Lust after German premium badge cachet, need mid-sized SUV practicality, and would rather dance on broken glass than drive a ‘diseasal’? Then BMW’s newest petrol-powered middleweight family hauler, the X3 sDrive20i, is out to seduce you.
Released late 2017, a couple of months after the completely revamped range arrived in Oz, the $65,900 sDrive20i petrol supplanted the xDrive20d oiler by $3000 as the cheapest way into X3 ownership. Or a cool 10 grand more affordable than the mid-range xDrive30i. Had you bought one then, you would have saved a fistful of folding stuff, because the whole range has gone up $1000 since.
As the only sDrive in the pack of xDrives, it’s the only rear-driven X3 currently on sale.
How does that sit with its rivals? Audi’s entry Q5 2.0 diesel lobs in at $65,900 (the petrol Sport version arriving up at $73,211 list) and features all-wheel drive. Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz’s price-leading GLC is the rear-driven 200 that, at $61,990, undercuts its German nemeses by a decent stash of moolah. With a wider view, basic Bimmer money also buys low-level Stelvio or a choice of Discovery Sports and XC60s, but you’ll come up short if you’re keen to cross-shop pricier F-Paces and Macans.
The current X3 crop has fared well in review, from a high of 8.5/10 to a low of 7.7 for the xDrive 20d, which suggests that, superficially at least, scaling up the range yields better returns. This doesn’t bode favourably for the cheapy rear-drive 20i.
So what don’t you get in base X3?
For a start, there’s power and torque. The 20i tune of the ‘B48’ 2.0-litre direct-injected turbo four makes do with 135kW and 290Nm – decent compact hot hatch numbers, perhaps, not so flashy for a much heavier mid-sized SUV. Lowly numbers in the X3 pantheon, too, where the other two petrol versions make 185kW/350Nm (30i) and 265kW/500Nm (M40i).
For another thing, it’s the only sDrive rear-wheel drive in the range: all other X3s are all-paw ‘xDriven’. Not the ideal variant, then, if you’re partial to annual trips to the snow, live on a farm or if you’re into a bit of regular soft-roading.
From the get-go, the sDrive20i squares itself up as ideal for urbanites not in a terribly big hurry. But it’s fair to expect that those same urbanites forking out proper money for a premium badge expect a proper premium experience. And the cheapy X3 certainly delivers, starting with standard equipment.
LED headlights and tail-lights, heated and electric-folding mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, neat 19-inch wheels and an upmarket xLine appearance package with classy satin alloy-look ornamentation, the basic X3 is all class outside. It’s certainly not cheap in on-road presence.
Inside, the vibe is emphatically premium German with little sign of corner- or cost-cutting. It’s not Benz-techy or Audi-flashy, but right BMW cabin design is, by and large, a deft and appealing blend of classicism and modernity. There’s richness in complexity of chosen material and textures on the dash and door trims, a slickness and tactility to the buttons and switchgear, and a sense of occasion mostly free of tackiness.
Our test car gets $2500-optional black Vernasca leather seat trim that’s more ‘hardy’ than sumptuous and, thus, perhaps a questionable ‘upgrade’ over the very decent standard anthracite cloth/leather combination. The seating’s sport contour blends comfort and purpose nicely, the fronts are fully electric with memory select, the multi-function wheel – sans pointless paddle-shifters, thankfully – looks and feels great, and there’s a ton of tech without being overpowered by it.
No, you don’t get the whiz-bang 12.3-inch full digital instrumentation, but the semi-digital cluster fitted comes very close in the eye-candy stakes and changes display design dependent on drive mode. Head-up display, three-zone climate control, and assignable preview buttons married to the excellent iDrive 6 infotainment system – DAB+ audio, proprietary sat-nav, bundled BMW ConnectedDrive trickery – conspire in providing quite a lavish show.
Our test car gets the large 10.25-inch Navigation System Professional as a no-cost option above the regular-fit Business spec with its smaller 6.5-inch display, and you have to wonder why any buyer wouldn’t opt for big-screen goodness.
There are gizmos aplenty: the cruise control has braking functionality, there’s myriad approach/departure/lane-changing warning systems, and while it's reversing rather than a 360-degree camera system, the vehicle’s proximity sensors monitor the complete vehicle perimeter, though it does tend to trigger incessantly the moment you come to stop in traffic or venture into a drive-through.
Just three options – the leather trim plus panoramic glass roof ($3000) and Glacier Silver paint ($1950) – thrust our test car’s list price to $74,350, or in the outlay ballpark of the more powerful and better equipped (including leather standard) $76,900 xDrive 30i. Suddenly, loading the price-leading X3 with what are clearly pricey options makes little sense.
