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2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i Review
Improved in all ways but one, the X3’s interior is hard to overlook
By Colum Wood, Photography by Colum Wood, May. 18, 2011

A mismatched pairing of expletives spilled out of my brother in law’s mouth as we sailed through a corner at what he so vocally deemed was a terrifyingly fast rate of speed. His first impression of the all-new BMW X3 differed rather significantly from my own.

FAST FACTS

1. Powered by a turbocharged inline-six the xDrive35i makes 300-hp and 300 lb-ft of torque at just 1200 rpm, delivering a 0-60 mph time of just 5.5 seconds.

2. Roughly the same size as the original X5, the new X3 adds more interior room and cargo room at with 19.4 cu-ft behind the rear seat 56.6 cu-ft total.

3. The new X3 starts at $36,750 or $41,050 for the 300-hp xDrive35i model.

SORRY-EXCUSE FOR A LUXURY INTERIOR

Not having had time to really soak-in the new exterior shape, I hopped aboard the redesigned sport ute to be greeted by perhaps the most disappointing car interior since the Chevy Camaro. With the exception of some Fisher Price-grade canoe wood trim, the X3’s cabin is drab and monotone. Known for having Spartan interiors, this cockpit looks like it was inspired by one of the ancient Greek soldiers’ barracks.

The seats have little if no shape to them, meaning they don’t do a great job holding you in place in the corners. They do a worse job of looking halfway decent. As for the rear seat area, it’s a flat and bland expanse of hard, coarse leather, as devoid of passion as a desert is of water.

The problem stems from one critical error on the part of the BMW interior designers. It’s obvious that the dash plastics were intended to mimic the look of the leather, but the converse effect is achieved. Overall, it makes even the Acura RDX cockpit look stylish, and it’s simply nowhere close to the Audi Q5 or Infiniti EX. To be fair, we do have to wonder if a different choice of leather might help alleviate our displeasure with the monotone cockpit.

At least there’s nothing bad to say about the iDrive system. Panned for over a decade since it was first introduced, BMW was forced to take notice and make big changes. The result is what might just be the most intuitive and easy to use such system in the business, with the iDrive control knob so ideally located, anything else feels unnatural.

The iDrive system is standard, although you’ll have to pay extra for navigation, which also comes with a larger 8.8-inch display screen. The space at the top of the center stack is meant for the bigger unit too, and on base models there’s the distinct feeling that something is missing.

As for the audio, this Bimmer, like all the rest deserves applauds with excellent quality and near-defending output.

LARGER DIMENSIONS MAKE FOR MORE INTERIOR SPACE

If there’s one important improvement for the new X3 its in the added space. The ‘sports activity vehicle’ has grown in all ways for 2011, even though its new look gives the impression of a more compact machine. Half an inch taller, it’s just over an inch wider and gets the biggest gain end-to-end with almost 3.5-inches more between the bumpers. The result is a back seat with plenty of space (legroom in particular), while trunk space is also up considerably.

BMW claims the X3 is now best-in-class for cargo volume, although the truth is somewhat less certain. At 19.4 cu-ft behind the rear seat and a total of 56.6 cu-ft, those numbers actually put the X3 at just about dead last when compared to rivals like the Audi Q5 or Acura RDX. The numbers require some analysis, however, as they’re calculated rather subjectively and aren’t just based on dimensions of the trunk space. A ruler and calculator are not required to see the space between the rear seats is up quite a bit and in our test there was enough space for luggage for four an extra-long-weekend road trip – which also revealed how nice a highway cruiser the X3 is, with a quiet cabin making it easy to hold a conversation with back seat passengers.

To give a little perspective on its size, the new X3 is comparable to the original X5. In total its 0.8-inches shorter in length and 2-inches lower, but it’s actually 0.8 inches wider. To keep enough space between models the current X5 has also grown, although both it and the X3 share an uncanny resemblance now.

MORE PERFORMANCE THAN ANY ‘UTE NEEDS

Even with all that extra room, the crossover’s wheelbase has only grown half an inch, retaining its excellent driving dynamics, as evidenced by the foul-mouthed comments of my wife’s brother.

The X3 doesn’t just impress, it surprises, and combined with standard xDrive AWD has incredible amounts of grip. Under normal driving conditions, torque splits 40/60 front to rear, although under the right circumstances a full 100 percent can be sent to the two rear wheels meaning there’s plenty of sports car in this ‘ute.

There’s also the sort of acceleration you’d expect from a two-door German machine, with the turbocharged inline-six laying down 300-hp at 5800 rpm and a serious 300 lb-ft from just 1200 rpm. A bit of a porker at 4,222 lbs, it’s actually lighter than the outgoing model. Considering that weight, you’d expect sprint time to be affected, but it isn't with a startlingly fast blast to 60 mph in just 5.5 seconds.

The down side, of course, is fuel economy. It’s officially rated at 19/26-mpg, but we managed just 19-mpg on average, with the vast majority being highway miles, so look for your numbers to be even lower.

Like any proper German vehicle the X3 is available with enough options to double the base price (ok, not quite). Unfortunately our car didn’t come with many of them, which is disappointing because BMW’s Driving Dynamic Control selector is an extra we’ve thoroughly enjoyed on every other Bimmer we’ve tested. With choices for Normal, Sport and Sport+ the different programs control vehicle settings like throttle response, transmission shift points, steering and even shock absorber firmness when equipped with yet another option, Electronic Damping Control.

With BMW’s sedan lineup starting to all look the same; a similar trend is obvious with the X3 and X5. That’s not entirely a bad thing and the more imposing size of the new X3 can partially help to justify is rather significant price tag. There is, however, more to the X3 than just its shape, with impressive paint (Sparking Bronze metallic on our test car) and the sort of details you can really only appreciate in person.

Without any options and just sticking to the base engine you can find yourself in an X3 for $36,750. Our xDrive35i tester retails for $41,050. Add on the Convenience Package with a power tailgate and keyless access for $1,150; a Cold Weather Package with heated front and rear seats, plus a heated steering wheel for another $1,150; and then the Premium Package with leather, lumbar support, a panoramic moonroof and auto-dimming mirrors and you’re not far off the $50K mark. Pricey, yes, but in this class, that’s certainly not an unreasonable amount of dough.

THE VERDICT

Sure it’s absurdly fast and can tackle an off-camber late apex corner with poise, both things that will help maintain and grow the X3’s appeal, but rarely will these attributes be used by anyone who buys one. Instead, the far more important qualities of the new X3 include added room for passengers and their things, as well as the handsome new body. That said, it’s an impressive machine and while expensive is by no means unrealistically priced.

But should you buy one? Were it not for the abysmal interior we’d heartily recommend it, and perhaps your opinion of the cabin may differ, in which case it’s enticing. With such a high level of performance it’s temping to gloss over the cabin, but when you consider how much time you’re likely to spend in traffic, staring at the expanses of unappealing leather, a temporary bout of buyers remorse is likely to become something more chronic.

LOVE IT
  • Incredible handling
  • Abundant power
  • Added passenger and cargo room
LEAVE IT
  • Terrible interior
  • Thirsty for premium fuel

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