When it comes to embodying brand values, BMW's X3 is the proverbial 97-pound weakling. Among its brawny Bavarian relatives this SUV stands out for lack of both dynamic prowess and fashion sense. Rough-riding, slow-steering and with an outdated interior, it's possibly the least convincing BMW of the last decade. Now, keen to prove the current X3 was but a temporary aberration, BMW has previewed the next-gen model well ahead of its early 2011 arrival in US showrooms.

In the countryside southeast of Munich this week, BMW assembled a small group of pre-production X3s for a quick-fire evaluation by select international media. During a morning of driving the protos on asphalt and gravel roads, the improvements showed through the heavy camouflage, inside and out. With new-found suppleness to its suspension set-up, greater agility, stronger performance, reduced thirst and expanded roominess, the new X3 feels much more like something conceived in Munich should.

Conception is one thing, birthplace is another. The new X3 is to be built only at BMW's Spartanburg, South Carolina, plant. That may sound strange but then the current model isn't truly German; it rolls out of a Magna Steyr facility in Graz, Austria.

At launch in the US, the X3 will offer a choice between 28i and 35i engines. The first is virtually a carry-over version of the 260-hp naturally aspirated 3.0-liter in-line six of the current model, the second signifies BMW's superb 300-hp turbocharged 3.0-liter in-line six. Both are to be teamed with a ZF-made eight-speed auto transmission and equipped with BMW's xDrive system. All X3s, for all markets in the world, will be equipped with this all-wheel-drive tech, which channels torque variably to the front wheels via an electronically controlled multiplate clutch. A rear-wheel-drive version of the X3 obviously is feasible, but BMW engineers swear that such a variant won't be produced.

Truck Trend drove only the 35i. Riding on 245/50R18 Pirelli run-flat tires (17-inch wheels will be standard fitment), and equipped with what will be extra-cost Sports Package options - including a Dynamic Drive system which alters damper, throttle and transmission responses, and steering assist levels - the pre-production X3 was very impressive on the Bavarian roads. It rode calmly, steered neatly, accelerated briskly, shifted gears with decisive subtlety, and generally did all the things that inspire driver pleasure.

Not only drivers will appreciate the changes wrought in the new X3. The rear seat is noticeably more spacious and the cargo compartment has grown by almost two-and-a-half cubic feet to 19.4 cu-ft. The luggage space, accessed through a one-piece tailgate (power opening and closing will be an option in the US), is wide and regularly shaped. And, underneath the cloth camo covers designed to frustrate prying eyes, there's a classier instrument panel. For the US market, iDrive, with a small central screen, will be standard. Choosing the navigation option also brings a larger, 8.8-in screen.

The new X3's greater capacity for both passengers and gear is a result of growth. Although based, like the smaller X1 SUV, on the same architecture as BMW's 3 Series, the new X3 has a wheelbase two inches longer than its little brother and more than half an inch longer than the current X3 model. Length has grown by more than three inches, as have front and rear axle tracks, body width is over an inch more, and both height and ground clearance have been increased by half an inch.

Growth in every direction means the X3 sits at the mid point between the X5 and the X1. Asked if the decisions on new X3's size were as simple as averaging the values of X5 and X1, packaging team leader Hans Penzkofer agrees that the process was almost this straightforward.

With customers clearly asking for better ride comfort, the task for the X3's chassis engineers was equally obvious. "Better comfort with good agility was the aim," said Heinz Krusche, BMW Group's chassis integration chief. With the first-gen X3 the objective was to create the "most agilest SUV in the market," he recollected. "The compromise was ride comfort..." Yes, we know, Heinz...

While the new X3 is larger, it weighs around 44-lb less than the current model, thanks to close attention to materials selection. The desire to contain weight is the reason that there's no third-row seat option in the X3. Although considered early in the program, it was rejected, according to packaging man Penzkofer, because it meant the difference between weight gain and weight loss.

The trim new X3 is sure to get better mileage than the current model, thanks also to the efficiency gains with the change to an eight-speed transmission. In the European standard consumption test, the 35i consumes nine percent less gas than the current 3.0-liter X3, even with torque and power increases of 27 percent and 12 percent respectively. Even without the Start/Stop system that will be standard elsewhere in the world, the US-spec X3 35i is expected by BMW North America officials to bring savings at the gas station and a better EPA mileage rating compared to the current model. (The new X3's Start/Stop system will become available from sometime in calendar year 2012 in the US market, by the way.)

Diesels are also under active investigation for the new X3 in the US market, although it's not clear if the 181-hp turbocharged oil-burner that will be a mainstream engine in Europe is the candidate, or another. Hybrid is another, more distant, potential future X3 drivetrain development.

The new X3, over time, could turn into quite a sizeable BMW family sub-group. More certain, from early next year, is that it won't be the puny outsider looking out of place in the company of its relatives.


2011 BMW X3 35i
Base Price $43,000-$45,000 (est)
Vehicle layout Front engine, AWD, 5 seat, 5-door compact SUV
Engine 3.0L/302-hp 295-lb-ft turbo DOHC 24-valve in-line 6
Transmission 8-speed automatic
Curb weight (dist f/r) 3830 lb (mfr)
Wheelbase 110.6 in
Length x width x height 183.1 x 74.2 x 66.4 in
0-62 mph 6.7 sec (est)
EPA city/hwy econ Not yet rated
On sale in the U.S. February/March 2011
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