Other options? Apple CarPlay at an extra $479 is more than a bit rich for a feature standard on cars half the BMW’s price. Adaptive suspension? That’s another $1500, and almost an essential addition if you’re enticed by the 21-inch wheel upgrade ($2700) as many buyers are inclined to do.
Frankly, outside of whatever on-road compromises the basic powertrain might present, the sDrive20i is at its most convincing and compelling with zero options added. And that’s mainly because the recently revitalised X3’s core package is very good, it’s very difficult for BMW to un-specify or remove so much of its inherent goodness, and there’s really not much meaningful equipment the pricier X3s add to the fundamental SUV experience outside of extra glitter and window dressing.
Clearly, there are few compromises where it really counts, and it’s no poorer in family friendliness than pricier X3s we’ve reviewed in the past. The second row is still roomy, the rear ‘third’ climate control excellent, and no reduction in convenient stowage or luggage capacity afforded by the smart 40:20:40 rear seat split-folding, which expands luggage space from a handy 550 litres to a cavernous 1600-odd litres. And the cargo area gets neat premium extras like grocery bag handles, tie-down points, underfloor storage and adjustable floor track mounting points for the cargo net.
All of which suggests the big penalty surfaces on the road. Perhaps so, relatively speaking amongst X3 kin, but as a standalone impression the sDrive20i is nothing like the left-wanting driving doldrums you might initially expect.
It's a nice, linear and responsive engine married to a smooth and intuitively shifting eight-speed conventional automatic – no jerky dual-clutch effect here to rob refinement from family-hauling purpose – so the powertrain is quite slick. And one-up and unladened, it’ll convince you it’s actually quite swift as well. By the numbers, though, it’s quite a leap from its 8.2sec 0–100km/h prowess to that of the 30i (6.3sec) or further on to the properly rapid M40i (4.8sec).
But it’s the lack of torquey shove that really becomes apparent once you push on to merge or overtake, or you start loading the SUV up with loved ones and luggage. Dig in hard and forward progress seems to remain merely adequate and middling – it doesn’t struggle, but nor does it get a proper move on – and if you’re inclined to dig in often, that average consumption figure of 7.6L/100km becomes a big, fat fairy tale. Our test car barely dropped into single figures all week.
The sDrive20i is, though, nice to drive. There’s a proper evenness to the Comfort powertrain calibration, while Sport mode sharpens responses without any unruly spikiness… Or much in the way of added accelerative prowess. But there are shades of 3 Series about the way the X3 drives. Not overwhelmingly, just a sheen of consideration about enjoyment from behind the wheel. Perhaps it’s the omitted front driveshafts, perhaps not, but the arrangement seems to leave the steering feeling a little extra, well, natural.
The dynamic character of this X3 is handy and engaging without overstepping the mark many SUVs do by trying to be too edgy and sporty. It’s just nicely fluid, balanced and communicative around town or on the motorways. It’s a satisfying thing to punt… Once you disengage the clunky stop-start and get used to the mildly ‘grabby’ brake feel.
So while it’s hardly the Ultimate Driver’s Machine, it’s quite a decent driving machine in areas that count, and a damn good one by most medium SUV measures.
Ride quality is mostly decent, though vertical movement up through the chassis can be quite abrupt across big hits like potholes and speed bumps. The passive suspension tune does err on the firm side. That said, despite the 19-inch run-flat tyres and their inherently stiff sidewalls, there's decent inherent compliance and it copes well with smaller road imperfections.
Ownership-wise, the warranty is a rudimentary three years, albeit with no kilometre cap, while basic-level servicing is capped at $1495 in total if you pre-pay for a five-year/80,000km schedule.
The penny-pinching sDrive20i is far from a cut-priced premium experience. And from initial impressions to the day-to-day experience, the holistic goodness of this fresh-faced, third-generation, mid-sized SUV range we described as "more 5 Series and X1" at its 2017 international launch seems difficult to remove or omit if the aim is to drag the basic spec down to a properly enticing price point.
Still, $66K before on-roads remains proper money than an absolute steal. It's good value, not the bargain of the century. But bar the good shove up the backside and some AWD flexibility if you truly need it, the only area where the base X3 lacks in comparison with much pricier '30' variants is largely in superfluous and hardly necessary bits of feel-good window dressing. That you'll miss out on galvanic embellishers for the controls won't be cause for loss of sleep.