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It’s medium-sized SUVs rather than mid-sized passenger cars that are the frontline of the luxury-brand wars these days. Premium-medium sports-utility vehicles were comfortably the largest luxury segment in 2017 with 30,820 sales.

You can take the BMW 3 Series v X3 trend as a microcosm of the dramatic shift in buyer preferences. A decade ago, the Munich brand’s signature sedan outsold its SUV sibling by 5795 units to 1122.

In 2017, 3671 X3s shifted out of showrooms to establish it as BMW Australia’s best-selling model – narrowly pipping fellow sports-utility vehicles the X1 (3658) and X5 (3582). The 3 Series sedan registered 2584 sales.

The Volvo XC60 didn’t even exist in 2007, despite the larger XC90 having debuted five years earlier. It did appear in 2008, though, and globally it recorded a remarkable nine years of successive growth to mark it as the Swedish brand’s most popular model.

Now Volvo is more renowned for SUVs than it is conventional wagons, as it was for decades. Another change in recent years is that Volvo has worked on transforming itself into a genuine luxury rival to Germany’s famous triumvirate: Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

That makes for an interesting contest between new-generation versions of the X3 and XC60 – represented here in 30i and T6 R-Design trims – to discover whether Volvo deserves a more prominent place on luxury buyers’ consideration lists. And, of course, discover whether it’s Munich or Gothenburg that has created the better mid-sized luxury SUV…


PRICING & FEATURES

The $75,900 BMW X3 xDrive30i sits in the middle of a three-model all-wheel-drive line-up, sandwiched by two diesel variants (20d and 30d). A rear-drive sDrive20i starts the X3 range as of early 2018 (from $65,900), with an M Performance M40i model arriving later in the year.

Volvo’s XC60 is available from $59,990 with a Momentum D4, though squaring up neatly to the 30i in this test is the $76,990 T6 R-Design that sits just below the T8 hybrid flagship.

Product planners have clearly been doing their homework as there are many shared features.

The 30i and T6, for example, share adaptive cruise-control systems with semi-autonomous steering, blind spot monitoring, speed-limit notification, head-up display, ‘bending’ LED headlights with high-beam assistance, driver-fatigue monitoring, lane-keeping assistance, and autonomous emergency braking.

Fittingly, for the long-time safety pioneer that started the AEB trend in 2008 with the original XC60, Volvo’s system remains more advanced. Whereas the X3 matches the detection of vehicles and pedestrians, the XC60’s scope also allows for cyclists and large animals. And its system now adds a steering support function to help the driver swerve a hazard, with subtle braking of individual wheels then helping to straighten the vehicle.

The T6 also features run-off-road mitigation designed to help prevent you veering off the road, special shock-absorbing seats aimed at reducing spinal injuries in the case of a hard landing, and a system aimed at avoiding crashes into oncoming traffic.

Both SUVs aim to make low-speed manoeuvres easy-peasy with features such as surround-view cameras and semi-automatic parking.

Nothing to split the duo in terms of keyless entry and engine start, digital radio, large driver and infotainment displays, paddle-shift levers, air-filtering systems, and multi-adjustable electric front seats.

BMW includes wireless charging for your smartphone, while Volvo’s climate control extends to four zones to the X3’s three and includes a chilled glovebox. Both have an auto tailgate with hands-free opening/closing.

Externally, the XC60 T6 R-Design wears 21-inch wheels and a sports body kit. The X3 30i sits on 20-inch wheels, and an optional M Sport package is required to gain an M Aerodynamics body upgrade.

Individual and packaged options are available for both luxury SUVs, of course, and our test cars jumped to just over $87,000 each with extras. They included panoramic sunroofs ($3000 for the BMW; $2500 for the Volvo, which also adds heated front seats and tinted rear glass as part of a Lifestyle Pack) and suspension upgrades ($1900 Dynamic Damper Control for the X3 and $2490 Active Chassis with Air Suspension for the XC60).


CABIN

The BMW X3 has grown again for its third generation, this time related to 5 Series architecture rather than the smaller 3 Series as with its predecessors. It adds 6cm to its length, 1cm to its width, and just over 5cm to its wheelbase – the latter particularly good news for space.

