By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Here’s the most important thing to know about the just-updated 2013 BMW X3:
Despite pressure from our Dear Leaders in DC to make more fuel-efficient engines, BMW isn’t building less powerful engines — as many others are doing. In fact, the X3’s new standard engine — a 2.0 liter turbocharged four — is stronger than the old 3 liter in-line six it replaces.
And it gets better gas mileage, too.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is there’s still no diesel engine on the roster — though BMW has dropped some hints there might be by sometime in 2014.
Meanwhile, Mercedes has just launched a diesel version of the X3’s rival, the GLK — and Audi’s got a hybrid version of the Q5.
One wonders why BMW is holding back.
But the question for today is whether you ought to.
WHAT IT IS
The X3 is BMW’s entry-level CUV and competes most directly with the Audi Q5 and Mercedes-Benz GLK.
Base price is $35,900 for the four cylinder-powered X3 28i and $43,900 for the X3 35i, which comes with a larger six-cylinder engine.
Both versions come standard with BMW’s “xDrive” AWD system.
The X3’s formerly standard 3 liter in-line six has been replaced by a turbocharged 2.0 liter four cylinder engine — the same unit that’s also standard equipment in the 3 and 5 series sedans. Though smaller than the engine it replaces, it produces the same hp (240) and more torque (260 lbs.-ft,. vs. 221 previously) while also using less fuel: 21 city, 28 highway vs. the old engine’s 19 city, 25 highway.
To further improve efficiency — at least, potentially — BMW has made its formerly optional EcoPro driver-selectable engine management system standard equipment in all X3 trims, along with engine Auto-stop (which can be turned off). The formerly extra-cost power liftgate is now standard.
New four is stronger than old six.
Pirouettes through the corners better than some sport sedans — and better than its competition.
More room inside than Benz GLK; more fun to drive than the Q5.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
New four sounds like a four.
Game Boy-style electric gear selector gives little physical feedback.
Auto stop’s slight efficiency gains (maybe 1 MPG, either way) probably irrelevant to people who buy $40k cars.
No diesel… yet.
No manual transmission, period.
UNDER THE HOOD
The decimation of eight cylinder engines is already well under way and now sixxes are in the sights of the no-goodniks in DC. BMW is merely joining the ranks of other automakers who have been forced to nix their sixxes in favor of more fuel efficient fours — in order to comply with the fuel economy fatwas issuing from our Dear Leaders.
But, unlike some of the others, BMW hasn’t downrated as it has downsized. The new 2.0 turbo four that replaces the previous 3.0 inline six not only achieves par, horsepower-wise (240) it also produces significantly more torque (260 lbs.-ft.) with all of it coming online at just 1,250 RPM — exactly 1,500 RPM sooner (well, lower in the powerband) than the old six’s 221 lbs.-ft. — which arrived at 2,750 RPM.
Acceleration is almost exactly the same: zero to 60 in about 6.7-6.8 seconds. But fuel economy with the new engine is now 21 city, 28 highway — vs. a less CAFE-friendly 19 city, 25 highway with last year’s straight six.
These numbers are dead heat with the Audi Q5 2.0T (zero to 60 in about 6.8 seconds; 20 city, 28 highway) and noticeably better than the Benz GLK350 (zero to 60 in 7.2 seconds and 16 city, 22 highway) which still comes standard with a six. However, Mercedes is bringing out a new engine, too. A diesel four cylinder engine. It displaces 2.1 liters and makes a reported 190 hp and 369 lbs.-ft. of torque — comparable in output to a six liter gas V-8. When this review was written in late March 2013, only preliminary stats were available for the new BlueTec diesel-powered GLK, but it is likely to take its place as the clear leader — MPG wise — in this class. It should have no trouble achieving at least 35 MPG on the highway — and may exceed 40.
There is also a hybrid version of the Audi Q5; however, neither its mileage (24 city, 30 highway) nor its performance (0-60 in about 6.8 seconds) are anything to chatter about — especially given its $50,900 base price — which is $12-$15k higher than the base prices of either the X3 28i or the Benz GLK.
You can also move up to the X3 35i, which still comes with an in-line six, but turbocharged — and making 300 hp and 300 lbs.-ft. of torque. This engine cuts the X3’s 0-60 time down to 5.5 seconds, which absolutely blows the V-6 GLK (and probably the new diesel GLK, too) out of the water and also edges out the Q5 equipped with its optional supercharged 3.0 liter supercharged V-6 (5.8 seconds to 60).
