BMW X3 Review

$59,000 Mrlp
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The new BMW X3 is an unbelievably good handling car – even though it’s technically an SUV

The new BMW X3 is an unbelievably good handling car – even though it’s technically an SUV. Dynamically, you’re going to keep forgetting the new BMW X3 has SUV underpinnings every time you chuck it into a bend. It’s so good, it handles better than plenty of similarly priced cars. If it smells like a car and handles like a car…

That’s probably a good thing – after 30 years in a sawmill you’d still be able to count the number of BMW X3 owners who even considered tackling the rough stuff. It’ll go off road, like, once a day – as in off the public road and into a nice, cosy three-car garage, past a perfectly coiffed hedge. The new BMW X3 is a de facto family station wagon for the posh, ‘almost there’ set.

Unlike many manufacturers (including Ford and Hyundai) bringing 2WD SUVs into the world these days to cater for customers who never go ‘out there’ beyond the last espresso machine, BMW has elected to bring all three X3 variants to market with the xDrive all-wheel-drive system. Among its many tricks is the ability to pump the drive anywhere it likes (from 99 per cent frontwards to 99 per cent rearwards, depending on a raft of computerized criteria times 400 decisions per second). It also purports to predict wheelslip thanks to signals from the stability control system – from which it can pre-emptively adjust the drive distribution.

BMW says the xDrive system is the best among the competitors – a claim made from time to time by their friends at Audi and Benz … law of mutual exclusivity notwithstanding. Without wanting to enter the whose is bigger than whose debate, the xDrive system functions brilliantly on the new BMW X3. It’s very difficult to upset in corners, under brakes, over second-rate bitumen and under hard acceleration – in various ad hoc combinations – the X3 remains very surefooted.

If you like pressing on in corners, then you’ll love the new X3. Body control and grip levels are amazing, even on the base model, which has 17-inch wheels and low rolling resistance tyres. It’s the kind of dynamic performance other SUVs dream about – what’s debatable, possibly, is how many owners will ever want/need/be aware of it. Thankfully, the new BMW X3 is pleasant enough to drive conservatively.

There’s a new electrically assisted power steering, a product of the company’s increasing quest for fuel efficiency (BMW calls this ‘Efficient Dynamics’). Electrically assisted steering doesn’t require drive from the engine when it’s not in use (ie driving straight ahead). Hydraulic assistance does. So electric assistance saves fuel. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel quite so good. The steering on the new BMW X3 lacks a little in the ‘feel and feedback’ department, compared to what I remember its predecessor was like. It’s also very light. This is a fairly minor criticism overall, which many customers might not agree with, and mentioned only because BMW does hang its hat off its ‘ultimate driving machine’ brand identity slogan.

In a similar vein, the front seats don’t offer lateral grip commensurate with the new X3’s outstanding cornering capability. If you don’t drive like a motoring journalist, this criticism is in all probability moot as well. But if you do like having a therapeutic fang every now and then, you’ll need to exert a fair bit of effort bracing yourself in place with your legs, to remain in a decent driving position in hard cornering. Or you could tick the box for the optional sports seating package, which will surely do the trick.

I don't normally comment on styling too much, because it's pretty obvious that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And there are 81 images in the gallery below that will help you make up your own mind far better tan someone else's subjective view on style. However, BMW is famous for its polarising designs. You either love them or you hate them. The BMW Z4 is exactly such a car. So is the BMW X6 and even the BMW 7 Series. To me, the X3 looks beautiful from every angle - except the front.

The rear is great, and the profile is to die for - especially the crease that runs across four body panels from the front guard to the rear guard, through both door handles. Beautiful. And the converging roof and window sill lines framing the black side glass aperture. Nice. Purposeful. But the front looks totally disconnected from the impression the rest of the car seems to yield - to me, it's either bland or sad, maybe both. It's reminiscent of the previous Hyundai Sonata. Hell, take the BMW grille away, and that front end could have emerged from any one of several South Korean styling studios ... five years ago. Make up your own mind, certainly, but it seems to me that if anything cosmetic is going to turn potential buyers away from the new BMW X3, it's going to be the view from 12 o'clock.

The new BMW X3 is available in three variants: the entry level 20d, the 28i and the range-topping 30d – with rrps of $62,200, $71,900 and $74,900 respectively. So there’s no change in price for the entry model, compared with the predecessor, but there’s a $3400 drop on the 28i and a $2500 reduction on the 30d.

To give you a snapshot on the range, the 20d is powered by a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel with 135kW and 380Nm. BMW says it’ll pull a 0-100km/h time of 8.5 seconds. It offers a combined-cycle fuel figure of 5.6 litres per 100km. The BMW X3 28i derives its power from a 3.0-litre straight six petrol engine with 190kW and 310Nm. (In perspective this is the same power and 20Nm more torque than Holden’s 3.0 direct-injected SIDI V6 – the BMW straight six also sounds infinitely better with the volume on ‘11’, and straight sixes have been a long-term BMW signature trick.) BMW says the 28i will crack 100km/h in 6.9 seconds. The 28i offers a combined-cycle fuel figure of 9.0 litres per 100km.

