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2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i Review - VIDEO ENHANCED

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2011 BMW X3


SEE ALSO: BMW Buyers Guide

BMW cashed in on the American SUV craze in 2000 in its own way, with the X5 "Sport Activity Vehicle", or SAV. A mid-sized unit-construction crossover (in the days before that term was popular), the X5 was everything that an SUV of the day wasn't -- a quick, responsive driver's machine -- and it sold in a way that the similarly-sized 5-Series wagon never did.

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2011 BMW X3

So there was little surprise when the X5 got a smaller sibling in 2004. The X3 was the first European-brand compact luxury crossover. Its success can be measured by the number of competitors it now has. Over 600,000 have been sold, with 150,000 of those sold here in the US. And if you noticed that "European-brand" remark, that is because the X3 is made in BMW's Spartanburg, SC facility. Which has recently been enlarged and upgraded.

To make more X3s. BMW has to stay ahead, and that means an entirely new X3 for 2011. The second-generation X3 is only 3.36 inches longer, 1.1 inches wider, and half an inch higher on a 0.6-inch longer wheelbase, but bolder styling gives it much more presence than those dimensions suggest. Interior space has increased as well. All 2011 X3s have the newest iteration of BMW's xDrive all-wheel drive system, for four-season, all-surface traction. Power is from a choice of 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engines, naturally-aspirated with 240 horsepower for the X3 xDrive28i and twin-turbocharged with 300 hp for the X3 xDrive35i. A new eight-speed automatic transmission aids both performance and fuel economy with more closely-spaced gear ratios and higher overdrives. And of course there are plenty of option packages to tailor an X3 to each customer's needs and desires.

In the case of the X3 xDrive35i that I've had for the past week, that would be full high-tech luxury, with Sport Activity, Premium, and Technology option packages and most of the Convenience Package. With 300 horsepower and a relatively light (for an AWD crossover) curb weight, it's as quick as many a sports sedan, and BMW's sporty chassis tuning means excellent road manners despite its height and 8.5 inches of ground clearance. There's plenty of space inside, with the sport-oriented comfort expected from BMW, and, if desired, all of the electronic bells and whistles expected in a luxury car today. The BMW X3 established the small Euro-crossover class, and it's still the class benchmark.

APPEARANCE: When I first saw the new X3, I thought I was looking at an X5. No surprise, as it's now nearly the same size as the original X5, if smaller than the current model. Shape and proportion contribute at least as much to the impression of size a the modest physical increase, with most of the credit for that going to the higher hood line and larger front fascia. Multiple character and cut lines on all body panels make for a visually busy implementation of the tall two-box crossover shape, but it's instantly identifiable as a BMW by the twin-kidney grille and round headlights with surrounding LED "corona ring" running lights under plastic fairings.

COMFORT: Inside, the newest X3 is as visually stimulating as out, and features the expected high-grade materials and fit and finish. All that styling doesn't get in the way of function. The main instruments, under a hood in front of the driver, are well-shaded from glare, and the dark, textured material of the top of the dash virtually eliminates windshield glare. The manually tilt- and reach-adjustable steering wheel has a thick, leather-covered rim designed for comfort and control, with cruise and auxiliary audio controls on the spokes. With the Sport Activity Package come shift paddles behind the wheel spokes, down on the left, up to the right as is the standard. They are simpler to use than the electronic shifter on the console. Simple white-on-black instruments need no deciphering, and the newest version of the iDrive control is much simpler and more intuitive than earlier ones. Audio choices are complete, AM/FM/CD/Sirius/external player via jack or USB port. Navigation, with real-time traffic, is available as part of the Technology Package. An upright, high-eyepoint seating position and typically BMW firm padding makes the front seats excellent places for any distance; the rear contoured bench is now wide enough for three, although a moderately high center tunnel does impact center legroom. Headroom is no problem, anywhere. A standard 60/40 split rear seatback ensures cargo versatility, with a 40/20/40 split if the Cold Weather Package is specified (skis!).

SAFETY: Active safety is enhanced by good acceleration and handling characteristics, strong four-wheel antilock vented disc brakes with brake drying, brake stand-by, brake fade compensation, and start-off assistant systems, and Dynamic Stability Control. There is a full complement of airbags, and the BMW Advanced Safety System.