Interestingly, this engine’s EPA stats — 19 city, 26 highway — are actually better (if just slightly) than the 2012 model’s non-turbo 3.0 six.
Either way, xDrive AWD is standard — as is an eight-speed automatic transmission and the already-mentioned Auto Stop thing. When you come to a red light or otherwise roll to a stop with the transmission in Drive, the system will automatically turn the engine off in order to avoid burning fuel while just sitting. When the driver takes his foot off the brake, the engine is automatically re-started. Both Audi and Benz afflict their rides with similar technology.
BMW also includes Eco Pro with either engine. Via console-mounted buttons, the driver can select from programs that fine-tune certain operating parameters for maximum fuel economy — or maximum performance.
ON THE ROAD
Don’t sweat the loss of two cylinders and the liter of displacement — as far as power/performance. If anything, the new turbo four is more responsive than the old non-turbo six. The increase in torque output — and the immediacy of its availability — is an objective improvement. Push the gas pedal and the X3 goes right now — unless, of course, Auto Stop is on. If it is, there will be a very slight — but noticeable — delay in forward progress. There will also be a slight — but again, noticeable — shudder/vibration as the super-fast/high-torque starter spins the engine back to life.
Now, the sailfawn-gabbling set probably won’t notice the slight delay — just like they don’t notice that the light has gone green until it already has been green for a moment or three. But if you’re the sort who anticipates the green — and are ready to go the moment it does turn green — you may find the momentary pause annoying. Also the slight — but noticeable — vibration as the engine re-fires. Given the microcosmic fuel economy benefit Auto Stop confers, I suspect most X3 owners will be grateful there’s an off button — integrated conveniently with the push-button ignition. However, I’m pretty sure you have to turn the thing off every time you go for a drive (assuming you want it off). Just like the traction control and other such things. There may be a way to program the car to turn Auto Stop off permanently, but I couldn’t find any such procedure in the manual.
Which brings up Eco Pro. Like Auto Stop, this is a fuel-saving (desperation) measure — mostly there to placate the people dictating how cars ought to be built rather than those who are actually buying them. I say this because when engaged, Eco Pro mutes the performance/responsiveness of the X3’s drivetrain for the sake of ekeing out the best-possible gas mileage. But who buys an X3 for muted performance and less responsiveness? Aren’t there Honda CR-Vs for that? Eco Pro also wicks down the AC — as well as the heater in the winter. Again: We are talking about a vehicle that starts at nearly $40k — and which can easily crest $50k fully loaded. Probably the people who are in the market for such a vehicle aren’t much interested in sweating — or freezing — for the sake of saving an extra 1-2 MPGs.
Luckily, again, this is something you don’t have to suffer — by simply not electing to engage it. Keep the system in Sport — or better yet, Sport plus, which turns off the traction control and very noticeably increases the sharpness of throttle tip-in as well as the quickness of the eight-speed automatic’s gear changes. It’s much more satisfying. And appropriate. You have a BMW — act like it.
Or go buy a Prius V.
The four’s only objective weakness, as I see it, is its sound. It sounds like a four. Not bad — just like a four. The six sounds richer — deeper. Being an in-line six (extremely rare) it also sounds like no other six. That distinctive in-line six pitch is gone now. Well, it’s gone from the four cylinder-powered X3. Of course, you can still upgrade to the X3 35i . The price jump — $5,100 — isn’t too extreme (it’s $7k less than a hybrid Q5) and you do get a pretty significant uptick in both power and performance — without a significant drop in fuel economy. The turbo’d six manages 21 city and 26 highway — which is a hardly noticeable downtick (except to the government) relative to the 2.0 engine — and significantly better than the less powerful 268 hp 3.5 liter V-6 in the current Benz GLK350 (16 city, 22 highway).
The BMW six also does slightly better than the Q5’s optional 3.0 liter (272 hp) V-6, which registers 18 city, 26 highway.
Not for nothing has BMW got a rep for building “driving machines.” Though a crossover SUV — which means it rides higher off the ground than a car and is also heavier than most cars its size (at 4,112 lbs., the X3 28i weighs 817 lbs. more than the 3,295 lb. 3 Series sedan it’s based on) it is nonetheless a very agile, light-on-its-feet-feeling ride. The quickness and accuracy of the steering is decidedly un-CUV, as is the way the X3’s suspension acts as a sort of centripetal force generator — keeping you in the curve, holding the line — despite the ever-increasing velocity vectors. In plain English, this thing can be leaned on.
