Dan Frio, Automotive Editor
When in doubt, add size. That's the mantra many automakers seem to follow when trying to sustain a winning formula in the North American market. So you can't really blame BMW for bulking up the 2011 BMW X3 and trying to wring further success from its cute-ute.
Fresh from an exterior redesign and a good stretching, the 2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i looks bolder and offers more space for people and stuff. Yet deep in an off-camber mountain switchback, it convinces you that it's simply a tall sport sedan. And it no longer rattles your fillings loose to prove it.
As before, standard all-wheel drive ensures that the X3 xDrive35i will scale those forest roads to the first chairlift or trailhead with ease — even if its most arduous labor only involves pulling a couple of Sea-Doos or ferrying a haul from Banana Republic over some road construction.
But the 2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i can be a maddening daily driver, with slow throttle response plaguing its low-speed character in city driving. The Acura RDX, Audi Q5, Infiniti EX35 and Mercedes-Benz GLK350 all offer a more direct connection to the drivetrain and thus more intuitive performance.
Given an open road and a rolling head start, however, the BMW X3 delivers an exhilarating head rush.
The 2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i has grown 3.6 inches between its wheels, giving it a tarmac footprint that rivals that of the X5. It's also put on about 200 pounds, but you wouldn't know it. It's powered by a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6 with direct injection and a twin-scroll turbo, offering immediate, cracking throttle response and a deep reservoir of power at cruising speeds.
A leaden foot can uncork its 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque in a frenzied defiance of inertia from just 1,200 rpm. In Edmunds testing, the X3 xDrive35i hustles to 60 mph from a standstill in just 5.6 seconds, breezing through the quarter-mile in 14.1 seconds at 95.3 mph.
A new automatic transmission with optional shift paddles for manual shift control lets you row through all eight gears in lightning-quick succession and deposit the X3 into its sweet spot of efficient cruising. Meanwhile, deep downshifts — down two or more gears — are actuated as a single, direct shift to the required ratio. The result is hyper-acceleration useful for bursting down an open lane, evading a lazy semi or detaching from the wolf pack of hungry sedans behind you.
The X3 is frustrating in low-speed stoplight driving, however. The throttle requires a very committed input before the engine delivers power, as if the turbo six were awaiting approval from an electronic committee before finally whipping the horses into action. The hesitation goes beyond mere turbo lag, and makes for jumpy, uneven driving around town. It's not notably better in Sport mode, either.
Perhaps this is the cost of fuel economy, but we're still not fans. The 4,184-pound 2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i achieves an EPA-estimated 19 city/26 highway mpg. Properly equipped, it can tow up to 3,000 pounds.
From 25 mph however, the 2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i can be sublime. Gone is the stiff-legged ride that BMW could pass off only to young, active lifestylers obsessed with the Roundel. This edition of the X3 aspires to more civilized passage. Its retuned suspension employs electronics that optimize settings to changing road conditions, and under steady-state cornering it can shift 80 percent of torque to its rear wheels.
Combined with firm and effortless speed-sensitive steering, the X3 xDrive35i feels electric (in a good way) while carving back-road bends, and kartlike when simply weaving through the speed bumps at Home Depot. It all contributes to an SUV that feels closer to the earth than the 65-inch height of its roof line suggests.
Brake feel and response inspire additional confidence in fast driving. In Edmunds brake testing, the X3 xDrive35i slows to a stop from 60 mph in 115 feet.
Inside the cabin, the 2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i greets you just like the rest of the BMW family does. You're welcomed to snug seating with multiple adjustments; a steering wheel with a soft, meaty rim and a chalky grip; and driver-oriented cockpit-style controls. As athletic as it seems, however, this particular X3 is also an aesthete, with optional leather-upholstered buckets and bolsters (vinyl leatherette is standard), glossy wood inserts and knurled knobs.
Legroom is generous, even for rear passengers, who enjoy slightly more than 3 feet of it, while headroom is similarly spacious. The rear seats split 60/40 unless you order the X3 with a ski pass-through, which gets you a 40/20/40 split.
Exploiting a BMW's tech functions through the iDrive interface has been a chore since the software's introduction. But this fourth-generation package gets it close to better. Menu screens and graphics are clear and legible, with the dial controller and selector buttons placed as close and comfortable as the living room remote.
There's still a general lack of intuitiveness when digging into features, and it takes some time to learn when to press the dial or nudge it up, down or sideways. But as with the commands of a digital camera, all can be learned.
More frustrating is the console-mounted shift lever, which offers no feeling of locking into a gear. Instead, you tap it backward and confirm your selection from a display in the instrument cluster. The turn signal stalk seems likewise built for a softer European touch, with no discernible detent. Tap it in one direction to signal, then in the opposite to turn it off (the signaling sequence always seems to go on too long while changing lanes). But use too much pressure on the latter stroke and you'll be signaling like a sailor tacking in the trade winds.
Thankfully the X3 offers a clear look over both shoulders, so when occasion arises and you have a clear shot into another lane, you can visually confirm clearance before dropping the hammer.
Design/Fit and Finish
The 2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i has received a thorough resculpting outside, adding a chiseled muscularity to its profile. As a design exercise, though, it's a busy array of curves, bulges, arcs and depressions, strong enough to look contemporary and innocuous enough not to offend.
With a price as tested of $55,525 (including destination), maybe it's wishful thinking to expect something better than the optional Nevada leather (available as a stand-alone or packaged option), which has a grainy, textured feel not much better than premium vinyl. Thankfully, other interior details — muted, soft-touch plastics on the cowl, brushed aluminum and wood trim pieces, and thick, welted stitching — contribute to an environment of performance luxury.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i is really an SUV with a sport sedan heart. It's wider around the beltline, but not full-size, and hustles impressively when asked. It's compliant, but doesn't isolate you from the road like a larger SUV might. But it does force you to tolerate its throttle lag and adjust to its abrupt manners around town.
Once you've got a little speed underfoot, though, the BMW X3 xDrive35i's acceleration and poise is a thrill. It's a fine urban runabout that conveys style and fitness, but can also handle the slippery road out of town.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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