Words and Photos: Shawn Molnar [racetrack photos credit: Edward Ham]
When BMW announced the replacement of its original and segment-founding X3, a nervous tension filled the air. You see, BMW’s original X3 was polarizing to look at – to be kind. And while it drove well and met the economic and utilitarian needs of a large market segment, many snubbed its ugly duckling looks and held on to their wallets. The stakes were high as Bavarian executives pulled the silk off of BMW’s all-new 2011 BMW X3.
Initial photos were promising but still showed a few lines that didn’t fall to the eye. Would it be handsome in the flesh? And equally important: would it retain its excellent driving dynamics, utility and value? In our latest drive review, BMWBLOG evaluates the subtleties of the new X3 xDrive35i. Join us as we bring you to the racetrack, the open road, metropolis gridlock and steep grassy hills in BMW’s middle ‘x’ brother.
Impressions as a Daily Driver:
Now casting a shadow roughly the same size as the original X5, the X3 has grown and matured in its effort to fill its big-brother’s old shoes. Spreading the tent pins further apart, the X3 now measures 4.6 meters (183″) in length – a gain of 7.8 cm (3.1″), 1.9 meters (74.1″) in width – a gain of 2.7 cm (1.1″), and 1.7 meters (65.4″) in height – a gain of half an inch. Swallowing over 1.6 cubic meters (55 cubic feet) of goods with seats folded flat (0.7 cubic meters (26 cubic feet) with rear seats upright), the X3 should be able to tote just about whatever you can fit through the rear hatch. While this increase in interior space goes a long way to increase utility, it also adds comfort to the spacious cabin. Those who’ve never driven an X5 would be forgiven for thinking the new X3 was based on the same platform – it’s not, but its poise, comfort and luxurious cabin would have you fooled once seated inside.
Gone is the darty handling and harsh ride of the E83, replaced with a more relaxed approach to steering input and plush dampening over bumps. Setting off from a standstill, the 8-speed ZF transmission is very close-ratio, feeling almost motorcycle-like in its short and frequent gear changes. This is by no means a bad thing: besides feeling rather sporty, it significantly increases efficiency, allowing to the X3 to squeeze 630 km (391 miles) from its 65 liter tank. Our observed fuel milage ranged from 10.8 L/100 km while hypermiling through the city, to 14.5 L/100 km after spirited driving. EPA fuel milage is stated as 9.0 L/100km (26 mpg) highway / 12.4 L/100 km (19 mpg) city, impressive numbers bestowed upon any 300 hp SUV.
Gasp! Did I write SUV? Quite right, and while I would normally bow to the marketing guru’s “Sports Activity Vehicle” (SAV) moniker, in the X3 I will not. Behind the wheel of this vehicle, the lines are less blurred between sports car and beast of burden. The X3 is now sharing the same platform as its soon to be released F30 3 series sibling, and the chassis is a brilliant starting point: rock of Gibraltar solid and impossibly stiff. But in the X3, BMW has placed the cross-hairs on plush comfort and composure, less-so on sports car feedback and handling.
This is not necessarily a blemish, depending upon your needs. Do you have a hankering for track time? It’s unlikely you’ll chose an X3, although as we learned in our testing – it can still hold its own on the racetrack (more on that later). Are you focused on finding a vehicle that will safely and comfortably transport you and your precious cargo with the latest tech, great practicality, and in fresh neck-tie style? Look no further. Still, if you fancy a few fast on-ramp blasts, you may do well to consider the optional M sport package. It not only adds welcome suspension tuning and larger wheels for more grip, it also adds a rakish exterior aero kit. It makes us hot under the collar and looks downright naughty in Alpine white – our preferred colour on the X3.
So on to the daily driving stuff: what does a typical drive consist of? It all starts with key-in-pocket as you enter the X3 and engage the ignition with a push-button mounted on the dash, just right of the steering wheel column. A brilliant burble exits the exhaust and the inline-six hums away at idle – what a sound! I didn’t expect such auditory stimulation from an otherwise subdued SUV. Place the gear selector in drive and pull away; the throttle is very smooth and easy to modulate for graceful parking lot exits.
