The BMW X3 once had things its own way, but no more.
Consumers’ insatiable thirst for luxury SUVs has a number of rivals drive onto the scene in the mid-sized premium soft-roader segment.
While the X1 is the cheapest way into a BMW SUV, the X3 is still available for an RRP below $60,000 – and the luxury car tax (LCT) threshold of $60,316 (2013/14 financial year).
The BMW X3 xDrive20i costs $59,000, and refreshing (for a German press vehicle) our test car even came with minimal options.
From the outside the current and second-generation BMW X3 avoids the awkward proportions of the original but still struggles to match either the elegance of the Q5 or the concept-that-made-it-to-the-showroom looks of the Evoque.
The BMW X3 has grown substantially, and measures almost as large as the original BMW X5.
Like most BMW base models, the X3 xDrive20i is powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine – here with 135kW of power and 275Nm of torque. That might not seem like much, but these are German kilowatt and torque figures and, for some reason, they seem to mean more than others.
Couple that contemporary engine to an eight-speed automatic gearbox and acceleration times are 8.6 seconds for the 0-100km/h run. Which is by and large faster than you’ll ever need for a family car. BMW claims the X3 xDrive20i uses 7.5 litres of (premium) fuel per 100km, but expect that to be closer to 9L/100km in the real world – which is still more than decent for an SUV that weighs 1650kg.
Jump inside and the X3 follows BMW’s current tradition of providing robust and clean interior designs. There’s no confusion as to how things work and its German efficiency everywhere. The front seats are plush and comfortable – but can get even better if you tick a few options – while the rear is large enough to accommodate three adults with plenty of head and legroom.
The Isofix points in the rear are some of the easiest we’ve used, with simple plastic covers that pop out for a simple click-in-click-out child seat installation.
There are plenty of spots to put water bottles, phones and other items inside the cabin, too, and the boot measures 550-1660 litres depending on how the rear seats are arranged. Which means you’ll have no problems fitting in all the week’s shopping and a large pram.
A navigation system with a 6.5-inch colour display controlled by BMW’s well-known and intuitive iDrive system is standard. This can be optioned with a larger screen and more advanced version of iDrive as part of the professional pack, but for standard equipment on a $59,000 SUV it even puts some of its Japanese and Australian rivals to shame. In fact, if you compare it to a top of the line Ford Territory – which is more expensive at $63,240 – the X3’s value for money proposition starts to look even better.
Speaking of standard features, the base model gets 18-inch alloys with run-flat tyres (can be driven on at 80km/h even after a puncture to save you having to do a swap), and BMW efficient dynamics technology such as brake energy regeneration (charging the battery when you brake) and auto start/stop function.
Then there’s the usual features like cruise control with braking ability, hill descent control, front and rear parking sensors, rear view camera, Sensatec (fake-leather) upholstery, USB port, rain sensing wipers and automatic headlights. The list goes on, and it’s surprisingly substantial, particularly given BMW’s reputation for long option lists.
From a driving perspective, the X3 presents an up-high seating position that emphasises all the benefits of having an SUV. However, because of its unique and relatively smart ‘xDrive’ all-wheel drive system (with variable torque split) it doesn’t drive like one.
In many ways the main reason to buy a BMW is for its sporty driving dynamics, regardless of what car or variant, that’s always been BMW’s mantra.
You can option adaptive dampers to allow for a better suspension rebound and pothole absorption, though the X3 can still be a little too hard riding on poorly surface roads. If that’s going to bother you, the Ford Territory is the best-in-class (regardless of badge) for SUV ride compliancy in Australia (which should come as no surprise, given it was developed here).
Corners are eaten up with ease and the X3 is an engaging and fun machine to drive enthusiastically. The eight-speed automatic transmission works harmoniously with the engine and the power extraction process is seamless and without fuss.
The steering is direct and precise; put it in Sport mode and it can also get pretty meaty. In Comfort mode it will lighten up enough to make the average trip to the shops a pleasant experience. As far as $59,000 SUVs go, it’s a good blend of sporty yet family-friendly commuting – though it does tend to lean more on the sporty side of things.
On the engine side, should you go petrol or diesel if you want a BMW X3? If you’re wondering whether you need to go down the diesel route, consider this: the base model diesel in the X3 range, the BMW X3 xDrive20d – which is powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged diesel engine – is $4100 more expensive than its petrol equivalent. It has the same power output but 105Nm more torque, which is great for climbing hilly terrain and lugging weight (it’s also 0.1 seconds faster to 100km/h from a standstill).
Despite its extra grunt, the xDrive20d uses just 5.6L of standard diesel fuel per 100km, so there’s also the cost saving there. However, one needs to look deeper into the numbers.
Lets take the average cost of diesel fuel, which is currently at a $1.45/L and 98 RON fuel, which is roughly $1.65/L. Based on those two figures, there’s a saving of 20 cents per litre by going diesel, compounded by the diesel engine’s ability to save 1.9L of fuel per 100km.
Do the maths and it comes out to $12.38 cents to do 100km in the petrol, or $8.12 for the diesel to cover the same distance, a saving of $4.26 cents per 100km for the diesel.
So to simply recoup the initial $4100 outlay, one needs to travel 96,244km. This is not taking into account the slightly higher cost of servicing a diesel compared to petrol (both models have a 25,000km/12-month service intervals). So unless you absolutely want a diesel, or enjoy that extra grunt, it’s not as cost-effective as it may seem.
Regardless of which you pick, and there are far more powerful and expensive versions of the X3, safety is top notch. There’s plenty of electronic gadgetry designed to keep you pointing in the desired direction, and there’s also an airbag in every spot that counts, in case you don’t.
The mid-sized luxury SUV segment only has a few contenders in the $60K-plus bracket, as we mentioned at the start of the review, but they’re also good ones. So it’s also worth checking out the Audi Q5, Range Rover Evoque and Volvo XC60 to compare it with the BMW X3.