Driven: BMW X3
by Owen Ready (Interview by Joe Simpson)    04 Feb 2011
BMW F25 X3 is looking to retake the crown in the premium CUV segement it created. Click for larger images
Exterior designer Erik Goplen was also responsible for the E46 3 Series
Original X3 defined the segment, is 83mm shorter than its successor
F25 X3's side profile is defined by a myriad of character lines
Rear is strongly reminiscent of its larger X5 brother
Interior is well made although the IP's design leaves passengers feeling cramped
Digital display (left) semi-obscured by the steering wheel. HUD (right) works as well as in every other BMW application

The BMW X3 had the premium CUV market to itself when launched in 2004. Skip forward to the launch of the second generation and not only does the new version have a whole host of competitors for company, it also has to fit around its X1, X5 and X6 siblings.

BMW X1 now occupies a similar footprint to the original X3
Audi Q5 displays a similar 'tall hatchback' character to the F25
Ok, so it's a design review, but there's always time for a little fun...
Indicator repeater flourish is a character line (or two) too far
Increased rear space a boon for families, although tapered DLO and shallow rear screen impair visibility

We took the 2011 BMW X3 (known internally as F25) to the Austrian Tyrol and spoke to its exterior designer, Erik Goplen, to find out if it still has the segment covered.

The F25 X3 marks a shift in both size and character. While the X1 occupies a similar acreage of road (or dirt track) as the outgoing X3, the F25 has grown to sit squarely between it and the X5. At 4648mm long, the new car is 83mm longer than its predecessor and just 19mm shorter than the original X5.

Away from the motor show stand and on the road, the new car certainly has more presence than the - retrospectively - lithe 2004 original, something that will be important for those looking for a mini X5. It's 28mm wider than before, as Goplen felt the original "missed out on the track [width]", but it's not just a case of its extra physical size that has changed its character.

The X3 has taken on an appearance more akin to a high-riding hatchback than a more traditional tall station wagon SUV stance, much the same way as its fiercest competitor, the Audi Q5. Its rear screen is faster, its DLO a little rounder and its unchanged height gives the impression of a lower roofline.

"What we tried to do with this one was give it a little more confidence," explains Goplen. "Let's say more surface refinement, a little more puff to the body side - a more muscular form - and then very chiseled definition over the wheelarch, and then this dynamic character line which really has a lot more light and shadow to it."

The 'dynamic character line' not only helps to give the X3 a personality distinct from the X1 - itself displaying a different demeanor to the X5 - in side profile, but also visually lowers its beltline. It also works in conjunction with the secondary character lines above each wheel arch to work the light, adding a strong highlight over the front wheel well, a rising shadow through the meat of the door surfaces and, as its designer suggest, more definition to the rear wheel, via a haunch very reminiscent of that found lurking on the Mercedes E-Class' rear fender.

Its application may be a little more appropriate here, on a more rugged CUV, but it still feels a little disingenuous - an applique rather than beautifully executed like the organic muscle above the rear wheels of the F10 5 Series and new 6 Series. Add the lower light catcher, rocker garnish, fragmented lower DLO trajectory and the embossed character line that flicks around the side repeater and 'fussy' is the adjective that trips off the tongue.

The same is true of the hood, which features six(!) character lines, while the DRG has shades of old X3 as well as more than a hint of X5 in its lower bumper 'porn moustache' cladding. Some have commented that its rounded, upright kidney grille adds its face a rather porcine quality. While that may be a little unfair, the very large radii and extremely sharp headlights feel a little incongruous.

The rear is most reminiscent of its big brother although a little more of that 'puff' in its tailgate would have been welcome. Its heavily concave surface, bookended by oversized outer tail lamps gives the impression of it collapsing in on itself.

Step into the new X3 and the first thing you'll notice is how much easier it is to enter. Customers - many of whom have young families - had complained about the high door entry points on the previous model so the front and rear doors now extend 70mm and 75mm lower respectively. The next thing you'll spot is the drastic increase in perceived quality.

Banished are the low-rent materials used in the construction of the old car (and X1 for that matter), with slush-moulded plastics matching the tactility of the rest of BMW's range. Its architecture is also transformed, with the IP now very much driver-orientated, rather than curving away from its center stack in all directions.

From the driver's seat it works well - if without any excitement - with the exception of the gauge pack, shared with the F10 5 Series. While a paragon of clarity in the sedan, when combined with the X3's higher H-point, the lower part of the dials - including the digital display containing time, distance, economy, temperature and gear change information - are obscured by the steering wheel.

From the passenger seat the cabin actually feels narrower than the old car, thanks to the way the dash top sweeps down to meet the center stack. The color combination on lighter trim options only emphasizes how pinched the passenger's side of the IP feels.

Those in the back will have no such complaints, however, as the X3 is now a very spacious family car; this is, after all, its true remit.

Overall the F25 X3 lacks any surprise or delight to its design execution, while its external fussiness is testament to the difficult growing pains the brand found itself in, post 'flame-sufacing'. By that I mean it has less of the deep-rooted philosophy behind many of the Bangle-era products, yet all of their complexity.

Yet the car is probably perfectly judged for its target audience; it feels like a smaller X5, yet without the excessive heft and aggressive road presence. It's also well made from expensive-feeling materials and is spacious. Expect to see scores on a school run near you.

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