The X3 exudes a feeling of solidity, and as it consumes bumpy pavement with poise, its suspension tuning makes good sense. Especially if you live in Toronto – a city where most roads resemble moon-scape. The commute is much less stressful when you’re not being beaten on the backside by unmaintained roads. Speaking of your backside, the seats are very comfortable and supportive, this time offered in black leather.
All of the familiar BMW technologies are at hand, including a brilliant parking assist system that guides your path while reversing via an on-dash video screen with a plethora of parking distance sensors at the ready. BMW’s much loved iDrive is also on duty, connecting your phone calls on-the-fly, and legally at that. Keyless entry is easy to get used to, and always difficult to part ways with when handing back the keys to various test cars. The sound system was well tuned and had an affinity for modern rock, and generally any music that favors mid-range clarity and power over chest-thumping bass. The system still managed R&B, but with some low-end distortion, forcing us to dial back the base.
It appears that BMW designers have been reading BMWBLOG reviews, because one of our major and incessant complaints has finally been addressed. We’ve long complained of the intolerable noise generated by the wind diffuser featured in BMW’s panoramic sunroofs. These sunroofs have previously been installed with a mesh material that hisses and whistles in the wind until you’re numb in the tympanic membranes. It’s not just the amount of noise that used to bother our ears, it was the sound itself – enough to keep the sunroof shut when we would otherwise have enjoyed it open. We have good news for your ears: the latest panoramic moon roof in our X3 featured a new mesh material that generated little to no noise while cruising at speeds that would previously have required earplugs. Even up to speeds of 90 km/h (55 mph) noise levels in the cabin were pleasant and we subsequently enjoyed every minute of fresh air and blue skies that we could.
It’s time to dart through city back-roads and get a feeling for the X3 in an urban driving environment. No longer the new kid, can it still keep the beat? Again, its solidity and poise is felt, and it likes to be driven in a fashion that shows off these qualities. Push the X3 beyond a modest pace, and it answers, but in a less than enthusiastic manor – it does not beg for more. Moderate body roll is felt through tight corners and quick lane changes, though the chassis is perfectly balanced and happy to turn in.
Its size is just right for a dash through the city. It allows you full ‘ownership’ of your lane, without being to wide for back-alley short cuts. It’s also easily maneuverable through tight traffic or in tighter parking spaces – thanks largely to its parking distance sensors.
And now to the sensitive topic of steering feel. In the interests of fuel efficiency and emissions reduction, BMW has implemented electric steering assist on their latest cars, replacing the tried and true hydraulic assist units of yesteryear. While the feel and feedback from these systems is improving all the time, we found the X3’s electric assist steering to be a touch numb and rubbery on center for our rather racy tastes. But bearing in mind the purpose and target market of this vehicle, BMW’s decision to emphasize comfort and grace over razor sharp reflexes makes sense. Your driving style and needs will dictate whether the X3’s steering feel is a weakness or an asset. As it turns out, this lax steering setup plays well into the poised and graceful demeanor of the X3’s driving experience. Along with the smooth actuation of the throttle and brakes, the steering allows for beautifully smooth inputs, meted out with pacific motions on the road. The new X3 can make a chauffeur out of anyone. Sleeping children and nerve wracked parents will appreciate it. Once you have dialed in meaningful steering angle, sufficient road feel is transmitted through the wheel, enough to feel for grip and the limits of adhesion, should you choose to press on that hard.
Briskly pulling away from a red light will call for sport mode in the transmission settings if you’re counting on quick response. The same can be said of brisk driving through traffic. In regular drive mode, a heavy dose of throttle will be met with nearly a one and a half second delay as the transmission kicks down and the turbo spools up. In sport mode this hesitation is corrected as the transmission generally runs one gear lower and the turbo is kept spooled. Sport mode also holds lower gears longer, changing the personality of the car substantially.
