BMW X3 review
The BMW X3 is an extremely capable SUV with a roomy interior, efficient engines and a great driving experience
The BMW X3 has never faced tougher opposition. Prior to a facelift in the middle of 2014, it was the unquestionable class leader, but the arrival of the Porsche Macan has raised question marks about its position at the top.
There's an impressive range of powerplants on offer, so long as you want a diesel. BMW doesn't offer the X3 with any petrol engines in the UK, but the refined four and six-cylinder diesels come in outputs ranging from 187bhp to 309bhp. To maximise efficiency, every model benefits from stop/start, which is fitted as part of the EfficientDynamics pack.
There are three trim levels to choose from, but whichever X3 you opt for, you'll be in one of the most accomplished SUVs on the market. It's great to drive, can accommodate the whole family and is one of the most desirable 4x4s in its class. It's not as glamorous as the Range Rover Evoque, but it's a very talented all-round performer.
We first saw the BMW X3 back in 2003, and the car on sale now is the facelifted version of the second generation. The original E83 X3 was built until 2010, when it was replaced by this F25 model. BMW revamped the 4x4 in 2014, while an all-new, third-generation example is due in 2017.
As part of the 2014 update, the headlights were mildly revised, the bumpers were tweaked and the 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbodiesel engine was also given some attention, with the noise, vibration and harshness improved.
The all-aluminium, common-rail injection unit had its injection pressure increased to a colossal 2,000bar, upping the 20d’s power and torque figures from 181bhp and 380Nm to 187bhp and 400Nm. Economy and emissions were also improved.
After the facelift, a new entry point was introduced to the X3 line-up. This was the rear-wheel-drive sDrive18d, featuring a detuned version of the 2.0-litre diesel. It was designed to make the most of tax breaks and return the best eco figures in the range, but it was short-lived. The sDrive18d was quietly dropped from UK price lists in 2015, leaving the xDrive20d SE as the entry-level X3 again.
So buyers have a simple range to choose from: all X3s are four-wheel drive, diesel, five-door, five-seat SUVs. You can opt for the 2.0 four-cylinder turbodiesel in the 20d or the 3.0-litre six-cylinder, with one turbo in the 30d or two turbos in the range-topping 35d.
There’s a six-speed manual gearbox as standard in the 20d, with an eight-speed auto as an option, while the automatic is fitted as standard on the six-cylinder engines. In M Sport trim, it comes as Steptronic Sport, adding shift paddles to the steering wheel.
Buyers going for the X3 20d or 30d get to choose from all three trim levels: SE, xLine and M Sport. The 35d is only available in M Sport spec.
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The X3 was the second ‘X’ model BMW to arrive after the X5, but it now sits in a wide line-up of SUVs from the company. Following the sales success of the X6 – essentially a coupe version of the X5 – the X3 has spawned its own coupe model, badged the X4. A smaller X1 sits below the X3 in the range, too.
Key rivals for the X3 are the Audi Q5, Mercedes GLC and Range Rover Evoque, as well as the Land Rover Discovery Sport, Volvo XC60 and Lexus NX. Plus, there’s the car that poses the biggest threat to the BMW: the Porsche Macan.
Engines, performance and drive
The BMW X3 handles brilliantly for any car, let alone a high-riding off-roader. It has the kind of agility and poise that puts some saloons to shame. It’s only available with BMW’s xDrive four-wheel-drive system, as the rear-wheel-drive sDrive18d is no longer listed in BMW’s brochures. Thus, all X3s offer impressive grip and traction both on and off the road.
As you’d expect from a BMW, the X3 feels agile and involving in corners. The steering is direct and well weighted, while there’s plenty of grip and body movement is superbly controlled. All versions come with BMW’s Drive Performance Control switch, which alters the car’s throttle response and steering weight to suit your mood and the road conditions.
The X3 is only available with diesel engines, but there’s sure to be one for every buyer. The only four-cylinder in the range is the 2.0-litre diesel, which was quite a loud and unrefined engine prior to the facelift in 2014. Modifications have improved things significantly, and with a healthy 400Nm from 1,750-2,500rpm, it now delivers brisk performance. Whether you opt for a manual or automatic gearbox, it claims 0-62mph in 8.1 seconds and a top speed of 130mph.
The 2.0-litre can still feel a bit strained at the top end of the rev range, with peak power of 187bhp arriving well short of the redline at 4,000rpm. Don’t thrash it, though, and you’ll find it a pleasant, muscular motor.
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For a blend of performance and refinement, go for one of the 3.0-litre six-cylinder models – our preference is the single-turbo 30d. It’s nearly as quick as the twin-turbo 35d, as it serves up 255bhp at 4,000rpm and 560Nm of torque from 1,500-3,000rpm, yet it’s just clean enough to be a bit cheaper to tax and fuel. Buyers will enjoy a 0-62mph time of 5.9 seconds and a top speed of 144mph – plenty for a car of this size.