Immediately noticeable, however, is the X3’s lift in perceived quality – with presentation and materials not entirely dissimilar to the latest 5’s cabin. There’s subtle but effective use of dark-oak woodgrain (a $550 option) on the dash, doors and console, and it was well matched to the dark-brown leather used for the upholstery and door trim.

Smart-looking silver plastic is also used liberally, while pressing buttons or turning dials simply reinforces a sense of luxury.

Delve into the lower areas of the X3’s cabin, however, and it appears the X3’s bean-counters had put a cap on the interior department’s budget. Plastics on the side of the centre console and the lower door sections are of a hardness and texture you expect to find in a mainstream car.

That’s not the case with the Swedish SUV. Carpet lines the sides of the centre console, and materials and plastics are soft whether you’re looking/touching in the upper, middle or deeper areas of the cabin.

Then there are the lovely details such as the metallic door handles, knurled-metal controls for the driver modes and engine-start on/off, and the Swedish flag etched into the wavy silver ‘metal mesh’ dash trim that ‘cups’ the side air vents and central portrait touchscreen.

There’s also stylish functionality in the way the gearshift lever and those knurled-metal controls are positioned right next to the driver, creating space on the left side of the console for a long storage section with twin sliding covers.

BMW has a couple of its own detail touches in the embossed ‘X3’ plate at the bottom of the centre stack, and the similar X stamp on the doors that’s exposed when they’re open.

But utmost quality ultimately pervades only the XC60’s interior. In the mid-sized luxury SUV segment, only the Audi Q5 can rival the Volvo in this respect.

The luxury of space and comfort is a different area of assessment, but the Volvo extends its advantage over the BMW.

In both SUVs, rear leg room and head room are commodious without being overly generous. The XC60’s outer seats, though, are superb, thanks to backrests and cushions scalloped just like the front seats.

An important note for parents, though: Volvo’s pioneering integrated child booster seats are not yet available for the latest XC60; they’re due in the third quarter of 2018.

The X3’s bench feels a bit flat and short-cushioned in comparison. And up front, the X3’s front seats feel firmer and not as well sculpted to the human body as the XC60’s ergonomically researched pews. It should be noted that our test car featured optional upholstery – perforated Nappa leather with front-seat ventilation that costs $2950 – though R-Design Nubuck textile/Fine Nappa leather seats are standard.

Cabin temperature can be set individually by passengers in the rear of the Volvo, whereas it’s a one-zone affair for the BMW.

For now, BMW retains leadership on the infotainment front. The X3 features the latest (sixth) generation of iDrive, with touchscreen functionality and new multi-tile menu screen. The ability to navigate through functions using either the touch display, rotary controller or shortcut buttons makes for incredibly simple operation.

Volvo’s Sensus system takes more familiarity, as virtually everything – from heating/ventilation control to navigation – is contained within the touchscreen. And it’s not immediately obvious that you can swipe the display to access other function screens. Minimalism is all very well, but it’s difficult to beat buttons/dials when you just want to quickly adjust cabin temperature – or jab the recirculation button when you’re about to head into a smog-clouded tunnel.

The portrait-shaped display is great for maps, though – the extra height allowing you to see more of the road ahead when following navigation guidance.


PRACTICALITY

The BMW X3’s 550-litre boot is unchanged in capacity with the model it replaces, yet its size remains up there with the best for the segment. And it commands a 45-litre advantage over the XC60.

That extends to a 145-litre lead – 1600 v 1455 litres – when 60/40 rear seats are lowered (virtually flat in the BMW; dead flat in the Volvo), and the XC60 transgresses by omitting seatback release levers (a feature that should be standard on a luxury SUV, but is available as an individual option).

The X3’s wide, upright boot aperture is complemented by a low loading lip, and there are sliding load rails, flip-over hooks, a thick elastic storage strap, 12V socket, and a cargo blind. There’s minimal side storage. And a benefit of the X3’s run-flat tyres is an extra, underfloor compartment is possible in lieu of a spare. It’s a good size and carpeted, too, with hydraulic strut helpfully propping up the floor cover.