An incongruity unfolds when you finally tromp on the throttle ‘pedal to metal.’ The relaxed and laid-back dynamics of the X3 lull you into a comfy state of mind, when suddenly the transmission drops a gear, boost pressure builds, and you are hurled forward with sling shot acceleration. Wow, this engine has bite, and you’d better be awake if you summon all 300 horses at once. It’s as if the personality of the chassis and engine are at odds with each other, literally releasing an alter-ego from within the X3.
Picture yourself driving along, “sunshine, lollypops and… rainbows” – when suddenly you’re hit with a sledge hammer behind your seat. This engine won’t let you forget what the “M” stands for in “BMW.”
BMW claims a 5.5 second 0-60 time and it is easily believable, perhaps even on the conservative side of reality. What’s more, BMW’s x.Drive all-wheel-drive system intelligently distributes power and torque between the front and rear axles to effectively cancel out oversteer and reduce understeer. The system works brilliantly on wet roads and we could feel the center transfer-case sending power to the front wheels, collecting the oversteer we solicited, pulling the tail back in line – and without hesitation in acceleration. BMW’s x.Drive system can distribute as much as 100% of power and torque to the front or rear wheels, depending upon the dynamic demands – all calculated realtime within thousandths of a second. A rear-wheel torque bias is generally maintained to ensure a rear-drive feel on the road. Overall the system works to provide impressive wet road traction and we can envision its benefits in the snow – though we’ll have to try it out for ourselves come that jovial time of the year.
More Than the Sum of its Parts?
BMW’s new X3 has plenty of swagger in the styling department. We grew to appreciate its lines, and considering its well-rounded package, value and utility, it’s little wonder that most Canadian dealerships are filling waiting lists of up to two months before delivery of new X3s.
In the styling department, we found one character line crucial to finally finding pleasure in the overall look of the X3. At first glance, the character line following the upper belt line, then just aft of the A-pillar dropping down towards the front wheel – it felt forced to us and slightly at odds with proportion. But then, a subtlety arose: there is a rear wheel-arch character line that parallels this crease as well as a bold stamping in the front three-quarter panel that follows the same line. Once your eye takes these surrounding shapes into consideration, the execution of this perviously curious character line begins to make sense. We see oriental inspiration in this unique line, reminiscent of Japanese calligraphy, or the bend of a samurai sword.
No matter the styling, the X3 has upscale presence unmatched by its predecessor. Between its confident looks, excellent utility, modern tech, supreme comfort and powerful motor, we found the X3 to be a well rounded package. Is it more than the sum of its parts? Yes, but focused in a more comfortable and practical dimension than we have previously seen. In our “Fun-Factor” rating, we give the new X3 a score of 5 out of 10; rousable when you want some, but generally content to get on with its daily chores.
A Lap of Cayuga Racetrack:
BMW’s X3 can post impressive lap times, but it does so only with some prodding. To be blunt, this was the first BMW I’ve ever driven where I felt slightly out of place on the racetrack. It’s also the first BMW I’ve driven where the engine felt ‘faster’ than the chassis. That’s not to say that the chassis was poor – on the contrary it was perfectly balanced and stiff, only giving away body roll to the Gods of comfort. But the engine still outclassed the chassis on the racetrack, and was only matched by the equally strong brakes at all four corners.
The N55B30 twin-scroll single-turbo 3.0 liter inline-6 is a manic beast churning out fierce power and torque to the tune of 300 hp and 300 ft-lbs of torque at 5,800 rpm and 1,300 rpm respectively. In sport mode the engine would redline at 7,250 rpm and it unleashed a grizzly roar the likes of which had by-standers covering their ears! This inline 6 emits a beautiful sound, and if it takes a track day to discover it, then do so – it is highly addictive and reminds you of exactly why you paid the premium to own a BMW.
