If someone you know has bought a BMW X3, you’ll know about it. Why? Because, at least in my experience, X3 owners are almost evangelical about how much they love their cars. They’re impressed with the driver-assistance tech on offer, they think it looks and feels premium, and they’re more than happy with the amount of oomph they’re getting from the engine.
The only problem? These passionate people tend to have purchased a petrol variant of the X3, or the six-cylinder 3.0-litre turbo-diesel version, the xDrive30d, rather than the four-cylinder, 2.0-litre turbo-diesel version I’m reviewing here: the BMW X3 xDrive20d.
When I posted about reviewing this car on CarAdvice’s social channels, a commenter pointed out: “You needed to get the 3Lt diesel. The pick of the X3 range. It’s so much quieter, smoother than the 2lt diesel & more economical too + so much performance.”
They’re not wrong. While quoted combined fuel economy figures are more or less the same (5.7L/100km for the 20d and 6L/100km for the 30d), the 30d’s bigger engine outputs an impressive 195kW and 620Nm, while the 20d’s outputs are more modest at 140kW and 400Nm.
So why even opt for the 20d? Because, unsurprisingly, it’s the more affordable of the pair – $71,900 plus on-road costs compared with the 30d’s $88,900 plus on-road costs. At that pricepoint, the 20d sits a little higher than other entry-level variants of similar luxury medium SUVs like the Audi Q5 40 TDI design quattro (from $66,900 plus on-road costs), the Mercedes-Benz GLC200 (from $67,400 plus on-road costs) or the Volvo XC60 T5 Momentum (from $64,990 plus on-road costs).
But with a few extra options fitted, including a sunroof, metallic paint and a parking assistant package, the X3 I drove came in at $80,800 plus on-road costs, suggesting you can get carried away in the configurator and bump that starting price up pretty quickly if you're not careful.
While I haven’t driven the 30d, I can attest that the first thing I noticed upon starting the 20d is that it’s quite obviously a diesel car based on behind-the-wheel feel alone. Engine noise is loud and there’s plenty of vibration to be felt, too.
There’s also a little lag delivered by the eight-speed automatic transmission and turbo-diesel combination that results in a delay between putting your foot down and really getting going. The effect has the car feeling a lot larger and heavier than it actually is, and I didn’t exactly feel confident darting in and out of traffic, overtaking or pulling out onto busy roads.
In fact, I found my travel time was pushed out a fair bit. I waited longer to do right turns and hesitated to overtake, given I wasn’t certain the car could deliver enough oomph to get me where I needed to go in the required time.
This is evident in the on-paper performance figures between the 20d and 30d, too. The X3 20d goes 0–100km/h in 8.1 seconds, so not quite as glacial as it feels, while the X3 30d does the same in 5.9 seconds. When I chucked the 20d into the sport driving mode (there’s also comfort mode and eco pro mode), I didn’t really notice much difference, except that perhaps the steering – which typically felt as though it required a fair bit of input to shift – seemed to bulk up further.
Overall, the engine's incessant drone and somewhat lackadaisical responsiveness can sap the fun factor from driving, and certainly leave the X3 feeling a little more 'people mover' than 'mover and shaker'.
But if you’re a patient soul who’s not too fussed about going fast, you’ll find plenty to love about the X3 20d, too. The constant xDrive all-wheel-drive system is obviously a drawcard for people who regularly find themselves on grittier terrain, but the layout and room in the cabin stood out to me as the real highlights.
I'm a stickler for visibility, especially in larger cars that are a bit harder to manoeuvre, and the X3 has visibility in droves. Large windows all around with narrow pillars maximise your line of vision all the way to the rear, and the massive sunroof (a $3100 option) adds to the feeling of space and light – it also helpfully features a substantial cover to block out the harsh Australian sun.
Not only does the X3 20d give the illusion of spaciousness with all its visibility and light, it really is very roomy. The back seat sits low and deep and offers loads of leg room, even with the front seats pushed back a fair way, with ample toe and head room, too. Back seat occupants also score rear air vents that can be independently managed from the front seat, plus two lightning ports for phone charging.
The 550L boot has a highly functional layout that takes maximum advantage of its size without any fussy design impediments, and the rear seats can fold 40:20:40 to offer up to 1600L of room.
As standard, the X3 scores all requisite driver-assistance technology aids like live speed limit information, a speed limiter, cruise control with braking function, a head-up display, rear-vision camera and sensors (which can occasionally make you feel like you're closer to a wall than you actually are), lane departure and lane-change warning.
BMW's steering wheel controls are really intuitive and quick to get the hang of, and I loved how the head-up display had a media menu pop up so I could see which song was playing next without taking my eyes off the road.