The range-topping 30d is powered by a 3.0-litre straight six turbodiesel with 190kW and a whopping 560Nm. BMW says it’ll pull a 0-100km/h time of 6.2 seconds. It offers a combined-cycle fuel figure of 6.0 litres per 100km. On fundamentals, this is the one to have – it’s quicker than the 28i and shaves 33 per cent of the 28i’s fuel consumption. It drinks only 0.4 litres per 100 more fuel than the 20d … and gets to 100 2.3 seconds quicker. The only downside? The petrol six sounds far better than both diesels.

All three models get an eight-speed automatic transmission, which seems like overkill, but goes a long way to explaining how fuel economy has gone up while, at the same time, 0-100km/h times have come down compared with the previous model. Towing capacity across the board is 2000kg.

Starting with the 20d, you get a 40/20/40 split-fold rear seat, which is ideal for four adults on a ski trip – a very ‘BMW’ activity… Those rear seats are quite adult friendly, too. There’s heaps of legroom, and although three across the rear might get undignified, two adults in the outboard positions will be fine. Luggage capacity is impressive, too. It’s 550 litres with all the seats in use and almost triples with the second row of seats entirely folded flat. What’s that really mean? Four 46-inch golf bags will fit in the luggage space with all the seats upright, on their way comfortably to another very ‘BMW’ activity. For the more ‘out there’ types, three seats (two front and an outboard rear) can be occupied and, with the remaining ‘40’ and ‘20’ rear seat folded flat, three mountain bikes with the wheels removed can fit in the luggage area. Impressive. In fact, Tardis-like storage is everywhere: 1.5-litre bottles fit in the front door pockets, and 1.0-litre bottles fit in the rears.

The engine has auto stop/start feature to boost fuel efficiency when you’re stopped in traffic (you can turn this off if you get fed up with its clunkiness – and they’re all clunky, not just BMW’s, on the way to saving you less than the cost of two cappuccinos a week). You also get ‘comfort go’ – which is halfway to a proper proximity key (you require the fob in hand to unlock, but can start the engine via the dashboard start button with the key in your pocket). There’s a 6.5-inch monitor for the centre information display and a USB interface. Wheels are 17-inchers with low rolling resistance tyres.

The 28i steps up to 18-inch wheels but loses the fuel-saving tyres in favour of wider and lower 245/50 rubber. You get the following additional features: electric seat adjustment, leather upholstery, twin exhausts and a rear-view camera. So, in other words, there’s not a whole lot of additional kit helping you over the $8k+ gulf separating the 20d and the 28i – but then you do get to 100km/h significantly faster, with a great soundtrack playing at the time.

Spend $3k more and you’ll get into the 30d, which also rides on 18-inch wheels (19s are optional, shod with 245/45s). Additional features include an automatic tailgate and something BMW calls the X Line package (a bunch of mainly cosmetic aluminium and stainless steel accoutrements … like window frames, bumper inserts and sill finishers).

All new BMW X3s ride on run-flat tyres. There is no spare tyre, nor is a spare tyre an option. For a nominal fee (under $200) the optional ‘mobility kit’ may be purchased – it comprises a compressor and a tube of latex sealant. For those who don’t know, run flat tyres, as the name implies, can be driven on when they go flat. Sounds great, but the downside is that they are subsequently unrepairable. So every flat tyre involves bearing the cost of a new tyre – proving that everything in life is a ‘good news/bad news’ story.

The options list is extremely long. Across-the-board options (available on every model) include an M Sport package that’s $4800 on the 20d, $4100 on the 28i and just $3000 on the 30d. That’s pretty good value for sports suspension, sports seats, leather M wheel and M styling enhancements. Other options include dynamic driving control (tunable dampers and steering, basically) plus performance control, metallic paint, head-up display (a unique feature in SUVs of this class), internet functionality (beamed via your smartphone) and rear view camera with top view. This last feature combines wide-angle cameras under the wing mirrors with the vision from the rear camera to paint a panoramic view of what’s behind and beside you – very cleverly – in the centre display.

Also on offer: adaptive headlights (which pan for cornering, and level automatically), and bi-xenon headlights, plus a panorama roof, alarm and two breeds of sat-nav (one with 6.5-inch screen, 2D display and electronic owner’s handbook, and the better one with 8.8-inch display, split-screen functionality, 12Gb hard drive for onboard audio, 3D display and electronic owner’s handbook). There are also a range of in-SUV audio options up to and including a 16-speaker, 600W range-topper that you just know is going to require its own little Samsonite stuffed with hundreds … but which will sound absolutely killer.

Aside from the minor criticism concerning the new electrically assisted steering, the new BMW X3 raises the bar not just on its predecessor but also among competing luxury SUVs. If you’re looking for a de facto family wagon with loads of versatility, with tremendous balance between agility and comfort, and which you can also punt satisfyingly hard, it’s currently the one to beat.