The essence of BMW’s ongoing success is the creation of a vehicle that’s good out of the gate, followed by continuous refinement and improvement. The 3-series, a perennial 10Best winner, is of course the ultimate example of this formula. And the new BMW X3 seems to be the latest case in point.
At its formal world introduction blended into the dedication of a new assembly hall at BMW’s sprawling facility near Spartanburg, South Carolina the redesigned X3 responds to the two major criticisms regularly leveled at its first-generation edition: harsh ride quality and stingy rear legroom.
Let’s look at the second kvetch first. This is a substantially bigger X3, even though its 110.6-inch wheelbase is up only a smidge. It is 3.1 inches longer than before, at 183.0; width has expanded by 1.1 inches, to 74.1; and the front and rear track each increase by 3.6 inches. Height, meanwhile, has come down by half an inch, to 65.4 inches. The sum of these dimensional adjustments plus more creased body sides and broader nostrils in the front fascia is a vehicle with a more athletic stance than before, and one that’s more attractive, too.
But the more tangible benefit of the growth the new X3 is almost as large as the first generation X5 is a rear seat wherein a pair of adults may reside comfortably without developing knee calluses from constant rubbing on the front seatbacks.
The Early DQ
Now, let’s tackle a preliminary read on the new X3’s DQ dynamic quotient. Most BMW vehicles are exemplary in terms of their balance between ride and handling, but the guys responsible for tuning the original X3’s chassis missed the mark, erring on the side of knife-edged responses. They erred by a lot; our first road test reported that the X3 “rides like the axles are welded right to the frame.”
It took a while, but we’re pleased to report that the net result of a new multilink rear-suspension setup, revisions to the front struts, and general retuning of other suspension components is ride quality that is much more 3-series supple, with no discernible loss in agility. The X3 can be outfitted with BMW’s Dynamic Damper Control suspension electronically controlled shocks that adjust to surface conditions which offers three driver-adjustable operating modes: Normal, Sport, and Sport+, none of which approach the threshold of “axles welded to the frame.”
We confess that we base this on limited seat time. The South Carolina event devoted much more time to ceremonies predictable speeches by various luminaries (including governor Mark “Appalachian Trail” Sanford) and a tour of the plant among them than it did to driving. Still, a dirt-road loop quickly convinced us that the chassis guys have nailed the ride quality part of the equation this time around, and the electro-hydraulic variable-assist power steering is as accurate and tactile as anything in BMW’s entire lineup.
The engines offered in the new X3 are familiar: a naturally aspirated 3.0-liter straight-six (240 hp, 221 lb-ft of torque), and the N55 3.0-liter six force-fed by a single scroll-type turbocharger (300 hp, 300 lb-ft). Both are mated to BMW’s new eight-speed automatic no manual-transmission option, alas and the company’s xDrive all-wheel-drive system is standard.
In the new X3, the eight-speed’s manumatic function is remarkably prompt and never harsh, with reduced shift times in the Sport and Sport+ modes. There are dual-clutch systems that may be a little quicker, but as torque-converter automatics go, shifting for yourself in this one goes better than most.
BMW forecasts 0 to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds for the naturally aspirated version and 5.5 for the turbo model. The last X3 we tested, which had a naturally aspirated 3.0-liter six, achieved 60 mph in 7.1 seconds. We have no reason to doubt BMW’s claims for the new vehicle, but will wait until we can wring out the new X3 at a test track before making a definitive assertion.
In an era of general economic gloom, the new X3’s pricing looms as a bright spot. When it goes on sale in late December, the basic version officially badged X3 xDrive28i will start at $37,625. That’s $2100 less than its predecessor, and includes more standard equipment, including iPod and USB interfaces, Bluetooth connectivity, and an anti-theft alarm. The turbo X3 xDrive35i will start at $41,925, and adaptive xenon headlights are among the additional standard equipment.
We don’t have detailed option pricing at this point, but we do know there are several choices new to the X3. For example, the second-row seat can be ordered in a 40/20/40 split, providing more cargo flexibility. BMW’s head-up display also will be on the options list for the first time, the ConnectedDrive package includes a very clear backup camera as well as an around-view system, the nav setup incorporates a text-to-speech function for text messages and e-mail, and the Dynamic Handling package includes BMW’s variable sport steering.
A couple things missing from the U.S. options list are BMW’s excellent 3.0-liter turbo-diesel, which will be offered initially only in other markets. Already available here in the X5 and 3-series sedan, it may find its way into the X3 at some later date. Also missing, for now, is a new engine stop/start feature to save fuel when the car is at stoplights. This, too, will be offered at launch elsewhere.
Big Brother to the X1
There’s another chapter to the X3’s bigger-is-better story. An enlarged X3 creates a niche for a smaller X vehicle: the soon-to-arrive BMW X1. A little smaller than the first-generation X3, the X1 will arrive early next year.
The new assembly hall we saw at BMW’s Spartanburg facility will be devoted, at least initially, to X3 production. Previous X3 production was performed by Magna Steyr in Austria. Spartanburg will now become the sole source for worldwide X3 production, and it already handles X5 and X6 assembly. When the new hall is cranking full-tilt-boogie, it will expand Spartanburg’s total capacity from 160,000 to 240,000 units per year. According to BMW, some 70 percent of all Spartanburg production is exported; based on our brief experience, we predict customers the world over will be fairly satisfied with the new X3.