That the 2010 X3 is the oldest model in BMW’s lineup becomes apparent before you even turn the key to start it. In fact, it is this very act — turning a key — that reminds us the X3 is a car from a not-too-distant, but entirely different, time. Now in its seventh model year, it’s about to be phased out by a thoroughly modern successor that not only promises to bring it up to date with the rest of the family but also address the major critiques of the first generation. The production version of the new X3 (designated F25, if you’re keeping tabs on BMW platform codes) won’t debut until October at the Paris Motor Show, so when we were offered an opportunity to catch some seat time in a pre-production prototype in the backwoods of Bavaria, we eagerly volunteered for our blindfold and a spot in the back of a cargo van for a little ride in the forest. Much to our relief, we were instead allowed to hop in a 2010 X3 and drive ourselves to a secluded farm in the Bavarian countryside, giving us a chance to assess back-to-back just how much better the second-gen X3 really is.
When the first X3 emerged, its primary goal was to be the most agile 4×4 in the marketplace; as the realization of 2002’s X Activity Concept it succeeded in defining the compact, sporty crossover vehicle. However, other more marketable qualities took a back seat to driving dynamics — namely ride comfort, styling, functionality, and overall refinement. Rolling production changes addressed many of these issues, and a mild facelift for the 2007 model year vastly improved the quality of the interior. Even with these improvements, it was always a stiff-riding platform that felt more like a 3-series variant than a real SUV. And it was.
For 2011, the X3 grows up a bit, finally coming into its own as a true compact SUV instead of a jacked-up station wagon. Outright agility — while still very much important to the essence of any BMW — takes a back seat to, well, back seat comfort, cargo space, ride quality and general sophistication. Think of the next X3 as a leaner, lighter, less expensive X5 and you’ll get idea.
Open a door and step inside the new X3 — even in pre-production trim — and you’ll see it shares none of its predecessor’s cheapish materials or designs. All of the surfaces are finished to the same standard as the current 3-series. Gone forever is the pop-up navigation screen, replaced with a high-resolution display on all models controlled by standard fourth-generation iDrive for the entertainment system, Bluetooth phone and vehicle settings. Navigation is still optional, and includes the larger eight-inch display. Either way, the screen is cleanly integrated into the dashboard, sitting top-and-center and without the double-bubble hump on the current 3-series.
An increase in virtually every critical dimension is also partly to credit for taking the new model a couple rungs up on the compact SUV ladder, especially the additional 86 mm of track width that push the wheels further apart for a more planted feel. The greenhouse has been widened as well, adding 40 mm of front shoulder room and 20 mm to the rear, eliminating the tall and narrow feel of the original X3 cockpit. Overall length has grown by 80 mm — to a total of 2810 mm — on a 15 mm longer wheelbase. The growth is modest, but it’s in all the right places. Seeing the old model alongside the new, it’s hard to spot the dimensional changes; and yet somehow the awkward, Converse-hightop-like proportions seem to be gone.
The longer wheelbase benefits rear passengers the most. Just getting in and out of the rear seat is easier thanks to larger door openings, particularly at foot level. The rear floor is low and flat too, and the back bench is wider than before, reaching all the way to the doors. In the cargo area, the load floor is lower and wider; chassis engineers set out to make the rear suspension as compact as possible to give back some hauling space, and their efforts are obvious as soon as the single-piece liftgate is opened.
Where the new X3 hasn’t grown is on the scale. Despite being more accommodating, the new X3 weighs in roughly 45 pounds lighter than its predecessor at just a couple clicks over 4000 pounds when equipped with the same naturally aspirated six-cylinder engine. Use of aluminum suspension components, lighter steel alloys throughout the structure and components like electric power steering have helped shed the weight.
Despite going on a diet, the new X3 is considerably stiffer than the outgoing model. This additional structural rigidity, which was immediately noticeable on our rural backroads drive, gave the chassis engineers greater latitude in tuning the suspension for improved passenger comfort. The setup is essentially the same as the current 3-series wagon with xDrive — MacPherson struts up front, multi-link in the rear — but geometrically optimized and tuned specifically for Sport Activity duty. It’s still a firm-riding vehicle, but there’s a more supple quality to small, low-speed bumps, and less suspension noise in the cabin as well. Three-mode Dynamic Damper Control (Normal, Sport and Sport+) will be offered as part of the sport package, allowing the driver to dial in an even firmer ride at the push of a button. Unlike the DCC setup on other BMWs, however, there is no Comfort setting on the X3. We wonder if that might change, though, as the Normal setting is far from soft.
In our short time on the rural rain-soaked roads south of Munich, we got a pretty good sense that the new X3 will be every bit a BMW in the driving dynamics department. Brakes, as usual, are large enough for the job, and the boost has been dialed down a little compared to the old version for more direct feedback and modulation. The xDrive system is essentially the same as that used on the current X5, giving sixty percent of the torque to the rear wheels under normal conditions. Sport models will include torque-vectoring on the rear axle, accomplished by braking the inside rear wheel and automatically dialing in a bit of additional throttle during aggressive maneuvers. BMW doesn’t expect many owners will take their X3s off-road, but the vehicle is nevertheless capable of fording 22 inches of standing water should the need arise, and hill descent control will once again be standard, just in case.
Two drivetrains will be offered when the X3 launches at the end of this year, and both will include eight-speed automatic transmissions as standard; manual transmissions accounted for such a small percentage that they were cut out of the US plan. The X3 xDrive28i will use the current 3.0-liter naturally aspirated six-cylinder (N52), presumably making 260 horsepower. For performance junkies, the X3 will also be offered with the new twin-scroll, single-turbo 3.0-liter six (N55) as the X3 xDrive35i. Sport package models of the 35i will also get the sport version of the eight-speed automatic, which not only offers more aggressive shifting programs, but also a pair of steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters with dedicated upshift and downshift paddles. We drove the 35i model with the sport ‘box, and we have a feeling it will be the setup of choice for driving enthusiasts who need a little more vehicle than a 3-series can provide.
Of perhaps greater interest is a third powertrain option that BMW is said to be considering. While no one will officially confirm or deny any of our speculations, there are a lot of winks and nods when we suggest the X3 could be the right candidate for a four-cylinder turbo engine. Whether that engine burns diesel or gasoline is still up for debate, but we know first-hand how good the 200-horsepower 2.0-liter twin-turbo diesel is in the 320d, and it couldn’t hurt BMW’s CAFE numbers any. Keep your fingers crossed.
First impressions are important, and even though we drove pre-production mules —complete with black-and-white paisley camo — it’s very clear the next X3 is set to take on a full crop of worthy competitors when it starts rolling out of the Spartanburg, South Carolina, plant after the turn of the year. We are definitely looking forward to driving a production model this fall. Pricing remains to be set, but the 2011 X3 should slot perfectly between the just-updated X5 and the compact X1 that will finally arrive in America at the beginning of next year.