RIDE AND HANDLING: It's not boring to look at, it's not boring to drive. A solid unibody structure and well-tuned double-joint strut, multilink suspension see to that. The X3's height, compared to a sedan or wagon, is largely unnoticeable on the road, but the standard suspension, while firm for control, is supple enough for good comfort even on poor surfaces. Shock firmness, throttle response, transmission shift characteristics, (electric) power steering assist level, and Dynamic Stability Control mode are controlled via the Driving Dynamics Control buttons on the console, with Normal, Sport, and Sport+ modes. The difference is noticeable, so normal mode can be used in traffic or around and Sport or Sport+ when the road gets interesting. What goes -- the X3 xDrive35i can go from 0 to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds -- should stop, and it does, with large vented discs all around.

PERFORMANCE: It is Bavarian Motor Works… and the motor in the X3 is one of its jewels. Inline six-cylinder engines are a rarity these days, which unfortunate as they inherently are smooth, with minimal vibration. Add dual overhead cams with four valves per cylinder and VANOS variable cam phasing for both, and Valvetronic variable lift on the intake cam, and twin-scroll intercooled turbochargers, one for each three cylinders and the result is smooth, instant acceleration whenever needed, with a relatively minimal thirst. Specs? 300 horsepower at 5800 rpm, with, more importantly, 300 lb-ft of torque between 1300 and 5000 rpm -- pretty much where the engine speed will be at any given time. Compared to the previous six-speed automatic, the new eight-speed has smaller steps between gears and higher overdrive 7th and 8th ratios for both quicker acceleration and lower engine speeds (and so thirst) during highway cruising. It can drop several ratios at once if necessary for acceleration in an automatic downshift, and shifts very, very quickly. It can be manually-shifted, which is entertaining, but with a torque plateau like this, any one of three or four gears will work just fine. The xDrive all-wheel drive system is meant for dry pavement as much as snow or rain, and is electronically integrated with the Dynamic Stability Control and Integrated Chassis Management systems to work seamlessly. The ultra low-profile run-flat tires on my test car are testimony to its non-offroad nature.

Click PLAY to watch the BMW X3 promo video

CONCLUSIONS: The BMW X3 continues to be the benchmark among small(ish) luxury crossovers.


2011 BMW X3 xDrive 35i

Base Price $ 41,050

Price As Tested $ 53,015

Engine Type DOHC 24-valve inline 6-cylinder with twin turbocharging, Valvetronic and Double-VANOS variable valve management

Engine Size 3.0 liters / 182 cu. in.

Horsepower 300 @ 5800 rpm

Torque (lb-ft) 300 @ 1300-5000 rpm

Transmission 8-speed automatic

Wheelbase / Length 110.6 in. / 183.0 in.

Curb Weight 4222 lbs.

Pounds Per Horsepower 14.1

Fuel Capacity 17.7 gal.

Fuel Requirement 91 octane unleaded premium gasoline

Tires Pirelli P-Zero runflat F: 245/45R19 98Y R: 175/40R19 101Y

Brakes, front/rear vented disc all around

Suspension, front/rear independent double joint spring strut / independent multilink

Ground clearance 8.5 inches

Drivetrain longitudinal front engine, full-time all-wheel drive


EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon

city / highway / observed 19 / 26 / 19

0 to 60 mph 5.5 sec


Mineral Silver Metallic paint $ 550

Sport Activity Package - includes: sport automatic transmission, sport steering wheel with shift paddles, roof rails in Aluminum Satin, X-Line exterior trim package, sport seats $ 1,250

Premium Package - includes: universal garage door opener, panoramic moonroof, auto-dimming mirrors, lumbar support, storage package, interior light package $ 3,450

Technology Package - includes: rear-view camera with top view, park distance control, BMW Assist with enhanced Bluetooth and USB, real-time traffic information, navigation system $ 3,200

Double-spoke light alloy wheels $ 600

Heated steering wheel $ 190

Power tailgate $ 500

Comfort Access keyless entry $ 500

Heated front seats $ 500

Satellite radio with 1-year subscription $ 350

Destination charge $ 875