Second Time's The Charm

Just seven years ago, the automotive realm was a distinctly different place, with body-on-frame SUVs still selling like proverbial hotcakes. Into this arena came BMW's X3, what BMW described as a, "small, premium Sports Activity Vehicle with all-road capability and unparalleled driving dynamics." Since 2004, of course, the number of body-on-frame SUVs has dwindled, while the compact crossover category has exploded. And with an all-new X3 launched last winter, BMW's product team is building on the original's success, retaining its all-road capability and improving its on-road behavior.

The X3 menu remains largely the same. Now produced in Spartanburg, South Carolina, BMW's smallest on- and off-roader builds on the well-established formula, while massaging the specifics. And as more automakers enter the fray, remaining competitive is considerably more challenging. BMW's front engine and rear-wheel drive bias remain relatively rare (only M-B's GLK shares the same layout in the near-luxury, compact crossover SUV segment), but Acura's RDX, Audi's Q5, Cadillac's SRX and ? to a lesser degree ? Infiniti's EX35 (which is closer in concept to a G37 wagon) are working overtime to capture consumers. And while people like a crossover's high ride height and (typically) good visibility, the hike in gas prices and tight economy generate additional scrutiny of window stickers and EPA fuel economy estimates. Over 40 miles per gallon is good; Over $40,000 could be bad. And without diesel or hybrid alternatives, most compact SUVs and crossovers will deliver ? at best ? mpgs in the mid-20s on the highway, which isn't enough to keep you on anyone's 'most green' list.

 

Activity Center

As one of BMW's three sport activity vehicles (the X5 and X6 are the others), the goal of the redesigned X3 was to combine traditional BMW ergonomics ? specifically driver-centric design ? with the functionality and adaptability of the modern crossover. To that end, the driver and front seat passenger are greeted by an instrument panel building on traditional BMW design strengths: clear, legible instrumentation; a center stack and console oriented toward the driver; and an aggressive integration of its onboard monitor, navigation and technology.

The X3 pilot is provided with a three spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel, while both driver and front seat companion enjoy 8-way power seat adjustment. Notably, leatherette is the standard seat covering in both xDrive28i and xDrive35i configurations, with 'Nevada' leather an optional upgrade. Those coming from a midsize crossover probably won't think of the X3 as roomy, although interior volume comes closer to that of the X5 than was previously the case (and BMW boasts of having the largest cargo area in the segment). Rear seats are comfortable, and fold in either a 60/40 split (standard) or 40/20/40 configuration (optional).

 

The More Things Change?

The new X3, at least in general proportion, owes quite a bit to the first X3. Short overhangs front and rear, a corporate face and generous greenhouse all reflect the original's DNA. Or, as BMW would summarize, it's a shape conveying "elegance, agility and ruggedness." We're not sure about the ruggedness (check out our X3 Off-Road Drive [LINK: /research/article/new-research-safety/83587/2012-bmw-x3?-first-drive-off-road.jsp]), but can confirm elegance and agility. There is, however, far more going on in the new X3's surface sheetmetal, beginning with the front fascia, extending through the flared wheel arches and with character lines running the length of the vehicle.

The overall effect is one of much better integration (with unpainted bumpers, the earliest X3 looked like a collection of parts), and almost obsessive attention to detail. And the end result seems far more upscale than BMW's previous effort. Of course, this is a vehicle that can easily cross the $40,000 threshold in normally aspirated form (our test xDrive28i was over $46,000), and $50,000 if one opts for the turbocharged 300-horsepower xDrive35i.

 

All-Season Xperience

To BMW's credit, there's no pretense at this being little more than a tall wagon, although on some level that could be said of the entire compact crossover category. With the X3, the perceived advantage of an elevated driving position comes with the real advantage of full-time all-wheel drive, which BMW dubs xDrive. Torque is split 40% to the front, 60% to the rear, and the split is steplessly variable. With this balance in torque distribution and carefully balanced weight distribution, BMW makes a credible point in claiming a dynamic ability that is "unparalleled by other all-wheel drive systems."

Although there is only one drive system, you can still opt for one of two drivetrains. For those believing 'less is more,' BMW offers the entry-level xDrive28i (which has to be one of the most cumbersome model names offered in anybody's showroom). With three liters of displacement, and constructed of magnesium and aluminum alloys, the inline six-cylinder engine is the world's lightest six-cylinder for its displacement. Rated at 240 horsepower and offering 221 lb-ft of torque, the end result is 0-60 in under seven seconds.

One step ? and some $4,000 more on the window sticker ? is the xDrive35i. With twin-scroll turbo technology, the upmarket option provides you with an even 300 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque. Your run from 0-60 can now be done in roughly 5.5 seconds, which should insure both the ice cream staying frozen and your latte staying hot. Opt for the xDrive35i's Sport Package, and you can see 150 on the speedo ? just before going to jail.

Our test xDrive28i performed beautifully, with crisp acceleration, well-connected steering, confident braking and composed cornering. In short, it drove almost identically to its 3 Series sedan counterpart, only taller. And we were pleased with the visibility, although noted that the stepped D-Pillar in back could hinder visibility ? in some instances ? to the rear. And with any BMW driven appropriately, most traffic is behind you. For super-aggressive driving to, say, the ranch in Montana (which necessitates driving across Montana) you could ? we suppose ? make an argument for the higher performance of the Turbo. But if your urban/suburban slog is like ours, buy the xDrive28i and use the change toward a BMW bicycle.

 

Buying Yourself a 'Deutsch' Treat

When making a purchase in excess of $40,000, you should find a vehicle both appropriate to your needs and considerate of your wants. The X3, especially in its newest guise, is fairly unique in its capability to satisfy the driving enthusiast while still meeting real daily transportation needs. Its value proposition is underscored by a base price ? in the xDrive28i ? some $2,000 less dear than its 2010 predecessor. And resale is in the ballpark of its immediate competition, projected ? by the residual prophets at ALG ? to be 52% over three years, placing it between the Acura RDX (53%) and Audi Q5 (51%). Add in free scheduled maintenance for the 4 year/50,000 mile duration of the warranty, and while the X3 may not be inexpensive, your financial exposure is at least predictable.

As noted, while BMW may have been the first to the party in 2004, this is no longer a stand-alone franchise. Even BMW's corporate partner, MINI, has ? after a fashion ? gotten in to the act with its 4-door Countryman. More significantly, Audi is operating on all cylinders with its Q5 and upcoming Q3, while Volvo offers two credible competitors with the newish XC60 and venerable XC90. In the snowbelt, Audi's quattro all-wheel drive is often forging ahead while so many of its competitors are cautiously parked. And Volvo brings to the segment not only all-wheel drive capability ? when ordered ? but also Safety DNA as an intrinsic part of its showroom (and highway) appeal. Finally, Mercedes' GLK is priced more aggressively than BMW, and for the sunbelt retains the choice of 2WD or AWD.

Based on showroom demand (high) and days supply (low), BMW would seem to have a winner on its hands. And we won't argue with their formula, while continuing to bemoan window stickers that can climb from a base of $36,000 to an as-delivered $46,000 with just a few option packages. Its utility is improved over its predecessor, as its handling dynamic. But, as is generally the case with BMWs, an M-Spec X3 couldn't hurt, especially if 'M' meant 'mine'.

author photo

David Boldt began his automotive career in BMW and Saab showrooms in the 1980s, and he moved to automotive journallismin 1993. David has written for a varity of regional and national publications, and prior to joining AutoTrader, he managed media relations for a Japanese OEM.

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