Last year, the mid-size X3 SUV was BMW’s best-seller in Australia. That surprised us: the old shape, replaced at the end of 2017, blended into the landscape a little but the numbers don’t lie. With over 3,600 registrations in 2017, the X3 narrowly beat the X1 and X5, and it smashed the 3 Series sedan and wagon – upon which the X3 is loosely based – by over a thousand units. We didn’t love the old model, but buyers did, so you’d think for an all-new generation in 2018, BMW wouldn’t need to entirely transform the vehicle. And yet, they have: in every way, the X3 has been improved. Inside, it’s 80% of the way to a more expensive 5 Series. It’s comfortable and quiet. There is a broad range of engines. It’s decent value for money. And it looks better, with a cohesive appearance that takes plenty of cues from the handsome X5.
Within BMW’s lineup, the X3 SUV remains roughly paired with the 3 Series passenger car, sitting underneath the larger X5. A separate model called the X4 is also offered, which is an X3 with a sporty coupe-like roofline. As BMW’s mid-size SUV, the X3 shouldn’t, and doesn’t, feel massive. It’s only seven centimetres longer than a 3 Series station wagon, but its additional eight centimetres of width makes it a better choice if you occasionally travel with all five seats filled. The X3 took up less of our garage than expected, but its main rivals, the Audi Q5 and Mercedes-Benz GLC, are even shorter again.
First, a quick note about the 3 Series before proceeding. SUVs might be all the rage, but there continues to be a group of intelligent buyers that at least consider the 3 Series as a low-riding alternative of this SUV. Certainly, the 3 Series is cheaper: with the same engine as the X3 xDrive30i we tested, the 330i wagon starts out $6,000 less expensive, although the 3 Series needs a few option boxes ticked to match the X3 on specification. But the wagon is more compact, easier to park, substantially sportier to drive, more exclusive, and arguably better-looking. For the family buyer that really cares about how a car feels to drive, we continue to favour the 330i Luxury Line Touring ($70,990).
That said, we don’t deny the appeal of the SUV form factor, and the X3 does a good job in moving the standard for luxury medium SUVs forward a few inches. Spoiler alert – it doesn’t challenge the 330i for sportiness, but it bests it for overall comfort, refinement, and practicality. In fact, the new X3’s best attributes aren’t very BMW-like at all: it’s a relaxed performer that is exceptionally quiet and mostly supple and comfortable. It’s a car best driven gently rather than aggressively. We’ve said similar things about the new 5 Series, which has switched to a formula that favours comfort over sporty driving. Softness hasn’t been what BMWs are about before, but they do it well. We just hope their smaller cars, like the 1, 2 and 3 Series, retain their driver focus.
The new X3 feels much more like a luxury car than the outgoing version. That starts with the exterior look, which ditches the generic sharp lines of the old car and adopts a very muscular, upright stance that apes many of the cues of the bigger X5. As standard, the X3 comes with an “xLine” styling package that adds some tasteful chrome and silver garnishing, along with attractive 20-inch wheels that can be downsized to 19-inches at no cost. In our test car’s Glacier Silver, the X3 xLine looked smart and undeniably premium.
Open the suitably heavy doors and the impressions get even more positive inside. The X3 adopts the interior design of the new 5 Series, with incremental but meaningful changes over the old car. A new steering wheel is soft to the touch and a little smaller in diameter, while the driver-angled centre console brings the large, incredibly crisp 10-inch touchscreen closer to the eyes. The X3 adds a few surprisingly playful touches from BMW, including embossed aluminium “X3” inserts in the door jambs and ahead of the shifter – these look great. There are plenty of soft touch surfaces, even if these aren’t particularly thick or sumptuous. And it has to be said that ultimately, material quality in the American-made X3 doesn’t quite catch the indulgent German-built 5 Series…but it is nearly $30,000 less expensive and the X3 certainly feels more luxurious inside than a Mercedes-Benz GLC, if not a Volvo XC60.
The interior is further lifted with an unusually generous choice of nine interior colour combinations. Skip the black-on-black – that’s boring. Our X3’s Mocha brown leather with subtle grey stitching would be just as easy to maintain as black without such soul-destroying commonality. The Cognac tan is even more attractive, though parents of dogs or children will probably want to avoid the bone white Oyster leather. Then, it’s a choice of accompanying trim. Once again, we’d avoid the fingerprint-magnet Piano Black, which only looks good in the showroom and then never again. Aluminium or one of the tasteful woodgrains are good bets. You can also opt for extended leather trim ($2,200) which puts leather on the dashboard and door tops. It’s expensive, but we’d be tempted to do it. This option makes any BMW feel very upmarket.
