Driven: 2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i

By John Beltz Snyder

August 23, 2011

—Ann Arbor, Michigan

Those familiar with the BMW 3-Series, 5-Series, or even X5 will feel right at home in the X3. The materials are the sort of high-quality fare that we’ve come to expect from the premium German brand. Even though the X3 is less expensive and smaller than the X5, we felt like we had plenty of room in the cockpit, with all the standard instruments, touch points, and switchgear that we liked in its bigger brother. Rear seat room seemed a quite a bit more generous than the standard 3-Series, too, on top of the added space and functionality afforded by the rear liftgate and cargo area.

The interior of the X3, for those of you who aren’t totally familiar with its siblings, has a true sporting feel to it. Leather seats offer a great deal of support and bolstering, and they allow almost anybody to find a comfortable, confident driving position. In the X3, the forward view is ameliorated by the higher ride. The only visibility concern we encountered was in the D-pillar, as the rear side window just doesn’t extend back far enough to get a good over-the-shoulder glance at the blind spot. The layout of instruments and switchgear is fairly simple, and everything comes to hand easily. The electronic gear lever allows one to select transmission modes, and steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters are also on hand for manual shifting duty. Next to the gear lever, a toggle switch lets you choose between Normal, Sport, and Sport+ driving modes, depending on your style or situation.

The new turbocharged 3.0-liter straight-six engine is tried and true, and feels just as appropriate here as it does in any of the other vehicles it serves. Power is plentiful, and response is quick and appropriate. The 300 pound-feet of torque comes on quickly and lasts high into the rev range, and the 300 maximum horsepower peaks shortly after that starts to fall off. The result is a strong start, a healthy acceleration, and an equally powerful finish as you wring it out. Left to its own devices, the eight-speed automatic transmission changes gears with snappy quickness and silky smoothness. It was even willing to downshift multiple gears without fuss, even when we had the pedal to the floor.

The X3 handled pretty marvelously. Despite its elevated ride height, the suspension kept body roll well in check. On the highway, at high speeds, it felt naturally fast, stable and comfortable. In the city, it was pretty nimble, and offered a distinctly car-like ride. It offered a bit of communication through the chassis, without ever feeling too stiff. It could get a little bouncy in Normal mode, and we were surprised to find that Sport offered a cleaner feel through the suspension. For most purposes, we simply left it dialed into Sport, where the X3 felt like it was in its sweet spot for suspension, steering, and throttle response. Furthermore, had we so desired, we had the option to customize the settings for Sport mode through the iDrive system, but we liked it just as it was.

Steering through corners, the X managed to stay right on course, flatly and calmly. People often talk about the strange weighting of BMW tillers, but that was not the case during our time with it; the speed-sensitive power steering transitioned very nicely from very low effort at low speeds, to higher effort at a faster pace. Not much road feel was in evidence, but overall we like this less-enthusiastic tuning for BMW better than its work on the 5-Series GT, for instance. Furthermore, the full-time all-wheel drive kept the X3 from wandering beyond our intended line, regardless of what type of road we drove on.

One thing to note here is that the X3 can split torque between the front and rear, and will shift 80 percent to the rear for stable cornering. It can also apply the brake to the inside rear wheel, if needed, and push power to the outside to help the car rotate. The thing is, the car does this all so instantaneously and smoothly that the occupants can’t even feel it happening. To the casual observer, it’s just as though the X3 had no problem taking a tight, fast, gravelly corner, when all this torque vectoring happens behind the scenes. It’s a boon to driver confidence, and leaves people impressed with the car without even understanding the real reasons why. Good stuff.

In all, we really like the X3 xDrive35i as a package. When driving it, it feels compact and eager to accelerate, turn, and brake. At the same time, it feels larger on the inside, and offers a classic BMW interior experience with just an added bit of space and functionality. There may be more players on the field to compete with the X3 these days, but BMW has done a great job of keeping the X3 not only relevant, but fiercely competitive, especially for those of us who like a little bit of spirit in our compact crossover.

VS: Mercedes-Benz GLK350

The GLK starts well below the 35i at $35,880. It’s down on power a bit, with its 3.5-liter V-6 making 268 horsepower and pound-feet of torque. That means a longer dash to 60 mph at 6.5 seconds. A fairer comparison would be the GLK versus the X3 xDrive28i ($36,750, 240 horsepower), where choice would be mainly one of styling, and ride quality (the Mercedes is a bit softer and coddling, while the BMW feels a bit more sporting). As it stands the X3 35i is the better car, while the GLK feels like a pretty good value versus the 28i.

VS: Volvo XC60 T6 AWD

At 38,950 the XC60 T6 (or for the design-minded driver, you could splurge for the gorgeous R-Design at $43,150) offers 300 horsepower, and 325 pound-feet of torque. It gets slightly worse gas mileage, at 17/23 mpg. The two are very similar in weight and size. The Volvo’s technology, though, is more focused on convenience and cutting edge safety. The X3 is the better driver’s car, with a sportier feel, and superior handling, especially when driven with enthusiasm. The Volvo is more isolated, and the BMW is simply more of an engaging vehicle.

2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i
Engine: Turbocharged inline-6, 3.0 liters, 24v
Output: 300 hp/300 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 5.5 sec
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 19/26 mpg
Base Price: $41,050
On Sale: Now