By on July 22, 2011

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.

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40 Comments on “Review: 2011 BMW X3...”

  • avatar

    Great review as usual Mike. Another fatal flaw of the original that you didn’t mention was the horrendous six-speed automatic introduced with the ’07 refresh. If people think Ford’s DCT is bad, this was in a different league. It shifted with all of the smoothness and refinement of a 16 year old’s first lesson with a stick. THE WORST conventional automatic I have ever experienced.

    How does the Q5 2.0T stack up to the X3 28i, price and equipment wise? Also any chance you’d consider bringing a SPL meter with you in future reviews? It would be nice to know by exactly how many dB the Q5 is louder than the X3 at say 70mph, and measuring is as simple as turning the meter on.

    • 0 avatar

      Feel free to run the 2.0T in the database–I didn’t because the 3.2 seemed a closer match to the 2.8i.

      I haven’t looked into how much an SPL meter might cost. It wouldn’t be as simple as getting a number, though. The ear hears some sounds as louder and/or less pleasant than others. Toyota figured this out when they created the first Lexus: it’s not just a matter of minimizing all sound, but blocking the right sounds while letting others that are less annoying through to dominate the noise that remains.

      • 0 avatar

        I bought my Radio Shack SPL meter 20 years ago for $30, and last time I checked they’re still selling the exact same meter. I bought it originally to calibrate my home Dolby surround sound system, but its lots of fun on a test drive.

        The road surface makes a huge difference in readings, and it’s not unusual for their to be a 2 dBA difference on the same road. I prefer to do my measurements on freshly paved asphalt because it’s easier to get a steady reading than on patchwork concrete. And no car is quiet on grooved concrete.

        My LS430 is as quiet at 100km/h as my 1998 Camry LE at 50km/h, and the Camry itself is as quiet as an W211 E-class or E39 528i, so sound level comparisons are a lot of fun if you’re into numbers.

      • 0 avatar

        I can do $30, though a 2 dB is a large error. Very good point on the road surface.

      • 0 avatar

        Michael, it’s been a while since I was into audio gear, so I looked it up:
        Hearing tests with large groups of people have revealed that a one-decibel (1 dB) change in loudness is approximately the smallest audible step that the average listener can detect, so an increase of 3 dB most listeners term “slightly louder.”

        Michael, you’re a statistician, so 2db is significant, but in the real world, if a 1db change is just barely audible and a delta of 3db is “slightly louder”, than I’d say that + or – 2db is probably close enough to be able to compare two cars.

      • 0 avatar

        Perhaps. 2dB isn’t simply twice as much as 1 dB, since it’s a logarithmic scale, with every 10 dB representing a doubling in noise. Back when C&D used to highlight the stat it seemed that competing cars rarely differed by more than a few dB.

    • 0 avatar

      Again, good point on the road surface. In the Pacific northwest a lot of people are still using studded tires, and I find that the Accord’s a lot quieter if I make the effort to stay in the smoother part of the lane away from the stud ruts.

    • 0 avatar

      Michael: keep in mind that the people’s perceptions are non-linear. So 3dB doubles the loudness (i.e. physically 2x), but 10dB is required to double the sound perceptually (i.e. psychophysically 2x).

      10 db = 10x api = 2x perceptually
      20 db = 100x api = 4x perceptually
      30 db = 1000x api = 8x perceptually

      where api = acoustic power increase

      There are also the different frequency weightings: dBA, dBB. and dBC…

    • 0 avatar

      “How does the Q5 2.0T stack up to the X3 28i, price and equipment wise?”

      Agreed that this is the more interesting comparison for most. I have done this before and the Q5 works out to roughly $2k cheaper than the lower end X3 on a feature-neutral basis. Depending on your options of course.

  • avatar

    In Europe the NA I6 of the 28i has been replaced with a turbocharged-4. I think it’ll compare better to the Audi 2.0T, though you’ll have to miss that sweet I6 noise and ‘laufkultur’.

    I think the X3 is easily the best in this class right now, though it’s a shame to hear about the artificial steering. Anyway, I’ve read there’s about a 8 month waiting list if you want to order one (here in the Netherlands at least) so they must be selling quite well.

    • 0 avatar

      I should clarify that the BMW’s steering is far from bad. The Audi’s is just that good, easily the best of any car I’ve driven recently–including the new A7 and A8. I also don’t remember the steering in the current S4 feeling nearly as good, though it could be a related system.

      The new X1 is also supposed to be sold out, such that they see no point in bringing it to the U.S. yet, where they’ll have to sell it for less.

