Just Another Crossover, or the Ultimate Driving Compromise?
Stop, wait, shudder, silent, check.
Stop, wait, shudder, silent, check.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
The first time this $55,525 European-spec 2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i sputters itself out of idle at a red light, we're disconcerted. It does not go calmly into that good night. Instead, belying the technological wizardry of a seamless eight-speed transmission and the 3.0-liter N55 single-turbo 300-horsepower inline-6, which spins with the precision and delicacy of a dentist's drill, the car wobbles and dies. And then we put another check on the list.
And when we lift off the brake, the starter turns three times — crankcrankcrank — the engine returns to its super-smooth life and, like the rest of the luxury crossover utility vehicles cruising home on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, we're burning fuel for the next 16 feet until traffic stops. And a second later the engine shutters into hibernation and we're left in silence until the pencil scratches yet another check on the paper titled, "Times the stop-start feature on the 2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i has annoyed me on my way home."
But the start-stop feature isn't offered in the U.S. It's one of the few differences between this European-spec 2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i and the model we'll get: that and the km/h speedometer. So let's not talk about that anymore.
When It Runs It Purrs
Other drivers on this roadway are the bread-and-butter demographic for the BMW X3. Hell, they're the bread-and-butter for every one of those carmakers that thinks big bows and surprised wives are the way to sell cars come the holidays. We're interloping in Beverly Hills and playing their game: Acceleration: slow. Cornering: slower: Attention to traffic lights: nil.
Let the weight of your shoe sink the throttle in a way intended not to clear the roadway but to maintain the integrity of the spiral "with whip" atop your caramel brûlée latte, and you'll have to be an astute gauge-watcher to notice you've moved at all. Of course, the heads-up speedometer reads 50 and the BMW is in 7th gear, but the sensation is like being wheeled into surgery on a hospital bed as someone has you counting, "10...9...8...."
To say that this engine and its eight-speed partner in crime are smooth would be a lazy understatement. So, too, would be the words "velvety" or "buttery." Unless the velvet is buttered up and spinning 117 times per second, it's not even close. A test: Open the hood, roll down the windows and, with the 2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i in Park, rev the engine. 2,000 rpm and no vibration. Keep sinking slowly into the throttle and you'll find the same true for 3, 4, 5 and 6,000. At somewhere near the 7,000 rpm redline, through the gap on the bottom of the hood, the engine visibly moves a degree or two right but there's no perceptible change inside the cabin. If it didn't sound like the world's beefiest hand dryer blowing into a steel garbage can, you'd swear the tachometer was faking it to make you feel good at this.
But if you treat the throttle like a soft baby animal all the time, you're probably not reading Inside Line and you're probably not interested in the 300-hp 35i.
Slam, Wait, Suck, Squish, BOOM
The first time you really lay into the X3's throttle is nerve-wracking. Not in the same way that pegging the gas on a Dodge Viper makes your sphincter tighten. In the X3 there's little chance you'll break traction and spin into a ditch.
No, in the X3 it's a different kind of nerve-wracking, like when you watch a toddler toddle its over-ripe melon into the corner of a glass table. There's a thud and then there's deafening silence. It probably only lasts a fraction of a second, but the fear extends the panic to feel like days. And then, like the welcome screams of the not-dead baby, there's fury. And this is assuming the engine was running in the first place. And unless the pavement is perfectly smooth, once the engine and transmission get on the same page you're off and the wheel dances hard left and right, blurring the audio controls mounted thereon. The wheel-mounted paddle shifters stay mercifully within reach.
Good thing, too, because the single-turbo 3.0-liter inline-6 is more than happy to crash into its 7,000-rpm redline without a note of warning. Leave the gearbox to its own Sport+ programmed devices and the X3 squats back on its haunches and shoots to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds (5.4 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and finishes the quarter-mile in 14.1 seconds at 95.3 mph.
Hold tight long enough in that position and the Sport package-equipped 2011 BMW X3 will reach a top speed of 150 mph. And for the first time in an X3, getting there is a pleasant experience.
And it has brakes. In the usual BMW tradition, the X3's four-wheel discs are a bit grabby around town, but the pedal has a reassuring firm feel. At the test track its braking performance was certainly aided by its Euro-spec summer tires. All five stops were right around 116 feet. The only odd thing was that the hazard light came on with every stop.
Turning a Corner
When the X3 premiered in 2004 it was rough. Rough ride and surprisingly un-BMW-like rough interior. It was as if BMW thought that those willing to compromise handling with ride height and utility would be willing to accept anything with a Roundel on it. The stiff and bouncy ride and inferior materials were dealt with in 2007, which helped. But by then, the CUV market had fully exploded with luxury offerings from every corner of the world. This 2011 X3 had to be superlative.
The first thing any BMW-ophile worth his blue-and-white blood will notice is the steering weight. Their improbably jacked forearms, veined and gnarled from years of manhandling heavy steering at low speeds will find the grandma-friendly hyper-light steering unnerving. A stiff breeze hitting the wheel could get this SUV to change direction. On the tight streets of the Hollywood Hills and the never-ending tangles of esses of Los Angeles' canyon roads, this is a welcome relief for our doughy appendages. On the track, however, the Servotronic variable-ratio electronic power steering (part of the Dynamic Handling package) had our driver on edge.
Turn-in is faster than you expect and then the ratio changes and you've got to steer some more to keep the arc you're trying to draw smooth. This results in a slalom speed of 66 mph and a driver frustrated by electronics mucking up otherwise solid driving dynamics. It's a rarely ending cycle of steer/correct, steer/correct, steer/correct.
Unlike with other crossovers, ignoring the line and failing to correct the X3's line is fun. Stay steady with your inputs and keep a heavy right foot, and it'll throw 100 percent of the power to the rear wheels and that, friends, begets powerslides. Try that in an SRX. Get off the power or turn the wheel anywhere near a quick pace and the 245/50R18 Pirelli P Zero summer performance tires give up the ghost with a shriek from the front. Around the skid pad, the 2011 BMW X3 is good for a 0.86g performance but thanks to the abrupt power delivery and zero-sum tip-in, steering with the throttle is more work than reward.
The Latte Factor
To categorize people into Type-A, -B, -Z drivers is unfair. We all have mood swings and priorities that dictate the way we're driving at any particular moment. That said, this X3 is not intended for the Type-A driver looking for compromise. The throttle issues and the fuel-economy-upping hypergearing (we managed 19.5 mpg combined) add up to a car that is significantly less fun on the road than it could be. It may be able to overpower the rear wheels for some hatch-out-hooning, but that's a rare case.
Instead, the X3 xDrive35i is for the late-for-soccer-practice-and-latte set. Drive it with kid gloves and it's a serene ride that feels as expensive as it is. The interior is expertly built, supremely comfortable and if you already know how to work a BMW interior, logically laid out. It's one of the more pleasant places to spend time with the family that doesn't involve a TV.
Just don't expect it to be the Ultimate Driving Machine. After all, BMWs are about Joy now, and Joy isn't about responsive driving dynamics or throttle response. Joy, it turns out, is about isolation and comfort and in that, the 2011 BMW X3 excels.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of this evaluation.