Nineteen-ninety-nine wasn’t so long ago that we’ve forgotten the hullabaloo over the prospect of BMW building a sport-utility vehicle — and building it in America, no less. But the original X5 was a real BMW after all, a 5-series-based charmer that heroically set up the 3-series-based X3 that followed a few years later. Unfortunately, the X3 proved somewhat less than worthy of its BMW roundel. It wasn’t bad to look at and it was difficult to fault in the powertrain department, but road manners were on the iffy side and its lackluster interior was a serious downer. The package improved with a top-to-bottom refresh for 2007, but let’s just say there’ll be few tears shed over the passing of the first-generation X3.
From the curb, there’s no mistaking the entirely new 2011 X3 for anything but an X3, but don’t hold that against it. This is a superior vehicle: swifter, more agile, and significantly more refined than its predecessor. The sheetmetal is decidedly more twenty-first-century. The car is stout and handsome from most angles, with a dramatic swoosh on its flanks and character creases all over (the hood alone has six). The kidney-shaped grille openings are larger and tipped forward, and the headlamps are smaller but just as weirdly shaped as the old model’s. At the rear, the taillamps are neatly refined, although we could do without the body-color valance under the rear bumper.
Like the exterior, the passenger compartment is generally easier on the eyes and a superb place to while away the miles. The driving position is unsurprisingly terrific, and, at last, material quality is above reproach. Advanced technology is plentiful, neatly integrated, and, for the most part, genuinely user-friendly. Even the infamously confounding iDrive interface seems easy to navigate nowadays. The downside (and it’s a minor one) is that the new X3’s cabin is a bit less commodious than that of the outgoing model. Front-seat legroom and rear-seat headroom are down marginally, and the center console seems a bit broader than it needs to be.
The situation under the hood is a whole lot more interesting. BMW has again split the X3 into two models (as it was when the car arrived in 2004). The X3 xDrive28i is the value leader. Like the base 3-series, it employs BMW’s normally aspirated 3.0-liter in-line six, good for 240 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque. The 28i was notably absent during our test drive of the new X3, but joyful experience with BMW’s sweet N52 engine in other models bodes well for it. The top-drawer X3 xDrive35i packs BMW’s new N55 3.0-liter straight six that produces a round 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque.
The TwinPower label on the engine cover no longer refers to two turbos, but instead to a single, dual-scroll turbocharger. Moving this 4222-pound vehicle, the sonorous turbo engine is a delight. Both engines use a new eight-speed automatic gearbox. The manual transmission is gone, but with a much broader ratio spread, the eight-speed makes the new X3 both quicker off the line and more fuel-efficient on the interstate. According to BMW, 60 mph arrives in a scant 5.5 seconds (compared with 6.7 for the new 28i and 7.1 seconds for the outgoing X3 30i with the six-speed automatic). Top speed for both models is electronically limited to 130 mph, although the 35i’s optional sport package raises its terminal velocity to 150 mph.
BMW’s fine xDrive all-wheel-drive system is standard; rear-wheel drive is not available — a missed opportunity, perhaps, considering that a not-insignificant 40 percent of Mercedes-Benz GLK350s are rear-wheel drive. That said, xDrive is exceptionally easy to live with, rain or shine, with a sporty 40/60-percent fore/aft torque split under normal driving that can shift to 100 percent aft when the time is right — providing some carefully controlled tail-happiness when powering out of a bend, for instance.
As was its predecessor (and all of its rivals, come to think of it), the new X3 is more a gifted all-roader than a bona fide off-roader, although 8.4 inches of ground clearance and the ability to ford almost twenty inches of water aren’t too shabby. Over a few miles on some hilly two-tracks in rural Georgia, the new X3 acquitted itself quite well, with generous wheel travel over ruts and rocks and impressive tenacity on loose sand and gravel.
The 2011 X3 xDrive28i starts at $37,625. That’s a skosh more than a rear-wheel-drive Mercedes GLK350 ($36,375) or a Quattro-equipped Audi Q5 2.0T ($36,075) but less than the 2010 X3 30i ($39,725). The X3 xDrive35i rolls for $41,925, and although it’s well-equipped right off the rack, BMW is keen to breathe new life into a high-margin car-buying trend: the special order. The company has concocted a rather enticing haute-couture program for the X3 that should resonate with its younger, tech-savvier buyers.
As little as four weeks after the usual check-box order process at their local dealership, buyers retrieve their new X3 at BMW’s sparkling and newly expanded factory in Spartanburg, South Carolina, a visit that includes a production-line tour, a one-night stay with meals, and driving instruction at the BMW Performance Center. To make the game even more appealing, special-orderers can choose from two exclusive shades of leather upholstery and three metallic paint colors (including the only shade of red). Buyers even receive video baby pictures of their X3 rolling down the line. Special order, indeed.
On Sale: January
Price: $37,625/$41,925 (xDrive28i/xDrive35i)
Engines: 3.0L I-6, 240 hp, 221 lb-ft; 3.0L turbo I-6, 300 hp, 300 lb-ft