With a dash of forward weight transfer the X3 turns in cleanly and exhibits moderate understeer at the limit. The chassis feels well balanced with its 50:50 weight distribution and is unflappable over bumps in the road surface. At apex the X3 is neutral and can be balanced on throttle to steer out of the corner. Powering out to corner exit is a no brainer with the x.Drive system divvying out torque and preventing lurid oversteer – just feed in the throttle and let the electronics do the rest. There is no need to await the tail stepping out, x.Drive won’t let it happen, even in the rain.
After several laps the brakes resisted fade and the X3 felt solid, ready for continuous lapping. Of course, we let it rest to preserve the tires and brakes, but overall we got the sense that this X3 can dance, it just prefers to hang by the bar. It posted lap times that would embarrass some sports cars and frankly: it’s still a BMW at its heart.
A Two Hour Tour:
Setting off from Toronto, we pointed this BMW’s nose at the hard-working city of Hamilton and continued East until we reached the small town of Cayuga – home to one of Canada’s best kept racetrack secrets. Cayuga was converted into a make-shift racetrack in the 1950’s after serving in the second World War as an air-force training base. Two long runways were paved together to form a racetrack ala Top-Gear style, and the result is a flat but full-of-character track. Of course, you’ve read our racetrack dynamic assessment above, but here we wish to focus to the the trip to and from the quaint town of Cayuga.
After our time at the track, we stopped by a local restaurant to get our fill. Even after such fast-paced action, the X3 sat patiently with style and class, awaiting our return. “The Twisted Lemon” serves 5-star food from a unique menu, and thanks to matured palates, the X3 found itself sharing pavement with an Audi R8, Cadillac CTS-V, Porsche 911 and an assortment of Mercedes in the parking lot. So sharp and upscale are its new looks and proportions, that the X3 fit right in – it does not feel out of place in expensive company. Without a doubt, the X3 can wear many hats – but how does it handle as a touring car?
Setting off from Toronto, our X3 rocketed up an on ramp, smack dab into rush-hour gridlock. The auto-hold feature of the parking brake proved valuable, though it’s sad I’m mentioning this in the touring section of our review (read: I loathe Toronto traffic). Realizing we would never make our destination on time, we made for the 407 Toll highway to bypass the traffic and get back on schedule. After a lengthy trek North we found ourselves back on track, sailing down the 407 in quiet haste.
Unsurprisingly, the poise and comfort felt at slower speeds also translates into its highway cruising character. The ride is well dampened and silky smooth, with a feeling of weighty road holding and solidity. The cabin is very quiet at highway speeds and conversation can be held without any competition with ambient noise. Wind and tire noise are both reduced to a whisper thanks to intelligent aerodynamic design, and extensive sound deadening.
The high seating position equates to a great view of the road ahead. You can easily see over the roof-tops of traffic ahead while perched in the driver’s seat, and many buyers search out SUVs or cross-over vehicles namely for this reason. Visibility is otherwise excellent, with the rear view camera filling in the remaining blanks behind the vehicle.
The usual BMW technologies will keep you safe and on course, including lane departure warning systems, blind spot warning systems, etcetera, if so equipped. The cruise control interface featured on the X3 is now one of our BMW perennial favorites – its seamless action allows you to truly drive with your hands while your feet take a nap or get busy on the “air drums” following the music.
The large hatch housed all of our camera gear and then some – interior space was never a consideration or limitation during our time with the X3. The dimensions are such that we could probably transport an IKEA kitchen, living room, bedroom and office set all in one go – but this is as much a tribute to Swedish packing efficiency as it is to the X3’s interior dimensions! Long story short: it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself pining for more space after purchasing an X3.
Driving to and from Cayuga, we found the X3 to be a capable highway touring machine. We loved its quiet, relaxed ride, its immense passing power in the fast lane, and its comfortable, spacious cabin. Our wallet loved its efficiency. After both highway treks, we arrived refreshed and ready for our destination.
