Review: 2011 BMW X3

Michael Karesh
by Michael Karesh

With the 2004 X3, BMW offered a compact SUV a half-decade ahead of other German car manufacturers. So not long after Audi and Mercedes have introduced their first such vehicle BMW has an all-new second-generation X3. The first-generation X3 had its strengths, but its weaknesses tended to outweigh them, especially in the U.S. market. The larger X5 has outsold it on this side of the Atlantic many times over despite a higher price. Has BMW learned enough in the past seven years to address these weaknesses and keep ahead of the new competition?

Though its U.S. launch is delayed, an even more compact X1 is already available in Europe. To make room for it, and to fill the void created when the X5 was enlarged three years ago, the new X3 has gained three inches of length and an inch of width (but, unlike other recently redesigned BMWs, less than 50 pounds of weight). The new X3’s exterior styling strongly resembles the original’s, but more substantial and refined surfaces help it appear more up-to-date, more solid, and more worthy of a lofty Monroney. The creases over the wheel openings seem extraneous, but at least they’re subtle. The body rides lower over the wheels, for a more car-like stance, perhaps because BMW figured out that few (if any) X3 owners were venturing off the road or even wanted to look like they might. (According to the specs, there’s actually a half-inch more ground clearance, so the mechanical bits must be tucked in more tightly.) The X5 continues to appear brawnier, thanks to more muscular fenders. The Audi Q5 is prettier, while the Mercedes-Benz GLK appears more rugged, but the X3 looks the sportiest of the three when fitted with suitable wheels.

The original X3 was roundly slammed for its cut-rate cabin. A mid-cycle refresh upgraded materials, and the 2011 is another step up. The new interior looks and feels more substantial. Unlike the 2004’s, it’s on par with that of the contemporary 3-Series. There are more curves than inside most other current BMWs, even a bit of the driver-orientation for which the marque’s instrument panels used to be known, but there’s still much less style for the sake of style than you’ll find elsewhere. And yet the controls are too unconventional and too complicated to award any prizes for functionality. Even the shifter, the monostatic sort BMW has been putting in everything, feels odd and requires more conscious attention than a shifter ought to.

Inside the larger, lower-riding body there’s over an inch more headroom, 1.5 inches more front shoulder room, and an inch more rear legroom (unless you’re very tall, you’ll fit). These differences don’t sound like much, but the feeling from the driver’s seat is much different. The new X3 seems roomier, but even more than this it seems like a larger, more substantial vehicle. And a bit more car-like as well (if still notably less so than the Audi). Credit a higher beltline and a less upright, more distant windshield flanked by thicker pillars. The driver’s seat is standard BMW fare, so very supportive and comfortable, but not cushy. Unlike in the new 5-Series, the optional sport seats include power-adjustable side bolsters, so there’s no need to compromise lateral support for many of us in order to provide enough space for XXL drivers.

The specs suggest cargo volume is down, from 71.0 cubic feet to 63.3. But BMW’s literature claims it’s actually up by 15 percent. Apparently the method used to measure cargo volume changed. Cases like this are why I never have much faith in cargo volume specifications—there are too many variables and no fixed standards, even within a given manufacturer. My eyes say the new X3 is competitive in this area.

The BMW X3 was initially offered with a 2.5-liter as well as a 3.0-liter inline six, but the former was dropped years ago. For 2011, the retuned six loses 20 horsepower, for a total of 240, but is also available in 300 horsepower turbocharged form. The unboosted six provides decent performance, but doesn’t feel as strong or sound as sonorous as the 265-horsepower V6 in the Audi Q5. The turbo easily blows by both of them, with an audible whoosh. As in other BMWs, this engine feels much stronger than its official 300-horsepower rating. In this segment, only the 325-horsepower turbocharged inline six that will be available in the 2012 Volvo XC60 R-Spec can hope to keep up. My suspicion: the Volvo won’t be quite as quick, partly because of gearing, but its six will sound better. The BMW six doesn’t sound bad, but the Volvo’s voice is lovely.

A manual transmission is no longer available in the X3. The automatic is an eight-speed unit that can get a bit busy, especially with the base engine. Unless your foot is deep in the throttle little time is spent in the first two gears. Thanks to the extra ratios, electric-assist steering, and a clutched alternator, fuel economy is up, from 17/24 to 19/25 for the xDrive28i and 19/26 for the xDrive35i (yes, the stronger engine actually does equally well in the city and a bit better on the highway).

With its reduced ride height and almost exactly 50:50 weight distribution, the new X3 feels more balanced and more composed through curves than the nose-heavy, less tightly damped Audi Q5, next best in the segment for chassis dynamics (unless Volvo has worked wonders with the 2012 XC60 R-Spec). To be (un)fair, BMW provided a Q5 without the optional “DriveSelect” adjustable steering and adaptive shocks. Typical of the marque, the BMW can be placed very precisely and rarely surprises. Driving it quickly soon becomes far more intuitive than the iDrive control system can ever hope to be.

