2011 BMW X3 — Review
This 2011 review is representative of model years 2011 to 2014.
By Kirk Bell of MSN Autos
BMW was one of the first luxury carmakers to enter the crossover segment when it introduced the X5 in 1999. Based on the automaker's 5-Series sedan, the X5 stood out from the crowd by offering the utility of a traditional SUV in a package that was not only posh, but fun to drive. Four years later, the Bavarian automaker rolled out the slightly smaller X3, based on its popular 3-Series sedan. It, too, was meant to stand out as a luxurious small ute in a sea of bourgeois boxes. However, the X3 was universally panned by critics for its harsh ride; its austere, minimalist interior that relied heavily on obviously plastic components; and its lack of off-road capability — three gripes that would keep the X3 from gaining widespread success here in the U.S.
For 2011, BMW has completely overhauled its sportiest ute in an attempt to regain its leadership role in the segment. But instead of trying to reinvent the concept behind the X3, the company decided to improve on its original idea by offering more refinement, better driving dynamics and heaps of technology focused on efficiency and connectivity. It also made the ute bigger. The 2011 X3 is now about the same size as the first X5, which means more cargo space and room for passengers. But even more importantly, BMW has made it more affordable. Times are tough, even among the upwardly mobile.
In our opinion, the changes worked. The X3 is the best BMW crossover, and arguably the most fun-to-drive crossover on the market.
Numerous options are available, including a hard-drive-based navigation system, leather upholstery, Heads-Up Display, panoramic sunroof, smartphone integration, power tailgate, rear- and top-view camera, Dynamic Damper Control and Variable Sports Steering.
The X3's safety features consist of dual front airbags, front side airbags, curtain side airbags, tire-pressure monitor, active front head restraints, anti-lock brakes with brake assist, hill descent control, traction control and electronic stability control.
Under the Hood
Both X3 models come standard with BMW's xDrive all-wheel-drive system. It operates with a 40/60 front/rear torque split in normal conditions, but can send up to 100 percent of the power to either axle when the conditions warrant. It is offered with Performance Control, which works in steady state cornering. It adjusts the front/rear torque split to 20/80, works with the electronic stability control system to apply the inside rear brake, and sends more of the rear power to the outside wheel.
The fourth generation of BMW's iDrive entertainment and communications system is standard. It uses a larger 8.8-inch screen when teamed with the navigation system, incorporates several buttons around the central rotating controller, and adds eight programmable memory buttons on the center stack. The buttons around the controller make it easier to access various functions, while the programmable buttons, which look like radio preset buttons, can be used for numerous purposes, including common navigation destinations or phone numbers, sound settings and radio presets. While iDrive will probably never be lauded for its ease of use, the new iteration is definitely better than its predecessor.
The X3 also offers some useful tech features and options. A USB port is standard for MP3-player connectivity. An available Heads-Up Display can show navigation directions, speed and current gear directly in the driver's line of sight. The navigation system comes with a hard drive that can hold thousands of music files. And the available top- and rear-view camera aid visibility when parking and backing up.
Though the X3's ride height is raised, it's still easy to get in and out of the front seats. Rear-seat entry is somewhat obstructed by small door apertures, however. Front-seat occupants have plenty of room, and the driver will certainly find a comfortable seating position thanks to contoured seats with lots of controls and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel. The rear seat adds about an inch of legroom this year, making it much more livable, even for adults. A pair of NBA forwards still won't fit back there, but three kids shouldn't be a problem.
The second-row seat folds down either 60/40 or 40/20/40 (optional) to open up 56.6 cubic feet of cargo space. That's about average for the class, but almost 10 cubic feet less than even some smaller vehicles like the Honda CR-V. We are impressed by the versatile cargo cover. It comes with a pull-out net that can be used to partition off the cargo area either behind the rear seat or behind the front seats.
On the Road
The X3 is offered with two suspensions: a base version and adjustable shocks controlled through BMW's Electronic Damping Control. The EDC is paired with Driving Dynamics Control, which comes with three settings: Normal, Sport and Sport Plus. We like the Normal setting, but the EDC's Sport and Sport Plus modes help keep the X3 even flatter in turns.
The DDC also adjusts steering boost, throttle response and shift points. In the sportier settings, the transmission holds gears longer, which can grow wearisome in everyday driving, and the shifts, which normally are silky smooth, feel more abrupt. The throttle may get too touchy, as well.
Also packaged with the EDC is BMW's new Variable Sports Steering. Unlike BMW's Active Steering, which varies ratio and assist depending on speed, the sports steering has gearing that make the steering ratio quicker as the steering wheel is turned farther off center. This makes it easier for the driver to modulate the steering in tight turns, such as decreasing-radius freeway on-ramps. We like it. Both steering systems are fairly quick and nicely weighted, though without the best road feel.
We drove the xDrive 35i equipped with the turbocharged inline 6. It launches the utility vehicle from zero to 60 mph in only 5.5 seconds, without a hint of turbo lag, and has linear power across the rev range. Passing is a breeze, and the feeling is always smooth and willing.
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