Essentially an X4 with a familiar nameplate.
An enduring personality is no BMW birth-right. Graphic proof is the X3, which has been the family's troubled child since it debuted seven years ago with a brutal ride, an austere cabin, cramped accommodations, and a high price. Numerous course corrections have helped, but what this compact SUV really needed was a clean-sheet redesign. Thankfully, one is due in March -- in the nick of time before BMW's smaller X1 arrives.
Along with a jump from the old to the new 3-series platform (E46 to E90 for you code mavens), BMW has shifted production from Austria to its Spartanburg, South Carolina, assembly plant, where the X5 and the X6 are also manufactured.
The new 2011 X3 is roughly the same size as the original X5. Overall length is greater by more than three inches. The wheelbase is 0.6 inch longer; width grows by 1.1 inches. More aluminum in the suspension and a body shell made of thinner-gauge high-strength steel yields a slightly lighter curb weight. We're being vague here because BMW won't release final figures until the new X3 debuts at this fall's Paris auto show.
Nor will BMW spokespersons confirm rumors of turbo-diesel and four-cylinder gasoline engines planned for the U.S.-market X3. The two engines initially on tap are normally aspirated and single-turbo versions of BMW's direct-injected, Valvetronic 3.0-liter in-line six. Expect 240 hp for the X3 xDrive28i and 300 hp for the X3 xDrive35i.
Today's six-speed manual transmission is hors de combat. A ZF eight-speed automatic with a manual mode and optional paddle shifting will be the sole U.S. gearbox. A standard all-wheel-drive system shared with the X5 uses a computer-controlled clutch to deliver torque to the front axle on demand with an initial 40/60 front/rear torque split. In lieu of limited-slip differentials, the new X3's stability control system is programmed to apply individual brakes and to summon more power -- when required -- to manipulate traction and handling.
The revised exterior proportions are more attractive but still recognizable as BMW's junior SUV. Inside, the hard-plastic days are gone. The optional leather trim is lavishly French seamed with contrasting stitches. There's an electronic display screen atop the dash -- with and without navigation -- and a standard iDrive controller surrounded by seven support buttons. Bluetooth, iPod, and auxiliary hookups are also standard. The wider tracks and larger door openings yield easier entry, more space between the front passengers, and ample room for two adults (or three in a pinch) in back.
A short on- and off-road drive in one camouflaged preproduction X3 revealed major improvements in ride quality. The new suspension takes potholes and pavement joints in stride, yet body roll during abrupt maneuvers is tightly contained. Steering effort builds predictably. According to chassis development guru Heinz Krusche, the credit is due to more resilient suspension systems, a stiffer body shell, and more linear damper calibrations. The outgoing X3's mushy brake pedal is also gone.
BMW hopes to hold the line on price so the base X3 can squeak under the $40,000 barrier.
On sale: March 2011
BASE PRICE: $40,000 (est.)
Specs: 3.0L I-6, 240 hp, 230 lb-ft; 3.0L turbo I-6, 300 hp, 300 lb-ft; 4-wheel drive
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BMW may have been first to the luxury compact crossover segment, but it'll take a full reboot of the X3 to remain competitive.