Both tested X3s were fitted with the $1,400 Dynamic Handling Package, while includes “variable sport steering,” “performance control,” adaptive shocks, and a button to vary these bits, the throttle, and the transmission among three settings. “Performance control” modulates the brakes to provide a hint of oversteer through turns. It cannot be turned off, both 2011 X3s I drove had it, so I cannot attest how much difference it makes. “Variable sport steering” isn’t the same as active steering. Instead of being able to vary the ratio continuously and at any time, the ratio simply quickens as the wheel approaches the lock. This system is simpler and more predictable, but cannot dramatically vary the ratio on center the way active steering can. The selectable modes affect the firmness of the steering, but more at highway speeds than below 40. No matter what the setting, the X3’s steering feels more artificial and provides less nuanced feedback than the outstanding conventional system in the Audi Q5.

Ride quality was the second glaring weakness of the original X3, and probably the main reason people initially interested in the small SUV didn’t end up buying one. The 2011 rides much more smoothly, at least when fitted with the adaptive shocks (and quite likely without them as well). The different modes make little difference here; in “Sport+” impacts are a little sharper, but the ride remains comfortable. In “Normal” the ride can feel a touch underdamped on some roads; “Sport” strikes a nice compromise. The downside of the improved ride: combine the more compliant suspension with the artificial steering and the less intimate driving position, and the new X3 feels larger, less agile, and less direct than the original. There’s less wind and road noise than in the Audi, but this says more about the Q5 than the X3.

The 2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i starts at $37,625, $2,100 less than the 2010. According to TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, the new SUV also includes over $800 in additional standard features, for a total price reduction of nearly $3,000. The xDrive35i starts at $41,925, and its standard xenon headlights and wood trim account for $1,400 of the difference at BMW prices, leaving $2,900 for the turbocharger. The upshot: once features (not including the engine) are adjusted for, the new xDrive35i costs about the same as last year’s much less powerful, fatally flawed vehicle.

These being BMWs, adding options quickly leaves these base prices in the dust. A half dozen packages and metallic paint bumped the tested 28i and 35i to $50,775 and $54,075, respectively. And, lacking the premium audio system, the head-up display, and the M Sport Package, these weren’t even fully loaded.

Comparably equip an Audi Q5 3.2, and it’s over $3,000 more than the xDrive28i and about even with the xDrive35i. The Infinity EX35 is the segment’s budget buy, checking in about $6,000 below a comparably-equipped X3 xDrive35i. Adjusting for remaining feature differences cuts the difference to about $4,400. The Infiniti is much more cramped inside and feels a bit dated at this point, so this premium seems warranted. As premium compact SUVs go, the new X3 is attractively priced.

The 2011 BMW X3 addresses the two glaring weaknesses of the original—interior materials and ride quality—while looking and feeling more refined and substantial. A new, much less fatal flaw: despite (or perhaps because of) extensive electronic wizardry, the X3’s steering lacks the natural, wonderfully nuanced feel of the Q5’s. For this one reason I enjoyed driving the Audi more. But by any objective measure, and nearly any subjective measure as well, the second time is the charm.

The vehicles for this review were made available at an event for BMW owners.

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.

Michael Karesh
Michael Karesh

Michael Karesh lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan, with his wife and three children. In 2003 he received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. While in Chicago he worked at the National Opinion Research Center, a leader in the field of survey research. For his doctoral thesis, he spent a year-and-a-half inside an automaker studying how and how well it understood consumers when developing new products. While pursuing the degree he taught consumer behavior and product development at Oakland University. Since 1999, he has contributed auto reviews to Epinions, where he is currently one of two people in charge of the autos section. Since earning the degree he has continued to care for his children (school, gymnastics, tae-kwan-do...) and write reviews for Epinions and, more recently, The Truth About Cars while developing TrueDelta, a vehicle reliability and price comparison site.

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  • Stickshift Stickshift on Jul 24, 2011

    Nice review. As an owner of the 1st generation X3, I'm sorry to see the loss of the manual transmission, the decrease in steering feel, and a trade-off of more cushioned ride for loss of agility. But one question: the specs I've seen say that the new X3 has 1/2" more ground clearance than the old model. I agree most owners probably don't take the car off road (I guess I'm one of the few who do, at least to the extent of unpaved roads and trails) but lack of ground clearance shouldn't be the reason.

    • Michael Karesh Michael Karesh on Jul 25, 2011

      The body now rides lower to the ground, but I suppose the mechanical bits beneath it could be tucked in a little tighter. I'll tweak the review to be more precise.

  • CJinSD CJinSD on Jul 25, 2011

    I had access to one of these over the weekend. I was surprised how big it is on the outside, and how small the seats are. Front and back, the seats are awful. The front seats are squeezed between the bloated door panels and the obese center tunnel. The back seat is more like a ledge than a bench. It is hard to believe this interior reached production. It is like nobody at BMW cares about the X3 or has a bit of respect for anyone who does.

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