First Drive: 2011 BMW X3 Prototype

Don Sherman

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.

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.

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