The third-generation BMW X3 has a deep-seated connection with Australia that most people won’t realise. It’s bold new look is the handy work of Aussie designer and all-round nice guy Calvin Luk, who also penned the current X1 and 1 Series facelift.
Luk is a BMW fanboy from way back – from the very moment his parents bought an E36, and it’s been that way ever since. He’s also one of the youngest designers ever hired by the company, but he’s already achieved something of a career milestone when he penned the fabulous Z4 Concept, unveiled at Pebble Beach this year.
More impressive, still, he also won the right to design the production version of the new Z4 – a lifelong dream and something we’re told will remain true to the Concept. We’ll find out for ourselves in late 2018, when the car is likely to hit the streets.
Luk’s brief for the all-new X3 was simple; give it more character, more sportiness and more tech, without alienating the primary female buyer group – so far, responsible for more than 1.5 million sales globally. In Australia, it’s currently sitting on the number three spot on the SUV sales podium, behind the X5 and X1.
But, all that is about to change, with a steady shift from BMW sedans to SUVs gaining more and more momentum. Last year it was one in three BMWs sold wore an X badge, now, it’s almost one in two, with the latest X3 likely to replace the X5 as the company’s most popular SUV.
Whether or not it can attain market leadership in the hotly contested mid-size luxury SUV segment, though, is another challenge entirely. Competition is fierce. Ruthless, even, with the X3 going up against proven rivals like the Audi Q5, Mercedes-Benz GLC, Volvo XC60 and the sales-leading Land Rover Discovery Sport.
It’s a veritable buyer’s market, with lots of pressure on manufacturers to deliver substantially-better vehicles with each new-generation, while keeping a tight lid on prices at the same time. It’s a tough ask, but one that has produced a very different kind of BMW SUV to the model it replaces, despite the fact that it’s still easily recognisable as an X3.
Certainly, it’s a more robust form with a tougher stance and broader shoulders. It’s also longer, wider and taller than the model it replaces, though, visually, it’s deceptive - it actually looks lower. Luk also wanted a sleeker, more aerodynamic shape, which he has well and truly delivered, with an impressive 0.29Cd (co-efficient of drag) score.
“We’ve given it more muscle and dressed it in a Boss suit”, is how Luk described the styling to us. It’s evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, but along with the buffed-up body, there are fewer sharp lines and more softer edges.
From any angle, it’s a more sophisticated look than its gen-two predecessor, especially rolling on the larger 19-21-inch wheels, which encompasses the available range on the new X3.
Australian buyers will have a choice of three models – the $68,900 X3 xDrive20d, powered by the 140kW/400Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel, the $75,900 xDrive30i, with a 185kW/350Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol engine, and the $83,900 range-topping X3 xDrive30d, powered by the 3.0-litre inline six turbo-diesel with 195kW a stonking 620Nm of torque from 2000 to 2500rpm.
Later on, the range will be joined by the X3 M40i – the first ever M Performance X3 variant, armed with a reworked version of the staple 3.0-litre TwinPower turbocharged inline six-cylinder petrol engine from the M140i, tuned to deliver 265kW of power from 5500rpm and 500Nm of torque between 1520 and 4800rpm.
It should be a cracker, because underneath that taught new muscular skin, hides a brand-new platform, which has far more in common with the latest BMW 5 Series than any other vehicle in the Bavarian carmaker’s range.
It’s called CLAR, introduced on 7 Series in 2015, and will underpin all upcoming rear-drive vehicles including a rear-wheel drive X3 that will join the line-up next year as the new entry-level model, along with the aforementioned M40i performance hero. There’s even talk of a full-blown X3 M, thanks entirely to the new platform.
Along with the larger dimensions all round, passengers are bound to appreciate the longer wheelbase in the new X3. There’s more legroom for both seat rows and more head and shoulder space up front. And, despite the enlarged passenger space, boot space remains the same – that’s 550 litres with the second row in place, expanding to 1600 litres with the rear seats folded.
But for those with kids, boards or bikes (or all three), you can rest easy with the knowledge that the new X3 is a larger vehicle (in every dimension) than the first-generation X5. Not only that, there’s a rear seat release from the boot area, gas springs for the boot floor with an underfloor storage compartment, and best of all – an integrated luggage compartment to store those annoying luggage blinds that only ever seem to get in the way.
The new X3 also delivers an impressive new interior, in stark contrast to the old model, which looked cheap and didn’t feel any better. By contrast, the latest fitout brings a more stylish mix of premium materials like soft leathers and real wood trim, capped off with embossed aluminium inlays throughout the entire cabin. It looks and feels like an expensive 5 Series – and that’s in both seat rows.
While the latest-gen X3 is more expensive, with price-hikes ranging from $2000-$4000, it also brings a far more substantial equipment inventory than ever before.