They say you can’t have your cake and eat it, too — and there’s truth to that. But it’s not so glaring in this case. Some crossovers — including the Benz GLK — require you to slow down to (or near) the posted speed limit in the curves — not so much because of the law, but because they’re just not set up for a faster lateral pace and will let you (and you passengers) know it.
Of the Big Three — the X3, the Q5 and the Benz GLK — I found the X3 to be the most eager — with the Q5 a close second … and the GLK a distant third.
To be clear — and fair: There’s nothing wrong with the Benz. It’s just set up differently. Apples — oranges. And that’s a good thing.
Different strokes, different folks.
AT THE CURB
Size-wise, the X3 is significantly (about five inches, overall) longer than the truly compact-sized Benz GLK and so not surprisingly, has significantly more cargo capacity behind its second row (27.6 cubes vs. 23.3 cubes for the Mercedes) as well as almost two inches more legroom for backseat riders (36.8 vs 35.1 inches). The smaller-on-the-outside Benz does — somewhat surprisingly — have about an inch more legroom up front — 41.4 inches vs. 39,9 for the X3.
The Audi Q5, on the other hand, is about the same size overall as the X3 — but has a more space-efficient interior than either the GLK or the X3 — with 29.1 cubic feet of trunk space as well as significantly more front and rear seat legroom (41 inches and 37.7 inches, respectively) than the BMW.
In terms of aesthetics, the Q5 and the X3 are very close. Both sit lower (65.2 inches off the ground for the Audi, 65.4 for the BMW — vs. a much more upright 66.9 for the Benz) but — interestingly — the X3 has the most generous ground clearance of the three: 8.3 inches vs 7.9 for both the Q5 and GLK.
The Benz has a more formal — more SUV-ish — silhouette while the the Q and the X lean hard toward the sportwagony.
Which, in truth, is what they are.
I have nothing but high praise for the X3’s new 2.0 engine. It’s not quite as symphonic as the in-line six but it does maintain the performance level established by the six — while achieving the uptick in gas mileage necessary to keep Uncle from breathing down BMW’s neck for awhile. Unfortunately, this will not be the end of it. As much-improved as the X3 2.0’s mileage is relative to the previous in-line six, it’s not improved enough to make the soon-to-be-in-force government mandate of 35.5 MPG average.
I expect two things to happen. First, BMW will probably have to down-power the 2.0 X3 next year — or the one after that — to get it closer to 35.5 MPG (which goes into full effect in 2016) since the four-cylinder X3 is the version of the X3 BMW sells the most of — which matters as far as CAFE averages. The six-cylinder X3 will become very high-end/high cost and thus, low volume — just as the V-8 equipped versions of many current cars have already become. Within the next few years, sixxes (in-line and otherwise) will, in their turn, likewise come to be regarded as “high powered” and “exotic” — with exotic price tags.
V-8s, by 2016, will be what a fully-automatic Browning .50 cal is today: An item only the rich and determined may possess.
Thank our Dear Leaders for this.
I still miss the presence of a manual transmission among the X3’s roster of options. It has been gone since 2011 — and looks to be gone for good. Again, for reasons of economy. A modern, learning algorithm/electronically managed automatic is more consistently precise than a human driver — and thus, more fuel-efficient. This — along with declining buyer interest in shifting for themselves — accounts for the receding availability of manual gearboxes across the line. To be absolutely fair, the eight-speed automatic is a brilliant piece of work that can adjust in an instant from race car snappy to Camry complacent. But an automatic BMW… ?
It’s just not the same.
The thing I really miss, though, is a turbo-diesel. In Europe, BMW offers two diesel engines in the X3. A 2.0 liter and a 3.0 liter. There is a rumor (see here for more) that a diesel engine will become available in the X3 sometime during model year 2014. But nothing has been officially confirmed yet.
Meanwhile, Benz has just put that 2.1 liter, four-cylinder diesel engine onto the GLK’s roster. Neither BMW — nor Audi — have anything to counter it.
At least not as of early spring 2013.
And 2014 is a long way off… .
THE BOTTOM LINE
The X3 is very good — as good as it probably can be, given the times. But it would be a lot better with a diesel under its hood.
Or better yet — our Dear Leaders out of our lives.