamic Stability Control system has the authority to momentarily apply the brakes at any wheel and to automatically open the throttle to send extra torque to the outside rear wheel.
CHASSIS FINESSE WORTHY OF A BMW BADGE
The X3's suspension hardware is an offshoot of the equipment that underpins mainstream 3-series models. At the front there's a double-ball-jointed strut-type suspension with coil springs. The rear axle is a coil-sprung multilink arrangement similar to the suspension fitted to 3-series sedans equipped with Xdrive. Substantial front and rear anti-roll bars are included to deal with the X3's elevated center of gravity. Run-flat radials are standard equipment in 17-, 18-, and 19-inch sizes. No less than three different electrically assisted steering systems will be offered: a base system, a Servotronic speed-sensitive upgrade, and a sport steering option with ratios that vary according to wheel position instead of road speed. In every case, the electric assist motor is geared to the steering rack rather than to the pinion shaft to optimize the amount of road feel delivered to the steering wheel.
PAIN FREE DRIVING DYNAMICS
A brief test drive in one X3 pre-production camouflaged prototype in the wilds of Bavaria convinced us that BMW is finally ready to compete in earnest with the nine other premium grade entries that currently crowd the compact crossover class. Chassis development engineer Heinz Krushe, the individual most responsible for making every BMW feel and act like a BMW, revealed clear and concise goals: maintaining the X3's agility while improving its ride comfort and general behavior. "We listen to and take care of our customers," Krushe stressed. "Some of them complained that the X3's ride qualities weren't up to BMW's high standards so we made absolutely sure that this new model would please them."
It all starts with a significantly stiffer, though lighter, body shell that serves as an unyielding foundation for steering and suspension operations. Give the X3's leather-wrapped wheel a smart yank and there's a swift yet predictable change in path. The steering effort builds nicely and body motions feel constrained by invisible outriggers. Abrupt maneuvers don't shake the X3's composure and it corners surprisingly flat with a full load of passengers onboard.
The best news is that the punishing ride motions are gone. The suspension meets the bump and grind of bad road travel with a suppleness and compliance absent from the current X3. Potholes that send tremors through the old body structure are dealt with in a smooth, trauma-free manner. Pressed for an explanation as to how this was achieved, Krushe revealed that damper calibrations were changed to provide a steady, linear rise in the amount of wheel motion control in place of the tight initial damping followed by gradually diminishing control used previously.
In back-to-back comparisons with the current X3, we also observed worthwhile brake system improvements. In contrast to the mushy feeling feel of the current model, the new X3's brake pedal is firmer, more communicative, and more responsive to pressure instead of travel.
LOCKED AND LOADED FOR LAUNCH
The camo wraps will finally be taken off the new X3 at this fall's Paris auto show and its stateside debut is scheduled for the Los Angeles auto show in December. Production in Spartanburg begins that month and dealers will commence deliveries by March of next year (a few months in advance of the X1's arrival.)
After our brief exposure, we'd say that the new X3 finally has exactly what it needs to be a strong, possibly dominant player in the expensive compact crossover class.