Pros: Refined engines and transmission; seriously quick in xDrive35i trim; satisfying ride/handling balance; high-quality cabin; adult-size back seat
Cons: Relatively low cargo capacity; desirable options like navigation quickly inflate the price
Think of the 2012 BMW X3 as one big mulligan on the heels of the original X3's errant shots. In case our golf metaphor isn't meaningful to you, we'll put it this way: plenty of folks bought the first-generation X3, but they didn't necessarily like it. Chief among their complaints was a stiff ride better suited to a competition-spec M3 than a family-friendly crossover SUV. The first X3 also didn't get great fuel economy, and its interior had some quality issues.
So the current X3, which made its debut last year, had its work cut out for it. Happily, we can confirm that BMW has ironed out most of the kinks. The ride is vastly improved, and the X3 now floats over bumps that would have reverberated through the previous model's bones. Fuel economy is no longer a weakness, thanks largely to the excellent new eight-speed automatic transmission, and the interior quality is easily on par with any other vehicle at the X3's price point. Plus, the X3 is exceptionally fleet of foot with the available turbocharged inline-6.
Indeed, the new X3 is so much better than the old one that there's hardly anything to complain about. Mulligans don't always work out for the best, but the 2012 BMW X3 is pretty close to a hole in one.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 BMW X3 is available in two trim levels: normally aspirated xDrive28i and turbocharged xDrive35i.
The xDrive28i comes standard with 17-inch alloy wheels, foglamps, keyless entry with push-button ignition, leatherette upholstery, eight-way power front seats with driver memory, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, automatic climate control, iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity, a 12-speaker audio system and BMW's iDrive information and entertainment system with the basic small, square display.
The xDrive 35i adds a turbocharged engine, 18-inch alloy wheels, adaptive xenon headlamps, LED brake lights, wood interior trim, a panoramic sunroof and a sportier steering wheel.
The most notable option, in our view, is the navigation system, which radically changes the iDrive system, replacing the standard screen with a beautiful 8.8-inch wide-screen display-and adding hard-drive-based operation with digital music storage. There are many other options, of course, including sport seats, adaptive dampers, a power tailgate, 19-inch wheels (xDrive35i only) and a 16-speaker, 600-watt audio system.
Our first thought on entering the X3 was that BMW has the commanding driving position nailed. The front seats are nice and tall, affording an expansive view over the hood-and since the X3 has plenty of glass all around, outward visibility is great no matter where you're looking. We'd consider springing for one of the packages that offer the sport seats, though; the beefed-up side bolsters and manual thigh-support extenders are worth the stretch.
The X3's gauges will be comforting to BMW aficionados, employing the classic white-on-black numerals that change to orange on black at night. Interior materials are almost uniformly premium, and the attractively restrained dashboard design is straight out of the traditional BMW playbook. The standard iDrive display looks a little pathetic, though; you might want to pony up for the wide-screen navigation system.
The X3's rear seat is pleasantly elevated like those in front, yet there's plenty of headroom, so even lanky passengers will have plenty of space. We actually prefer the X3 to the larger X5 in this regard. As for cargo space, there's a respectable 27.6 cubic feet behind the second row and 56.5 cubic feet, definitely on the small side for a vehicle of this type, with the rear seatbacks folded down. The X3 is handy, don't get us wrong, but other entry-level luxury crossovers tend to be handier.
The central tech topic for the X3 is its iDrive information and entertainment system, which comes in two forms. The standard system has a square display, lacks navigation and doesn't offer digital music storage. We're not enthused about the functionality of this version. If you opt for the pricey navigation system, though, you get a crisp, colorful 8.8-inch wide screen that's hard drive based with plenty of space for your MP3s. The iDrive controls have improved dramatically from the system's controversial early years, now featuring a vastly better menu structure and numerous physical buttons next to the primary knob for direct access to common pathways. This goes for both versions, so at least the basic version is pretty user-friendly.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The 2012 BMW X3 comes with standard all-wheel drive; the Dynamic Handling Package adds a rearward power bias for sharper handling. The xDrive28i is powered by a normally aspirated 3.0-liter inline-6 rated at 240 horsepower and 221 lb-ft of torque. The xDrive35i steps up to a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6 good for 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque. Every X3 has a very smooth and responsive eight-speed automatic transmission.
Acceleration falls short of scintillating with the xDrive28i's base inline-6, but it is an exceptionally refined engine. For what it's worth, you won't be able to get it next year: a turbocharged inline-4 will be the new base engine for 2013. Fuel economy is 19 mpg city/25 mpg highway. The real star of the show is the xDrive35i's turbocharged inline-6, which transforms the X3 into an amazingly fast vehicle. The eight-speed automatic is a perfect match for the turbocharged power delivery, too. If you want a hot-rod luxury crossover at this price point, get the xDrive35i, and you'll have no regrets. Fuel economy is great as well, somehow outdoing the xDrive28i's at 19/26 mpg.
The 2012 BMW X3 comes with standard stability control, four-wheel ABS and six airbags (front, front side, full-length side curtain).
The government hasn't crash tested the X3, but the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the X3 its highest rating of Good in every category.
The X3 is tall, no doubt about it, but it remains exceptionally composed in corners for a crossover SUV. That makes its smooth, quiet ride all the more remarkable. BMW really nailed the suspension tuning in this truck. Throw in the delicious turbocharged inline-6, and you have the clear driver's choice among entry-level luxury crossovers. But that was also true of the previous X3; the news this time around is that passengers will be equally pleased with the way the X3 goes down the road.
Other Cars to Consider
Audi Q5: The Q5 feels nearly as athletic as the X3, and we prefer its styling. A must-drive in this class.
Cadillac SRX: The SRX's calling card is its new 3.6-liter V6, which pumps out a healthy 308 horsepower and almost single-handedly makes the Caddy a pleasure to drive. It has a top-notch interior, too.
Volvo XC60: We'd stay away from the XC60's base engine when cross-shopping against the X3, but the turbocharged inline-6 is a winner, and we like the XC60's well-rounded nature.
We wouldn't be able to resist the turbocharged engine, so give us the xDrive35i, and we'll take the Sport Activity package (which includes the sport seats) and the navigation system as well. The X3 costs a pretty penny this way, but it's a lot of crossover for the money.