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Review: 2011 BMW X3


Up Front

Let's face it: BMW's X3 compact SUV was long something of a dog. X3 owners always seemed to me like BMW wannabes who craved the cachet of the brand but couldn't afford something good (like, say, a BMW X5). Since X3's debut in 2004, its sales had dropped steadily to a mere 6,075 last year.

All that changed with the redesigned 2011 X3. The new X3 is quicker, handles better, and rides more smoothly than the outgoing X3. It's also bigger (3.4 inches longer and 1.1 inches wider), better looking, and more fuel-efficient. Plus, like the previous model, the 2011 X3 is made in America, at a plant in Spartanburg, S.C.

Add it all up and the X3 is now as good—and, arguably, better—than any of its main rivals, which include the Audi Q5, the Lexus RX 350 from Toyota's (TM) luxury division, the Acura RDX from Honda's (HMC) luxury division, the EX35 from Nissan's (NSANY) high-end Infiniti line, and Mercedes' (DAI) GLK350. In the first three months of this year, U.S. sales of the X3 more than quadrupled over the same period last year, to 5,710. Yes, incredibly, BMW moved almost as many X3s in the first three months of this year as in all of 2010—and in all of 2009, for that matter.

That's partly because compact SUVs are selling like mad as gas prices and the iffy economy prod consumers into trading down from bigger models. But it doesn't hurt that the X3 is less expensive than before, at least if you go with the xDrive28i, which is powered by a naturally aspirated 3.0-liter, 240-horsepower in-line six-cylinder engine.

That version of the X3 starts at $37,625, which is $2,100 less than the 2010 X3. It also comes with a bit more standard equipment than the 2010, including an anti-theft alarm and iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity. The trade-off: The engine in the xDrive28i has less oomph (20 horsepower less) than the only engine offered in the outgoing X3.

The new X3 xDrive35i is relatively expensive, with a starting price of $41,925. It comes with a powerful 3.0-liter, 300-horsepower, turbocharged six-banger engine, however, that matches or bests the top horsepower rating of any of the X3's main competitors.

With either engine, the 2011 X3 comes standard with all-wheel-drive and a highly efficient eight-speed automatic transmission with a manual shifting function. The entry-level Audi Q5 2.0T also has an eight-speed automatic, but the more powerful Audi Q5 3.2 comes with only an older six-speed. The X5's other rivals offer only seven- or six-speed automatics.

Despite its greater power, the X3 xDrive35i's high-tech, direct-fuel-injected engine helps give it a mileage rating that's a tiny bit better than that of its less expensive sibling. The xDrive28i is rated to get 19 miles per gallon in the city, 25 on highway, for an average of 21 mpg. The mileage rating is exactly the same for the xDrive35i, except that highway mileage rises to 26 mpg.

Among the X3's main rivals, only the four-cylinder-powered Audi Q5 2.0T, with an average mileage rating of 22, does better. The Volvo XC60's mileage rating matches the X3's, but its average drops to 20 mpg with AWD and 19 mpg with a turbocharged engine. The Audi Q5 3.2 is rated to get 20 mpg, and the Mercedes GLK350 is rated to average only 18 mpg, whether with rear-wheel drive or AWD. The Lexus RX 350 and Acura RDX are rated at 21 mpg with front-wheel drive but only 20 mpg and 19 mpg, respectively, with AWD.

Behind the Wheel

The xDrive28i probably has adequate power for most drivers, which is why it has accounted for about two-thirds of 2011 X3 sales so far. Still, no other compact luxury SUV on the market can quite match the xDrive35i's combination of quickness, handling, and fuel economy. Its high center of gravity means it doesn't hug the road quite like a 3 Series sedan or coupe, but it comes close. If anything, the standard all-wheel drive, which distributes power between the front and rear wheels according to conditions, seems to improve handling and road feel.

BMW rates the xDrive28i to accelerate from zero to 60 in 6.7 seconds, which is slightly faster than the previous generation X3 (6.9 seconds with a stick shift and 7.1 seconds with an automatic). In the xDrive35i the time falls to just 5.5 seconds, almost as fast as a BMW 335i sedan—and very quick for an SUV, especially one that gets 26 mpg on the highway. The X3's brakes also bite very hard. Edmunds.com says the X3 will come to a full stop from 60 miles per hour in just 115 ft.

BMW no longer offers a stick shift in the North American X3, but only hard-core driving enthusiasts will feel the loss. Shifting in the automatic transmission's manual mode is much quicker than most drivers can manage using a clutch and stick shift. And, like BMW sedans and coupes, the X3 is available with both dynamic electronic dampers and dynamic drive control (part of a $1,400 package). The latter allows you to set your driving preference to Sport-Plus, which noticeably improves the X3's responsiveness.

One of the best things BMW did in redesigning the X3 is totally revamp its suspension to keep it sporty but smooth out the ride. I took my xDrive35i test vehicle out on the back roads around my rural Pennsylvania home and pointed it into every pothole I could find (and there are a lot of them in late winter). The X3 just eats up bumps. There was never the jarring thud that sometimes makes you think you must have broken something in a BMW's suspension. The company says the electronic damping system is so quick that when the front wheels hit a pothole it can adjust damping before the rear wheels hit the hole, even at highway speed.

The X3's interior feels similar to that of a 3 Series sedan—which is to say tasteful and comfortable but not plush. The biggest difference is you sit up higher in the X3, making sightlines better and ingress and egress easier. An optional panoramic moonroof gives the cabin an open, airy feel. The iDrive control system is much improved and now relatively easy to use.

The X3 has numerous cubbyholes, cupholders, and storage compartments as well as floor rails and netting to hold cargo in place behind the rear seats. Cargo space in back is 27.6 cu. ft., rising to 63.6 cu. ft. with the rear seats down. The rear seats fold in a 60/40 pattern, or in a 40/20/40 pattern as an option so long objects can be stowed between the rear seats. Maximum towing capacity is 3,000 lbs.

Buy It or Bag It?

If you can afford it, the X3 xDrive35i is a great little SUV. Keep in mind, however, that optional equipment can easily push its price up from the 42-grand base level to more than $50,000 (my test vehicle priced out at $52,025).

For those on a tighter budget, the base model X3's toughest competitor is probably the Audi Q5 2.0T, which starts at $36,075, $1,650 less than the xDrive28i. The Audi has a similar tight, sporty feel to it. It has only a four-cylinder engine, but it's a really good, turbocharged four-banger that delivers both pep and excellent fuel economy.

Just about all of the competition, however, is cheaper than the X3 once you factor in optional equipment. The X3's average selling price is $45,289, according to the Power Information Network, compared with $43,088 for the slightly larger Lexus RX350, $42,531 for the Audi Q5, $40,630 for the Mercedes GLK350, $39,243 for the Volvo XC60, $38,158 for the Infiniti EX35, and $34,221 for an Acura RDX.

The bottom line is you pay more for a BMW, but the new X3 is probably worth the extra money.

Click here to see more of the 2011 BMW X3.

Thane Peterson reviews cars for Businessweek.com.

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