The X3 also offers creature comforts like an automatic tailgate, wireless Apple CarPlay (no Android Auto, though) and a wireless phone charger as standard, but you'll have to pay extra for seat heating, keyless entry and electric lumbar support, which I had on my test car as part of a $3400 Enhance package. Call me crazy, but I firmly believe seat heaters are a human right and should be mandated on all vehicles from prestige brands, base spec or otherwise.
As part of the Enhance package fitted to my vehicle, I also had the Parking Assistant Plus that offers a surround-view camera and self-park capabilities that worked incredibly well for me, slotting the car into place without any human intervention. I particularly loved how the parking view activated when approaching an obstacle at low speed to prevent against kerb rash.
One thing a few owners mentioned to me on social media was the ongoing issue they had with what's called the 'active parking distance control emergency intervention' system. On both social media and in person, X3 owners said the car would slam the brakes on when reversing if it detected even the slightest incline, obstruction or slope (i.e. on a downward-sloping driveway), resulting in terrified passengers and a driver who thought they'd had an accident.
This system can be deactivated (which most people I spoke to had done), but even with it activated, I wasn't able to replicate the situation. And trust me, I tried. As in, I nearly reversed into a wall in an effort to see if this thing would intervene and it didn't, which is concerning in itself.
When I reached out to BMW Australia about our readers' experiences with the system and my own differing experience with it, their response was as follows:
"The system is intended to maximise safety for the driver, their occupants and those around the vehicle. It has been designed to operate in a number of different situations and individual circumstances can vary."
So – not much insight beyond what we already knew. It's possible, another BMW spokesperson suggested, that some debris (mud, twigs etc) could have muddled the view of the camera in certain instances and caused an excessive braking response. Regardless, BMW hasn't tweaked the emergency intervention system in recent memory, so it's entirely possible this issue could happen to future owners too. My advice? Test it in safe, controlled circumstances so you're familiar with how your individual system reacts.
When it comes to interior, the X3 I drove had fabric and leather seats, incorporating a woven fabric, used as inserts in the doors, into the seats as well. While I thought the fabric door inserts looked elegant, using the same fabric on the seats detracts from the luxury feel. The seats were comfortable enough, but not exceptionally cushy, plus I didn't love the forward-leaning headrests, which made my neck angle forward in a manner that was a little uncomfortable.
The black plastic finishes on the X3's dash reminded me of more inexpensive mass-market cars and could get dirty quickly which, particularly when paired with the 10.25-inch touchscreen display, can lead to a hell of a lot of fingerprints. While I loved BMW's sporty and panoramic instrument cluster and high-definition touchscreen, they were certainly the highlights in a front-seat area that could very easily have been found in a less expensive car.
I feel the same about the car's exterior – particularly in pedestrian white (a paint option that, alarmingly, costs an extra $2000), there was very little distinguishing it from other SUVs on the road bar the badges and, of course, the distinctive kidney grille. I'm sure some BMW fans will slam me for that sentiment, but as we hit peak SUV, I find more and more cars become indiscernible from the pack regardless of pricepoint.
Regardless, when you eliminate the engine noise and vibration, the X3 is a comfortable car that cuts through road noise and roughness to provide an undisturbed drive. The vibration from the engine wreaked a little bit of havoc when it came to the lane departure and lane-change warning systems, which rely on steering wheel vibration alerts to give you a heads up if you're veering into another vehicle. With the engine's vibration, these became a little harder to detect, so I upped the setting to 'strong'.
Of course, on top of size and practicality, one of the other main benefits of opting for a diesel-powered SUV should be fuel consumption. BMW quotes the X3 20d's as 5.7L/100km for combined cycle. Previous CarAdvice reviews of the X3 20d have managed to come close and even equal that 5.7L/100km figure with a bit more highway and country driving in the mix.
However, my week of fairly unexciting, mostly urban daily driving elicited a real-world consumption figure closer to 8.5L/100km. Not awful, but perhaps not as low as you'd like to warrant buying the diesel over the petrol options, particularly if you're a city dweller taking shorter, more frequent trips.
If a car's only crime is being perfectly fine, is that really a crime at all? I came away from my time in the X3 a little underwhelmed. It certainly delivers on cabin comfort and practicality, driver assistance and infotainment, but I found it lacking in other key areas.
Those looking for a BMW badge, impressive safety and tech, and plenty of boot space will be satisfied, but shoppers with economy, X-factor and sportiness in mind may come away a little dissatisfied. In fact, the latter may find their specific needs better served by jumping up to the 30d offering, switching to a petrol variant, or sacrificing a prestige badge in favour of a top-spec medium SUV from Mazda, Toyota, Kia or other mass-market brands.