Generously wide, the X3 feels airy in the front with plenty of room between the driver and front passenger, who share a deep centre console bin between them. So up front, it’s roomy. What about in the back? The space is good, but short of the XC60. Behind a six-foot driver, a fellow six-footer can be comfortably accommodated with some remaining legroom. On cold mornings, kids will appreciate the heated seats if mum or dad ticks that ($1,400) option, which is coupled with front seat heaters – absurdly, front bottom warmers are not standard. Three adults can fit abreast due to the width of the car. The seat bases are a little flat but standard air vents and a flip-down armrest will keep people happy on road trips.
Around the back, all X3s are fitted with an electric tailgate as standard and unlike some, it opens and closes quite swiftly revealing a very practical cargo space. Boots are not all the same; some are good, some are bad. This one is very good, with a completely square shape. There is no lip at all between the boot floor and the outside world, so heavy suitcases or prams can slide straight in and out. There are shopping bag hooks, a net and an elastic pull to stop bottles or fragile items from sliding about the place. And the rear seats fold with one touch entirely flat so IKEA purchases will fit easily. Plus, you’re able to fold just the middle seat – so you could, hypothetically, go to the snow four-up with the skis fitting easily down the middle. Smart.
So, the new X3 is comfortable, spacious enough, it looks good and it’s practical – but what is it like to drive? More sedate than expected would be the simple answer. The X3 joins the G30 5 Series in moving further toward the comfort end of the dynamic spectrum, away from sheer driving fun. We’re not sure how to feel about this; in some ways, a car like an X3 doesn’t need to be sporty, but the BMW we’ve always known has produced the sportiest cars among the big three German manufacturers. Perhaps the forthcoming X3 M40i performance variant will cure this; to be fair, the X3 30i tested here was not in more dynamic M Sport specification; it was the more luxurious xLine.
The aforementioned X3 M40i (250kW/500Nm three-litre petrol inline six) and our xDrive30i tester (185kW/350Nm two-litre petrol four-cylinder) make up two of the engines in the available five. Rounding out the three petrols is the base X3 sDrive20i, which is the only rear-wheel-drive model and uses a 135kW/270Nm tune of the 30i’s turbo four. On the diesel side of the ledger, there’s an xDrive20d (140kW/400Nm), or a six-cylinder xDrive30d (190kW/620Nm).
That’s a lot of numbers but what you need to know is that both the ’30’ cars represent the sweet spot in this lineup. The petrol xDrive30i makes sufficient power for relaxed urban and highway driving and it doesn’t drink too much fuel. We recorded about 9L/100km in mixed driving. If you can afford the $8,000 leap to the xDrive30d, we’d recommend doing it. BMW’s lush, twin-turbo six-cylinder diesel bequeaths the X3 with massive torque and the 30d delivers slightly better fuel economy. The conundrum is that the pricey xDrive30d is still missing some key equipment like adaptive dampers, a sunroof and heated seats, and you might prefer to add these to the cheaper 30i, emerging with some change.
No matter the engine, though, the X3 makes refined and strong forward progress. An eight-speed torque converter automatic is the only gearbox; it’s still made by ZF and BMW do a very solid job of tuning it. The X3 is built on BMW’s rear-wheel-drive platform but all-wheel-drive is standard on four of the five engines and its effect can be felt clearly on wet roads, with the front wheels engaging seamlessly to pull you through corners that you’ve overcooked.
Speaking of cornering, the X3 handles confidently, but it does so in a laid-back way. Turn the attractive and soft steering wheel and you get the result you expect, but there is some body roll, the steering is only moderately quick, and there isn’t much feel from the front end. A corner-carver the X3 is not, although with M Sport dampers – or if you buy the M40i version with a proper M Performance fitout – the X3 will be up for more punishment in the bends. The xLine version’s Bridgestone Alenza tyres were well-suited to the car with reasonable grip and hushed noise, unlike Bridgestone’s better-known and loud Potenza and Turanza tyres.
Our tester rode on standard 20-inch wheels, with optional adaptive dampers ($1,900). Based on our experience of other current BMWs, adaptive dampers will be a must-have and relax the effect of the big 20s on poor quality Australian roads. Contrary to some opinions, we thought the X3 rode well, in the front at least. Rear seat passengers won’t love the stiffer rear suspension which communicates bad road surfaces into the rear of the X3 too clearly. For no cost you can downsize the X3’s wheels to 19 inches. If you can live with the look, we would probably do that.
Overall, the BMW X3 is a talented SUV that fits the luxury family transport brief well. It’s well-sized, attractive and comfortable – perhaps more comfy, and less sporty, than you’d expect from a BMW. We’re looking forward to driving the hundred-grand X3 M40i soon, to see how the brand plans to inject a sportier side into this medium SUV, but for now, the X3’s engine and trim spread offer a good amount of choice and equipment for this segment in a package that is appropriately premium and aspirational. We recommend cross-shopping the X3 with the new Volvo XC60, but with either, you’ll be buying one of the better luxury medium SUVs on the market.
Key specs (as tested)
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