First Drive: 2011 BMW X3 Prototype

Don Sherman

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.

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.

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.

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