      • 0 avatar

        Good review Michael, thanks. I was going to ask that same question that you answered just above, whether the steering was absolutely artificial, or just relative to that in the Audi.

        From what we learned from Bertel’s post about the X3 steering recall, we see that not only does BMW have electric where Audi has conventional hydraulic steering (expect that to go electric in future), but that Audi and BMW use two different suppliers.

        Despite the quality problem after the X3 being in production for a year already, this quality issue is not responsible for the artificial feel in a properly-made gear. That may be due to repositioning (old X3 vs new X3), differences in OEM DNA (BMW vs Audi), in technology (electric vs hydraulic), or of supplier capability (Thyssen Krupp Presta Steering Co. vs ZF-Bosch Steering Co.) to meet BMW’s specs.

        We also learned from the recall that some more BMW models will get the Thyssen Krupp Presta electric unit, so when those come to market, that will remove repositioning, technology, and supplier capability (some big variables) while introducing some smaller (segment-related) ones, and it will be interesting to look again to see how their feel feels.

        btw, what’s up with all the leafless trees, and the dude on a smoke-break wearing the flannel shirt in the background? have you been saving this review? ;O)

      • 0 avatar

        Busted. This wasn’t a press car, and it wasn’t an easy review to write, so it kept getting pushed back.

  • avatar

    It’s been good fun to see the first gen of these Lux-SUV’s mature to the point where I am finally seeing older models in the dirt and mud. The first Gen x5’s are actually really enjoyable on easy trails with a small suspension lift.

    The older x3’s can rot in a lake of burning fire and sulfur. I fell in love with the concept car, then BMW made a bad Jeep Cherokee. Sad times.

  • avatar

    The RDX has to be the oldest model in this fight now. Can Honda justify a Gen 2?

    • 0 avatar

      Acura sold nearly 15,000 RDXs last year, vs. 6,000 X3s. The odd thing is that despite slow EX35 sales (8,300) Infiniti is about to introduce a second compact crossover, the JX. (Correction: the JX is a three-row FWD-based crossover, see comment below.)

      BMW also had an RX 350, SRX, and GLK at the event. I reviewed the GLK last week. The other two don’t quite fit in this group, as they’re larger and focus more on traditional luxury.

      • 0 avatar

        “BMW also had an RX 350, SRX, and GLK at the event. I reviewed the GLK last week. The other two don’t quite fit in this group, as they’re larger and focus more on traditional luxury.” And yet, the SRX has been considered by some to have a better handling and riding chassis than the Audi Q5 – could it be on par with the X3? Now that Cadillac is replacing the engine, I hope you’ll reconsider your judgment and test a 2012 without such a dismissive notion about being too luxurious.

      • 0 avatar

        Mike, the JX is not a compact. It will have three rows, and will most likely be targeted at the MDX and Q7. It also seems not to be performance oriented like the EX and FX – it’s based on a FWD Nissan platform (likely Murano) rather than the Infiniti standard FM RWD.

        It’s really too bad that Infiniti blew the product planning so badly with the EX. They thought nobody would use the rear seats, so they made them uninhabitable. Not a huge shock that it failed in the market. I think Audi and BMW are vulnerable – the Acura is a mediocre gas hog, and Lexus does not even compete. They just need to right size it this time.

      • 0 avatar

        But global X3 sales far outpace RDX sales. The problem Honda have is that the RDX is essentially a US only model. Much like the problem they had with the Element, Toyota have with the FJ Cruiser and Ford have with Lincoln. Even reasonable US sales (say 50,000) does not make up for a lack of a global reach which provides economies of scale to afford a reasonable lifecycle plan.

      • 0 avatar

        The SRX is a classic example of GM tuning a chassis for numbers rather than feel. It feels huge, and the steering is terribly numb. Perhaps they’ll fix this for 2012? I doubt it, but am very willing to be surprised.

        FWIW, other participants in this event for car owners tended to HATE the Cadillac because it felt so ponderous compared to the others and because its brakes required a surprising amount of effort. I don’t recall this braking issue from other SRXs I’ve driven, so maybe something was wrong with the car.

  • avatar

    The strangest capsule review of _previous_ generation X3 was one that I received from a fellow RAV4 owner. He said that X3 was the best engineered car he ever owned, ideal handling at any speed, but RAV4’s “creature comforts” were far superior. No idea what he meant by that, but I hope they improved them for this revision… This review only mentioned the quality of materials – a common fault of car journalists who somehow always focus on “hard plastics” and not on comfort and convenience.