Standard kit on the base model includes the ‘xLine’ exterior package with matte-aluminium design elements, 19-inch alloy wheels, electric folding exterior mirrors, roof rails, a leather steering wheel, cloth/leather seat trim with electrically-adjustable front pews, LED headlights, and full-colour head-up display (HUD).
Other highlights include parking assistant with front and rear sensors, a rear-view camera, Driving Assistant with lane departure warning, wireless phone charging, along with the 6.5-inch Navigation System Business with real-time traffic updates and speed limit recognition.
Stepping up to the 30i (and 30d) adds 20-inch alloy wheels, ‘Vernasca’ leather upholstery, adaptive LED headlights with highbeam assist, comfort access, paddle-shifters for the eight-speed automatic transmission, Driving Assistant Plus, Parking Assistance Plus with a 360-degree camera system, a 12.0-inch digital instrument display, along with Navigation Professional – incorporating a 10.0-inch touchscreen.
But, if you want to ditch the smaller screen in the entry-level 20d, there’s a range of tasty option packages that are well worth a look, like the popular M Sport Package, Innovations Package, Exclusive Package and Rear Comfort Package – click here for more detail.
Once on road, the stark contrast between the old and the new X3 couldn’t be more apparent. We kicked off in the base 20d, and for those who might brush it aside for fear of underwhelming performance, think again.
As a daily commuter or family chariot, its 140kw/400Nm diesel donk is just about perfect. It’ll go from standstill to 100km/h in 8.0 seconds and claims 5.7L/100km on the combined cycle. Lag is minimal and there’s more than enough juice on tap for steep hill climbs and high-speed overtaking – we tried both, repeatedly.
Refinement is generally excellent, too, with very low cabin noise thanks to its base-spec 19-inch alloys it was riding on. I can’t quite say the engine produces any more clatter than the Land Rover’s rival Ingenium unit of the same displacement, but either way, there isn’t much in it.
But, where the new X3 really starts to shine is in the dynamic department. And there’s good reason for that, too, and it all centres around BMW’s new architecture we spoke about earlier.
Using a combination of lightweight materials and specialised bonding of aluminium and high-tensile steel for the front end, engineers have shaved up to 55kg off the new model. More importantly, it’s a lighter, more rigid structure, which translates into substantial gains in agility and feedback for the driver.
There’s also a lot of bracing going on up front, throughout the engine bay, and even behind the familiar kidney grille, which keeps the X3 rock solid through the sweepers and twisties, even if you’ve got it wound up a few notches.
This is a much sharper vehicle that simply relishes a sporty driving style, despite its SUV/school pick-up status. Body control is simply excellent, as is the steering feel – more than we can remember of any current BMW on the market, in fact. It’s a big claim, we know, but one we couldn’t help rave about throughout the entire test program.
It’s the same story, when it comes to ride comfort, too, though, it must be said, each and every X3 on the launch was equipped with BMW’s Dynamic Damper Control – adaptive suspension - that allows you to toggle through a range of ride settings.
On its own, it’s a $1900 option, but be sure to tick that box, first, if it’s not included in the vehicle you buy - because with this system, they’ve got the ride/handling balance just about perfect. And that’s on-road and off-road, we’re talking about.
We were able to notch up over 40km on the gravel, and frankly, ride comfort is just as compliant on the loose stones as it is on the tarmac, and the X3 was beautifully behaved. And again, you’ve got this wonderfully communicative feedback through the steering wheel that makes driving a real pleasure.
Naturally, the 30i petrol model offers more immediate throttle response, along with considerably more refinement than the smaller diesel powertrain. Punch it from the get-go and you’ll hit 100km/h in 6.3 seconds.
This time we were rolling on a 21-inch wheel and tyre package, but amazingly, the ride comfort remained superb – even on some pretty average course-chip surfaces. Select Comfort – and we swear you won’t know you’re on the larger wheels.
The top-spec 30d, though, riding on the standard 20-inch alloys, has got to be the sweet spot here, despite its top-price billing. Performance is simply sublime, with next to no lag, huge pulling power just off idle and a level of refinement up there with the best.
For those unfortunate souls with the notion that diesels are somehow slow, noisy and lacking in character. Nothing could be further from the truth with this engine. It’ll scoot from 0-100km/h in just 5.8 seconds, making overtakes on fast open roads dead easy and entirely safe, given there’s just so much grunt on offer, from so low in the rev range. And it sounds good, too.
In all honesty, I’ve never been a big fan of the X3 – always thought it was too dumpy and not quite measuring up to its BMW siblings in almost every respect.
But, that’s all changed with the third-generation X3, which puts it on par or ahead of the very best in the segment. In fact, it’s hard to think of a more well-rounded rival that offers such an outstanding package.
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