To The Hills:
We decided to try out BMW’s hill descent control as equipped on our X3 xDrive35i. After scouting some of the most slippery, steep grassy hills we could find, we put both xDrive and our automated descent control feature to work.
The result is rather impressive coming from a vehicle that is unlikely to spend much time in the Amazon. After scurrying up the hill with plenty of grip from the all-wheel-drive, we spun the vehicle around for its descent. After engaging the hill descent program and setting a predetermined speed, in this case 10 km/h, I sat back in the driver’s seat – feet off the pedals – and let the car do the work. After rolling to the bottom at exactly 10 km/h, the vehicle came to a stop, ready for another try.
Perhaps a more practical application of this technology will come during winter months. Imagine you are visiting a friend’s house, which has a very steep, lengthy driveway intersecting a major road. The driveway is icy, and covered with a thin coating of snow. If you over shoot the driveway, you’ll be broadsided by traffic, so this is not the kind of exercise to experiment with. Hill descent control to the rescue! Simply engage, set your intended speed of descent (make it a slow one!) and let the technology bring you safely to the bottom of the driveway. No drama, no risk of error on your behalf. Kids still safely asleep in the backseat. Now the technology makes sense – nevermind my silly hill adventures (though admittedly good fun).
Where’s The Beef? Qualms and Quibbles:
As BMW continues to perfect its approach to building cars and sporty SUVs, it becomes more and more difficult to find fault. Of course, as an automotive journalist it is my sworn oath (so help me God) to objectively and unbiasedly analyze the vehicles I test. In the case of the X3, I found that most “faults” better fall into the opinionated folder of driver preference, so take the following with a grain of salt, and consider a test drive before you make up your own mind.
My biggest gripe with the X3 is found in its steering feel and feedback. As discussed earlier in this review, it is on the luxurious and comfortable side of typical BMW steering feel, and it leaves the racer in me wanting more sensory stimulation.
But… I counter my criticism with the likelihood that most X3 buyers will welcome the X3’s relaxed, soothing approach to driver inputs and feedback – especially if this BMW serves any capacity in the family unit – kids not withstanding.
The X3’s looks could stand to be a bone of contention for some buyers – but if sales figures have anything to say on the matter: the X3 is an attractive vehicle with sharp looks. At first glance in photos, I found the new X3 to be a bit awkward for my eye – but with time its lines began to make sense, and come together in an attractive package. Now, after spending a week with BMW’s middle x.Drive, I’ve grown rather fond of it. It still challenges my eye on occasion from certain angles, but it does so with an artsy confidence – as if challenging me within an art gallery, “you Sir, are not cultured enough!” From most angles I love its shape, and I believe BMW have done a great job with its exterior styling.
After creating the very segment in which it competes, BMW’s X3 continues to lead the pack in its second generation. While its counterparts from across Germany and Asia have upped their game to draw sales away from BMW – the X3 has raised the bar in the segment. Impressive practicality, efficiency, style and safety make the X3 an obvious choice. At $46,900 MSRP in Canadian dollars, it’s also a relative bargain in the range.
Tenacious grip from its all-wheel-drive system renders it a great vehicle for winter roads, and with winter tires installed, it will take you as far North as you dare explore. Dynamically, the X3 rides upon a brilliant chassis, and should you fully unleash the engine – it will properly scare you with its acceleration.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time with BMW’s latest X3. After sharpening its lines and maturing its ride, we see BMW’s middle ‘x’ brother is all grown up – and it might fit well in your family.
Thanks to BMW Canada for providing the X3 xDrive35i for testing purposes.
Special thanks to Endras BMW for their sponsorship of this car review. Endras BMW is the greater Toronto area’s premier BMW dealership, located a short drive East of the city on Hwy 401. To book your appointment with their relaxed sales team, click here. Hit the jump to leave a smile on their facebook page.