    • 0 avatar

      Likely he was referring to both the spartan interior and the rough, unpolished ride quality. The new X3 fixes both of these, and adds quite a bit of the latest gadgetry for good measure. The only thing that might be missing for your friend is a cushier seat, but I find BMW’s standard seats reasonably comfortable despite being firm. BMW’s “comfort seats” are very comfortable, but these aren’t available in the X3 and other compact BMWs.

  • avatar

    It’s a shame the X5 doesn’t have a lift-gate like this. I would buy one in a heartbeat.

  • avatar

    Michael Karesh – You have lost the art of reviewing cars. This car is nothing but Junk…lookswise and otherwise

    • 0 avatar

      What’s the basis of your evaluation? Care to provide a bit more nuance?

      I’ll grant that the xDrive28i didn’t photograph well. It looked better in person, though the champagne paint and its wheels weren’t doing it any favors.

  • avatar

    This car in not comparable to a Q5 or an EX in terms of exterior design and interior appointments.

    BMW should not be in this segment becuase they dont understand it. Its not like people are going to buy more of it becuase its cheaper(BTW -it looks horrendously cheap) than the X5. X5 is close to class leading while X3 is crass leading.

    When you first started this website..i actually used to take you for your word becuase i would test drive them myself and it does not feel the same….

    • 0 avatar

      I didn’t start this website, that was Robert Farago.

      The detailing of the new X3 could be better, and the creases on the fenders seem extraneous, but the original X3 was so dreadfully styled and finished that the new one got points for being such an improvement over it.

      I didn’t feel that the materials are cheaper than those in the Audi and Infiniti. To me, the problem seems a matter of design rather than the materials themselves. You can get some very nice interior trim options in the Q5 in Europe, but Audi doesn’t offer these here.

      Finally, I gave the new X3 a lot of points for having the best chassis in the segment and for the performance of the turbo six. Though I enjoyed driving the Audi more because of its steering, nothing else in the segment can keep up with the xDrive35i along a challenging road.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    Great review, Mike. Thorough as always.

    • 0 avatar

      +1. IMHO, Michael’s writings are consistent, thorough, objective and informative. He deserves better than the baseless criticism shown above, notwithstanding his impressive patience with it.

  • avatar

    I never much cared for the first gen X3 based on aesthetics alone (seemed too tall from the window sills up) until I had one as a rental in Germany with the 2.0L motor and a stick. It was surprisingly good fun on the Autobahn and I had no complaints about the interior (sporty and spartan are fine by me). The suspension was obviously tuned for well manicured German roads rather than the imitation third world avenues that we endure in the US. I finally began to understand why I was seeing so many of these unfortunate looking vehicles in my neck of the woods – typical CUV traits with genuine BMW handling and flame surfacing (unfortunately).

    All of this goes to say that I’m glad that BMW got around to redesigning the X3 and putting such an attractive wrapper on it. The rear 3/4 view still looks awkward in pics due to the bulk of the taillamp, but the rest of the body clearly conveys ‘baby X5’ and they look good going down the road. It must be Opposites Day though if an Audi trumps a BMW in any class however. This thing could be quite the fun car with the twin turbos if one were willing to shell out $55k for an X3 instead of a CPO X5.

    I find your comments about not trusting cargo volume numbers intriguing because I typically use that number as a baseline for determining how much utility I might theoretically derive from whatever xUV I happen to be reading about. Since those numbers aren’t to be trusted, how many 22″ suitcases on their sides would fit between the wheel arches in the cargo area of the new X3?

  • avatar

    The styling updates to the rear are a huge improvement. The front still looks very low rent. At $54k, now I understand why I see so few on the road.

  • avatar

    I wouldn’t normally comment on a SUV like this, but when I first saw the photo loading I really thought it was another review of the Kia Sorento…

    Did anyone else see this?

    Did Peter Scrheyer (Kia designer) come from Audi or BMW?

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Michael: “Even the shifter, the monostatic sort BMW has been putting in everything”

    I hadn’t heard of a “monostatic” shifter, neither had my dictionaries. What is a monostatic shifter? Does it cure yeast infections?

    geozinger: I thought it looks just like our 2007 RAV4, and I do not think of that as a pretty vehicle.

    • 0 avatar

      I just learned the word myself recently, from a Chrysler engineering exec. It means a shifter that always returns to the same, central position after you use it, like a joystick. You can only move it forward or backward a single tap at a time, not move it through a whole sequence of positions.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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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