BMW’s first generation X3 had life fairly well sorted. It was comfortably placed in the X-Series range beneath established big brother the X5 and the sportier X6. But life changed for the X3 with the birth of the X1 into the X-family. In response the new X3 would have to grow in size and refinement to create itself a new groove in the range. With this realignment in mind BMW has launched its second-generation X3 model for 2011. In the role of middle child the X3 is now bigger, handles sharper and has improved fuel economy. Car and SUV had a test drive in the new diesel-powered X3 20d to document its coming of age.
In terms of body proportions there’s definitely been a growth spurt for the X3 with a 28mm increase in width and a 11mm higher ground clearance at 212mm. There’s minimal change in height but at 4.65 metres in length and a widened track the X3 is dimensionally very close to the original X5. Despite the extra bulk and more equipment the new X3 is 25kg lighter than its predecessor – an impressive result for BMW engineers.
Visually the X3 is now smoother and sleeker with the larger body helping create a muscular aesthetic. At the front, flat-edged headlights are a distinctive feature and recessed round fog lamps live on a puffed out front bumper. Along the sides a deep cut character line runs below a generous upswept window section and tough black plastic cladding protects the bottom edge. Rear styling mimics the X1 closely with a high hatch spoiler, jewelled two-piece tail lamps and concave grip points on the tailgate. Standard wheel fitment is 17-inch light alloys but our test subject was upgraded with the optional guard-filling 18-inch V-spoke rims. Overall the new X3 has become bulkier, more athletic and much more decisive in its styling. From the large corporate grille to the oval exhaust tip it clearly blends family focus with dynamic intent.
The X3’s increased exterior measurements translate into a practical and spacious cabin area. Rear seat space has improved greatly over the first-gen X3 with plenty of headroom and ample legroom for adult passengers. The cargo area is expansive, offering a 550-litre capacity with the back seat in place and 1600-litres with it folded flat. Up front, driver and shotgun passenger get wide, comfortable chairs, thickly stitched and trimmed in high-grade black leather. A broad centre console and wrap-around dashboard cosset the driver placing all switchgear close to hand. Interior quality was a criticism of the first X3 and BMW have addressed it with the new model, which is now better aligned with the rest of the range. Dashboard plastics are thick, soft and tactile, the contrasting silver trim didn’t feel quite as heavy duty but the X3 cockpit has an overall feeling of being robust and built to a meticulous standard.
Switchgear and control systems are typical low-key BMW fare with intensely accurate instrumentation and bright orange illumination all around. Audio and climate controls are nicely condensed in the central control stack. BMW’s iDrive system controls most vehicle functions and settings through a jog dial mounted on the centre console. It’s intuitive and has deep menus with a range of vehicle information and navigation, it also looks great on the high mounted colour-screen. A 6.5-inch digital display is standard, but our test vehicle was upgraded to the larger 8.8-inch ‘professional’ screen.
A leather-wrapped sports steering wheel also houses various buttons for audio and phone functions. Other standard equipment includes treats like, a rear view camera with top view, Bluetooth, Xenon lights, headlight washers, rain sensing wipers, keyless entry and start, automatic climate control air conditioning, run flat tyres and parking sensors. There’s also a good practical focus to the X3 interior with trustworthy cupholders, large door bins a 40/20/40-split rear seatback and tie down points on rails in the hatch area.
When it comes to powertrains the new X3 is available in two model grades here in NZ, the xDrive20d and the higher spec xDrive30d. Our test vehicle was the 20d, which is expected to be the volume seller and despite being the less powered machine, it’s certainly no slouch. The 20d stays true to its badging with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel engine that outputs 135kW of power and a solid 380Nm of torque. Acceleration is brisk with the 20d moving from stationary to 100kph in 8.5 seconds, not bad for any mid-size vehicle. But this middleweight’s knock out punch comes with a fuel economy number of just 5.6 litres/100km combined. An automatic stop/start function that’s a first in this segment helps achieve this frugal fuel figure and while it works diligently, it can be turned off.
On road the X3 offers impressive all-round performance. The acceleration is very linear and predictable for a turbocharged engine with very little noticeable surging or lag. It has an effortless nature that makes it feel much lighter than its 1,750kg kerb weight. Credit can be given to BMW’s superb 8-speed automatic transmission, which is smooth and intuitive to the driver’s intent. During motorway cruising it will keep the X3 in its high economy gears but also has a sports setting that expertly works the narrow diesel torque band, and a sequential manual change option for more spirited driving. The 20d’s towing limit is 2,000kg with a 200kg max tow bar download weight.
Dynamically the new X3 is far more competent than its predecessor with a driving feel that’s more sports wagon than high-riding SUV. On twisted roads the X3 has impressive body control, staying flat through corners, and offers a high level of grip through the full-time xDrive 4WD system. It’s a high-tech set up that uses the X3’s safety sensors to deliver torque to whichever axle needs it most. The result is a confidence-inspiring steer that is also quite enjoyable in a family-friendly way. The steering is an electric Servotronic system that stays very light at low speeds, but tightens up well and is emphatically accurate.
Ride quality is also hard to fault, particularly on our test vehicle, which was fitted with the optional electronic damper control. This makes three suspension settings available Normal, Sport and Sport+. In its normal setting the X3 feels supple and compliant, while it’s still firmer than many competitors the ride is never jarring and bumps or dips don’t unsettle the cabin easily. It’s very refined inside with little tyre or engine noise audible. This shows the extensive nature of BMW’s sound deadening because standing outside of the running X3 the diesel engine can be noisy, especially when cold.
Off road you couldn’t set your expectations too high for the X3, but it does have some assets. The torquey engine, raised ride height, clever xDrive system and the inclusion of hill descent control means steep gravel driveway or a patch of wet grass shouldn’t find the X3 wanting.
Safety features include everything you’d expect in a premium family vehicle with front, side and curtain airbags, seatbelt pretensioners and load limiters. There are electronic aides like stability and traction control and a cornering brake control system to keep you out of trouble. An alarm and locking wheel bolts are also included.
Bottom line is that the new X3 is a very strong package; it’s a competent and practical all-rounder. In 20d form there is nothing that feels base model, the interior is well appointed and there is an impressive selection of standard equipment. Fuel economy is a major strength and comes courtesy of the modern diesel mill and clever Efficient Dynamics technologies. But it’s the handling dynamics that set it apart from competitors, the X3 is so assured on road through its xDrive system that no real handling sacrifices need to be made to drive a high-riding family hauler. It sure isn’t cheap, especially with optional equipment, but any buyer who stumps up for the 2011 X3, won’t be disappointed.
Price: from $87,900 as tested $115,600
What we like:
- Strong and economical diesel engine
- Dynamic ability
- Smooth and smart auto gearbox
- Spacious interior
What we don’t like:
- Engine can be loud from outside the vehicle
- Pricey optional equipment
Who will buy this car? With the X3’s practical nature and safety features it has definite family appeal. It’s a true multi-purpose vehicle and would be useful for most walks of life.
Cool Factor: Moderate, it won’t win kudos like BMW’s sleek sedans and wagons but among SUVs and crossovers it’s a better looker than most and can be blinged-up with optional larger alloys.
Words and Photos: Adam Mamo