The Volvo’s boot – wide and high, though not particularly deep – is hardly deficient for family needs, though, and the tailgate can be opened by aiming a kick under the rear bumper if your hands are full. If the XC60 is equipped with the optional rear suspension, it’s also possible to lower (or raise) the loading height via conveniently positioned buttons.

Practical boot extras comprise integrated side hooks, netted side storage, four tie-downs, a long elastic side strap, 12V socket, cargo blind, and a skip port. No bonus spaces under the floor, though, which is occupied by a space-saver spare and the air suspension system’s high-pressure canisters.

A big tick for the X3’s large door bins that include a wide bottle section, and the console bin is also usefully sized.

The glovebox is on the small side, but there’s a useful square storage section ahead of the gear lever (with sliding cover, and larger than in previous X3), two cupholders, USB port, key fob holder, an area for wireless phone charging, and a pull-down dash compartment to the right of the driver.

Unlike the boot comparison, though, there’s nothing to split front storage between the two as the Volvo’s door bins are of a handy width and include dividers, the console bin serves as more than just an elbow rest, the long centre console storage compartment – complete with a sliding cover – caters for coffees or other small drinks, smartphones, while a smaller front section is perfect for keys and coins.


DRIVETRAINS

The ‘30i’ continues to denote BMW’s four-cylinder turbocharged engine, the piggy-in-the-middle of three petrol units also comprising the lesser-tuned 20i turbo four and the upcoming 3.0-litre six-cylinder turbo M140i that will be the first X3 to wear an M badge.

It’s a four-cylinder or nothing these days at Volvo (with three-cylinders coming, too). Fortunately, all are boosted either by a turbocharger, a supercharger/turbocharger combo, or, with the flagship T8 hybrid, a combination of internal combustion and electric motors.

The XC60 T6 employs the 2.0-litre supercharged and turbocharged four-cylinder that uses crankshaft-aided forced induction for low-rev grunt and exhaust-aided boost for higher revs.

It gives the Swedish SUV the upper hand. Although at this price point, the X3’s 185kW and 350Nm outputs are about the ballpark for German luxury SUVs also including the Q5 and Mercedes GLC, while the T6 produces 235kW and 400Nm.

And despite the XC60 T6 weighing nearly 200kg more than the X3 – yes, that was two zeroes – the Volvo takes 5.9 seconds to reach 100km/h from standstill compared with the BMW’s 6.3 seconds.

Everyday driveability is far more crucial to these vehicles, of course, but even here the XC60 is champion. The supercharger plays a pivotal role in giving the T6 fantastic, always-on-alert response at all speeds, and all driving modes including Comfort. There’s some pleasantly mild supercharger whine at low revs, too, before a lovely induction whoosh above 4000rpm.

BMW’s four-pot sounds more cultured, but turbo lag is lurking at lower revs. Cycle out of Comfort mode and through to either Sport or the most aggressive, Sport+ setting and there’s a greater sense the X3 is acknowledging the pressure from your right foot.

Yet even in Sport+ on a demanding road, the X3 can’t match the XC60 T6’s responsive. And, generally, the BMW just never feels as totally effortless on the road as the XC60.

Both SUVs team their engines with eight-speeders, the X3’s the company’s staple ZF unit, the XC60’s a Volvo in-house ’box.

There’s little to choose between them in regular driving – shifts are smooth and quick. Only when the pace is upped does the ZF prove to be the more decisive transmission, with a superior sports mode to the Volvo’s, and a willingness to hold gears to redline, whereas the XC60 upshifts prematurely even in manual mode. It’s fair to say that’s unlikely to be an issue for the majority of luxury SUV buyers, especially your average Volvo customer.

And while the XC60 uses a bit less fuel officially – 8.0 v 7.6 litres per 100km – that’s a small trade-off for the extra performance.


