The third generation BMW X3 is a premium mid-sized SUV with some very strong competition. Just as well then, that the Munich maker has delivered a very strong package. Jonathan Crouch takes a look at what's on offer.
BMW's third generation X3 is a premium mid-sized SUV that's a larger, plusher and more powerfully efficient choice than its predecessor, stacking up impressively against prestigiously-badged alternatives from Audi, Mercedes, Jaguar and Volvo in this sector. Like its rivals, dynamically targeted almost exclusively towards on-road use, it's another example of just how car-like a model of this kind can be.
It isn't often that BMW gets it wrong - and even when it does, it usually still manages to turn a profit. Their original X3 compact SUV was a case in point, launched in 2004 to more affordably extend the reach of this Bavarian brand's road-biased SUV model range following the success of the larger all-conquering X5. But early X3s felt cheap, rode poorly and, even by the modest tarmac-orientated standards of the class, were woefully short of any kind of off-road ability. The second generation version, launched in 2010, was much better, but - in this country at least - it still lagged behind its arch-rival Audi's Q5, in terms of perceived desirability. Much has changed since 2010 of course. BMW launched a second generation X1 model in late 2015 that trod uncomfortably on the toes of lower X3 derivatives. And the X3's task was made even harder by the launch in 2016 of a Mercedes entrant (the GLC) in the mid-sized premium-badged SUV segment and the introduction of a second generation Audi Q5 model in early 2017, to join other key rivals like Volvo's XC60, Jaguar's F-PACE, Alfa Romeo's Stelvio and the Lexus NX. It all means that the X3 needs to re-assert itself. Can this third generation model do just that?
You might think that sandwiched between the X1 and the X5, the X3 wouldn't have to spread its talents too broadly, but such is the span of rivals of this size that this third generation X3 needs to cater for quite different customer expectations in the compact luxury SUV segment. If those expectations extend towards a dynamic driving experience, then the X3 comes well prepared. With ideal 50:50 weight distribution, a finely honed chassis and xDrive intelligent all-wheel-drive, linked to Dynamic Stability Control, this SUV proudly shows off the handling characteristics for which the Munich maker is renowned. To further improve dynamics, the car is now lighter and rear bias of BMW's xDrive all-wheel-drive system has been increased. As for engines, well as before, most buyers will choose a diesel, probably the 190bhp 2.0-litre xDrive 20d variant. There's also a 265bhp straight-six xDrive30d diesel derivative. And a potent 326hp M40d variant. BMW thinks that petrol power will get more of a take-up this time round, so is offering an entry-level xDrive 20i version, plus there's a range-topping 360bhp X3 M40i variant to take on rivals like Audi's SQ5. There's also a plug-in hybrid petrol version, the 252hp xDrive30e. As usual with the brand, there's an optional Dynamic Damper Control system, optional Variable sport steering and an optional sports braking set-up. BMW also boasts that a fording depth of 500 millimetres gives this SUV decent off road ability too. Across the range, 8-speed auto transmission is standard.
The exterior dimensions of this third generation X3 are largely the same as those of its MK2 predecessor, but its five-centimetre-longer wheelbase, long bonnet and short front overhang emphasise its 50:50 weight distribution between front and rear axle. At the front, the chunky three-dimensional kidney grille and LED fog lamps feature a hexagonal design. Moving to the rear, the three-dimensional LED light clusters, downward-sloping roof spoiler and twin exhaust pipes further enhance the appearance.The interior of the this X3 follows BMW tradition with a driver-focused and ergonomically designed cockpit. Hexagonal forms and precise, bevelled edges are a distinct design theme. The material quality and fit and finish are of a class above what you'd expect for a mid-range SAV, as you'd expect from a BMW, while it is also impressively functional, with more cabin stowage compared to its predecessor.To further improve comfort in the rear compartment, the angle of the standard 40:20:40 split/folding rear seat backrests can be adjusted individually and through various stages thanks to the optional rear comfort seat. This feature also allows the backrests to be released remotely from the load compartment, which expands the standard load capacity of 550-litres to 1,600-litres.
Pricing has risen a bit this time round, presumably to give the only slightly smaller BMW X1 SUV slightly more elbow room. The figures start at around £40,000 and rise to around £54,000 for the top M40d and M40i models. All variants come with xDrive 4WD and 8-speed auto transmission. Whichever variant you select, it'll be easy to spend more than you budgeted or, thanks to a wider range of tempting options. Optional perforated leather climate seats will be popular, perhaps fitted out with active seat ventilation. Another option is a generously sized panoramic glass roof, while optional acoustic front side windows will complement the standard acoustic windscreen glazing to help create even lower noise levels in the cabin. In basic specification, the X3 now has 18-inch light-alloy wheels (it had 17-inchers previously), while wheels up to 21-inches in diameter are available depending on the specification and engine variant. A nice touch this time round is the optional BMW Display Key - like the one found on the BMW 5 Series and 7 Series. The Display Key offers a series of additional features, keeping the driver informed of fuel levels and any service or maintenance work due, and letting them know that the windows and sunroof are closed. Plus, it can also be used to operate the optional auxiliary heating.
As you'd expect from a current BMW, emissions are low and fuel economy is excellent. To give you an idea of how far we've come, when the MK1 X3 was first launched in the UK in 2004, its 3.0-litre engine made 231bhp and emitted 293g/km of carbon dioxide. The benefit of a decade's engineering is evident in the fact that today's M40i flagship variant develops 360bhp and emits just 180g/km (NEDC) - the combined cycle fuel figure is 30.7mpg (WLTP). The base xDrive20i petrol manages 35.8mpg and 154g/km. For the xDrive30e plug-in hybrid petrol, the figures are 128.4mpg and 49g/km, with a WLTP-rated all-electric driving range of 34 miles. As for the diesel variants, well today's 265bhp xDrive30d model will get 40.9mpg (WLTP) from a gallon of fuel and 154g/km of CO2 (NEDC), which is impressive for a six cylinder diesel SUV. Go for the X3 xDrive20d and you'll see 45.6mpg and emit 133g/km. As usual with the brand, there's a 'Driving Experience Control' set-up that lets you switch between drive modes, one of which is 'ECO PRO', a setting that focuses all of the car's systems on achieving ultimate frugality. An overall weight reduction of 55kgs and sleeker aerodynamics also help here, this X3 boasting a class-leading drag coefficient of 0.29Cd. This has been achieved thanks to aerodynamic enhancements including a roof spoiler with aero edges at the sides and an 'Active Air Stream' system, which regulates the flow of cooling air for the engine, brakes and air conditioning.
This X3 has come of age in third generation guise. If it struggles to match the profitability of its predecessor, then that'll be because competition in the premium mid-sized SUV sector is so much tougher these days. This model is, after all, an immeasurable improvement over the MK2 version in every possible way. Even the best of this car's prestige rivals can't match this one's hugely impressive blend of handling and efficiency. It feels up-market, it rides impressively and, thank goodness, on-tarmac, it drives just as a BMW should. All of which means that buyers in this sector who can afford the asking price should find that this X3 adds up very nicely indeed. Assuming that they don't prioritise off road ability of course: few will. A vehicle this good ought to speak for itself. Try one and we think you'll find that it does.