Don’t let the off-road setting fool you; the BMW X3’s natural habitat is the highway.
THE 3-SERIES in all its permutations—sedan, coupe, wagon, ragtop, hot rod, rear-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, gas and diesel—is BMW’s star. It’s the car that every office drudge in the world (those still employed) covets and the target for every other maker when it rolls out a smaller car with premium pretensions. Odd then that the X3, the sport-ute of the 3 family, got so little attention from BMW. At least until now.
For years we carped about the baby Bimmer SUV’s rocky ride and its lackluster styling and interior. But it was selling well, so what did we know? Then, for 2011, BMW woke up and gave the X3 a tasteful makeover, inside and out, and began to apply some of the goodies that the cars were getting. (The iDrive computer system may not qualify as a “goodie” to everyone, but BMW has made it less inscrutable to those of us who are over the age of 14.) If you’re already a BMW sedan driver, the X3’s stubby shifter lever, with its odd shape and buttons, counterintuitive movements and robotic response, will be familiar. If not, you’ll have to teach yourself that pushing the lever ahead engages reverse, and to go forward you pull it backward. To “Park” you don’t move the lever at all—just thumb the switch on top. One of the biggest changes for the X3 is an 8-speed automatic transmission, which helps improve fuel economy on the highway to about 25 MPG. The downside, at least in the 28i model, is that with so many cogs to choose from, its computer brain sometimes makes the transmission hunt around for the best one. Fortunately, shifting is smooth enough that this isn’t terribly bothersome.
Every BMW automatic has a Sport setting, which sharpens the response and, here, locks out the top two gears. You can engage them in Sport mode, but you must do it manually, by pulling the gear lever backward. To go forward. You can get used to this—but not to the automatic door locks, which require two pulls to open. That’s annoying.
Don’t expect the X3, without a low range in its transmission or much ground clearance, to scramble over rocks and through mud like a Jeep or a Land Rover. In fact, with pavement tires it’s hard-pressed to climb a steep, grassy hillside. But BMW’s claim to fame has always been handling prowess on pavement. This was well and truly baked into its first “truck,” the 1999 X5, and then applied less successfully to the smaller X3, which debuted in 2004. Although it’s now nearly as large as the original X5—and no lightweight, either—the newly refined ride finally makes the X3 a pleasure to drive. (Equal weight distribution over both axles plus fine seats and a stiff and creak-free structure don’t hurt, either.)
BMW’s other hallmark has always been its powerplants, 4-, 6-, 8- and 12-cylinder wonders that spin up like ball-bearing yo-yos and produce a lot of power for their size. The American X3 comes with one of two 3-litre (180 cubic inches) inline sixes. The 28i motor makes 240 horsepower and 221 pounds of torque. The 35i is the same engine turbocharged to 330 horsepower and 300 pounds of torque. The difference in acceleration is astonishing, but the 28i motor provides plenty of power too. In fact it feels quicker than it really is, thanks to a hair-trigger throttle. Pulling away from a stop, there’s a bit of pedal travel when nothing happens and then wham!—you’re bolting through the intersection like a Tasered rabbit.
BMWs have never been cheap, but for people who enjoy driving they usually deliver lots of satisfaction per mile. An X3 28i starts at $37,000 and the 35i about $5,000 more. However, to get a taste of the luxury that BMW can also deliver, figure on spending another five to ten grand on top of that. At least now the X3 feels like a “proper” Bimmer.