RIDE & HANDLING

Unlike the X5, the original X3 founded its segment as the world’s first mid-sized luxury SUV. It wasn’t the engineering success its bigger sibling was, however, with a patchy ride and strange-feeling steering.

Two generations on and the X3’s steering is good but still not perfect. While it avoids the on-centre vagueness of the current X5’s steering, it brings an unnatural change of weighting as you wind on lock that even our photographer Sam noted.

The standard Variable Sport steering, which varies the rack’s ratio based on steering wheel angle rather than vehicle speed, appears the culprit… The 530i Touring we tested recently (and now sharing the X3 30i’s platform) didn’t feature this set-up and was a much sweeter steer (if sharing the SUV’s slightly remote feel).

It’s less noticeable when applying quicker inputs during a quicker, windier strop, and here – with the chassis stiffened in Sport mode – the X3 places itself up with the Jaguar F-Pace and Porsche Macan as mid-sized luxury SUVs to consider if engaging dynamics are high on your shopping list.

Here, for example, its front end feels a bit more tied down than the XC60’s, and its turn-in and change of direction are a little friskier. Grip and stability are aided by wider rubber on the rear wheels compared with the fronts.

Our X3 featured optional electronically controlled dampers ($1900) that adapt automatically to surface conditions and driving behaviour, regardless of the suspension setting – Comfort, Sport, Sport Plus – the driver has chosen.

Keener drivers can also specify an M Sport Package ($3800 on the 30i), which includes M sports suspension, M light-alloy wheels, and M sports brakes along with some interior and exterior extras.

An R badge once denoted high-performance Volvos – such as the 850 T5-R wagon and S60 R sedan – though the R-Design badge on this XC60 has more to do with look-fast aesthetics than go-faster ability.

While the R-Design body kit and 21-inch wheels lend the XC60 a more athletic appearance than the X3, there is also a firmer-tuned Sport chassis over other XC60s.

And the T6 – with its adaptive suspension also popped into its sportier setting – holds its head high on enjoyable roads. There’s slightly more roll than the BMW, but the handling is easy and predictable even if travelling at a decent clip. The Volvo feels controlled over bumps, and its steering, while slower than the X3’s, is more fluid.

Drive out of corners is also more satisfying courtesy of the T6 drivetrain’s earlier response to throttle-pedal pressure.

Our test Volvo included optional adaptive air suspension ($2490), which is a worthwhile investment as we know lifts ride quality over the stock suspension – as is the case with the bigger XC90 that shares the XC60’s basic platform.

It’s possible you’ll find even greater isolation from road irregularities with an XC60 on smaller wheels and standard Dynamic suspension. Yet travel over a big bitumen divot or manhole cover and the expected impact hit never materialises – just a dull thud.

The 20-inch-wheeled X3 isn’t incapable of providing comfort, though the firmness of the run-flat tyres is detectable and you’re often more conscious of the BMW’s suspension working – slightly noisier and more susceptible to minor intrusions than the Volvo’s.


VERDICT

Since Volvo was taken off Ford’s hands by Chinese car maker Geely in 2010, the Swedish brand has accelerated its efforts to be considered a genuine luxury car brand. The only way that can be achieved is through consistently high-quality products worthy of comparison with the premium German establishment, as well as Japan’s Lexus.

The BMW X3 provides a stern test. Beyond having the best proportions and stance of any X3 yet, the German car maker has improved the mid-sized SUV’s interior quality and refinement.

Its boot is more practical than the XC60’s and the class-leading iDrive infotainment system is almost faultless in its presentation and operation. And its dynamic qualities bode well for the upcoming M40i, the first X3 to wear an M badge (though we’d like to see improvement in the steering).

Yet if the remit of a luxury SUV is to provide its owner with a sense of occasion, sophistication and comfort, the XC60 delivers in a more profound way than the BMW.

Quality is exuded from every corner of the Volvo’s cabin, while the suave, Scandinavian interior design is characteristically simplistic yet stylistic. The seating is more inviting both front and rear.

And if effortlessness is another crucial criterion for a luxury vehicle, the SUV here that steers, rides and accelerates with the higher level of ease is the XC60 T6 R-Design

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