Matt Davis, Contributor
It's hard to believe the 2012 BMW X3 is almost here. The BMW X3 is the Euro-premium soft-roader that got the Europeans thinking crossover instead of sport-utility all the way back in 2003, and we have now arrived at the second iteration. They grow up so fast, don't they?
For the second-generation X3 known internally as "F25," BMW brought us out to a patch of rural Bavaria to thrash around a preproduction vehicle. We were to negotiate some mild off-road stuff, do some splashy stuff and then drive several glass-smooth stretches of two-lane pavement where we would apparently be permitted to gun it while keeping an eye peeled for chickens and horses wearing lederhosen. Of the preproduction units present, we jumped at the new top-of-the-line 2012 BMW X3 xDrive35i.
The first-gen X3 (known as the "E83") stops its build in early August of this year at the Magna Steyr plant in Graz, Austria, and by then, the model will have sold over 600,000 units worldwide, making it the global sales king in its segment. A new production line at BMW's plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, is already ramping up for the 2012 BMW X3.
Is Bigger Better?
Until BMW finally started bringing us the 328i sport wagon, the X3 has always been as close as North Americans would ever get to the small, sleek haulers seen hither and yon in Europe. Yet sales figures of the current X3 have been pretty lackadaisical in North America, according to Bernd Hassenjuergen, the X3's marketing boss. Hassenjuergen tells us that the top markets for the X3 have been (in order) Germany, the U.K. and then the United States.
"This new generation X3," Hassenjuergen confides, "needs to flip that around a little to make the U.S. the No. 1 market." As you might have already guessed, the strategy for the new X3 involves making it bigger as a consequence, and now this compact crossover is only a tad smaller than the original X5. But this has also been done to the X3 to help create some marketing space for the BMW X1 crossover now starting deliveries in Europe.
We have to say that the current X3 does come off a little tight in the living-space department, plus there are a few too many bits of cheap plastic and the nonadjustable suspension feels wound up a little too tightly. To make the point, BMW forced us to drive a current X3 xDrive30i from the airport to the event site southeast of Munich. Once we arrived and clambered into the new X3, we noticed the new vehicle's clearly better ingress and egress given the broader overall dimensions and slimmer side sills. Exterior length for the new 2012 BMW X3 grows 3.2 inches, width by 1.2 inches and height by a bit more than half an inch. The wheelbase has been stretched a little more than a half inch as well.
Inside, the room for more American-size bodies has been maximized with a veritable mile of headroom in front and back, plus eight-tenths of an inch more rear knee room. All of this is appreciated and should immediately put this X3 on more shopping lists than the outgoing model managed. Basic cargo room is up to 19.4 cubic feet behind the second-row seat, an increase of almost 3 cubic feet.
Sticking to Less Tech
So far as the basic approach of what to offer as standard and optional, the new-generation X3 steers away from the long, mesmerizing options list of the X5. Nevertheless, the 2012 BMW X3 has the new, ZF-built, eight-speed automatic transmission featured by the X5, both for the X3 xDrive28i that will be introduced in January 2011 and then the X3 xDrive35i that arrives a bit later. The "eighter" (as the Germans say) actually weighs less than the six-speed automatic that it replaces and improves the fuel economy of the new xDrive35i's turbocharged, 300-hp N55 inline-6 by 9 percent.
While it remains a challenge to parse out the options on the new X5 (or especially the new 5 Series), Hassenjuergen affirms, "We discovered that the typical X3 buyer worldwide doesn't tune in so much to all the high tech like a buyer in the next segment up does." All the same, the X3's options list ain't exactly skimpy. There is no Adaptive Drive tech package, but there is the simpler single-valve Driving Dynamics Control chassis setup as seen on the Z4 xDrive35i. It features just Normal, Sport and Sport+ settings, as it does without the Comfort setting seen on the high-end Bimmers.
Other available options include the three-spoke M Logic steering wheel with shift paddles (only for the 35i as tested here), then Dynamic Performance Control rear-axle torque vectoring (a miracle when it comes to moving the mass through the curves more like a Bimmer and less like a bummer). You'll find a head-up instrument display and Dynamic Cruise Control. Finally, you can have a range of wheels: 17-inch on the 28i, 18-inch on the 35i, up to 19-inch and even a 20-inch set through an approved aftermarket source.
Drives Like a Grown-Up Now
Even though the new X3 is set to be taken more seriously with all its bigger dimensions, the xDrive28i and the xDrive35i models weigh 45 pounds less than their corresponding outgoing models. We've still got loads of sheet steel on this small family-activity tank, but now the cast-aluminum, front and rear axle assemblies are lighter yet more rigid.
Thanks to less weight (the X3 is at about 4,000 pounds at the curb now), greater rigidity where needed, 17 percent more power and 31 percent more torque, the xDrive35i is a sincere piece of work that will have many more people in the X5 market thinking sort of smaller.
BMW has changed the supplier for the electric-assist part of the rack-and-pinion steering, and the action is much smoother through the full 2.3 turns lock-to-lock, the ratio altering at the rack mechanically depending on the steering angle, just like on costlier models. Though our elaborately costumed (camouflaged) tester was covered in black muslin inside to hide the details, we played a bunch with the chassis control as well as with the dynamic traction control (available only on the racier xDrive35i). Even in the wet, this fully optioned 2012 BMW X3 xDrive35i with the chassis control set in Sport+ was a dynamic charmer. Though there is no hydraulically controlled antiroll bar here as on the 7 Series, we were seriously level through several yank-us-around curves.
The raw truth versus the soon-to-depart, naturally aspirated 30i version of the current X3 is that the new 35i gets us to 60 mph a full second faster with much greater comfort, so we'll see sub-6.0-second dashes in track tests once that can happen early next year.
In rough terms, the 2012 BMW X3 looks exactly like the new X5, only smaller. We like the more mature presence of the X3 in this version, since keeping a SUV from looking quite so honking huge is a healthy thing. At the same time, it's substantial enough to keep traditional sport-utility buyers from thinking that they're giving up very much.
Besides the X3 xDrive28i and X3 xDrive35i, BMW managers are indicating a strong chance of an X3 xDrive35d coming to the North American market within another year after the introduction. Since this engine now makes up some 30 percent of the X5s sold in the U.S., and with the lack of such success with the 335d sedan, Munich might just remove that model from the U.S. portfolio and toss the allotted diesel motors into the X3.
When we asked about an X3 ActiveHybrid, we got the usual telling reply: "Everything is possible at this point." It's apparent that the new X3 will be wearing several more hats than we expected.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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