If you really must for the range-topping 35d, it’s quick enough to blow the Porsche Macan S Diesel out of the water and it gets close to matching the Audi SQ5, although it costs more than the latter. The BMW's engine delivers 309bhp at 4,400rpm, which allows it to rev a little more freely than its stablemates, and it has a huge 630Nm of torque from 1,500-2,500rpm. That enables a 0-62mph time of 5.3 seconds and a 152mph maximum speed. The best thing about both the 3.0-litre engines is that, for turbodiesels, they sound pretty good when being extended.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
BMW has fitted the X3 with its EfficientDynamics fuel-saving technology, including stop/start and brake regeneration, so even the high-powered six-cylinder models are surprisingly efficient.
The top-spec 3.0-litre xDrive promises fuel economy of 47.1mpg and emits just 157g/km of CO2, so for a car weighing nearly two tonnes and with its sort of performance, road tax bills will be surprisingly low, at £180 annually.
The X3 xDrive20d (which accounts for around 80 per cent of UK sales) claims 55.4mpg and 135g/km with the manual transmission, landing it in VED Band E with road tax costs of £130 a year. Its emissions are 19g/km lower than the 175bhp Audi Q5 2.0 TDI quattro SE.
Fit the Steptronic auto (for around £1,500 extra), however, and the 20d’s numbers improve to 57.6mpg and 129g/km. That means VED Band D, so no tax to pay for the first 12 months and £110 annually thereafter. Admittedly, it would take you around 70 years to recoup the cost of the transmission in road tax savings alone, but the better fuel bills should help soften the blow of the outlay and the automatic does suit the X3 well.
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The 30d occupies a neat middle ground of performance and economy, costing just £15 a year more to tax than a manual 20d (VED Band F, £145 annually) thanks to CO2 emissions of 149g/km. It returns nearly 50mpg – and as it’s much closer to the 35d than the 20d in terms of performance, it’s the model we’d recommend for the best, all-round X3 ownership experience.
As with so many cars, the figures quoted above are the best numbers attainable for each engine on its standard-size alloys. Start upgrading the wheels, and economy and emissions take a hit.
There’s no such issue on the 35d with its 19-inch-only rims, but spec up from the 17 or 18-inch sizes on SE and xLine models, and you can move the X3 into higher VED bands. The 20d manual can dip as low as 51.4mpg and 142g/km, or 53.3mpg and 136g/km with the auto, meaning Bands F and E respectively, while bigger rims on the 30d push it out to almost the same figures as the 35d: 47.9mpg and 156g/km. So pick stylish alloys carefully if you’re watching the pennies.
Insurance for the X3 is reasonable at the four-cylinder end of the range, but can get pricey for the six-cylinder 35d. An xDrive20d sits in group 30 in SE or xLine trim, with an M Sport version in group 31. The 30d SE is in group 39, xLine and M Sport models are in group 40, while the M Sport-only 35d sits in insurance group 43.
The combination of the BMW brand, diesel engines and an SUV body means the X3 is a sound investment. It’s one of the best cars going for holding its value, retaining on average around 60 per cent of its purchase price over three years and 36,000 miles. However, its Range Rover Evoque arch rival has a slight edge with even stronger resistance to depreciation.
Interior, design and technology
The X3 isn’t the most exciting car to look at, but it’s instantly recognisable as a BMW thanks to the trademark kidney grille and twin circular headlights. It has the kind of chunky, rugged styling that SUV buyers expect, with features like roof rails, wide wheelarches and black plastic body cladding.
Reshaped bumpers and additions such as LED indicators housed in the wing mirrors contributed to the classy 2014 update, while M Sport models benefit from a sporty bodykit for buyers wanting a bit more exterior clout.
M Sport spec is popular, and further additions include gloss black trim inserts and 19-inch alloy wheels. There are also a smattering of ‘M’ logos and an eye-catching chrome treatment for the exhaust. However, you’ll have to upgrade to the Xenon headlamps (for just over £600) if you want BMW’s LED daytime running lights.
The cabin is just as low key as the exterior, but what the X3 lacks in daring design it makes up for with its thoughtful layout and first-rate finish. Like other models in the brand’s line-up, it benefits from a slickly styled, wraparound dashboard design and plenty of top-notch materials. All the plastics are soft touch, the switchgear operates precisely and the fixtures and fittings feel engineered to last.
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Equipment is very generous. Long gone are the days that BMWs came with nothing on them in entry-level spec. The 20d SE has 17-inch alloys, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth, a CD player with MP3 compatibility, cruise control and DAB.
There’s also Drive Performance Control (DPC), Hill Descent Control, the BMW Business Media Package, a multifunction steering wheel and leather upholstery, plus all-round parking sensors, heated front seats and an automatic tailgate.
That’s a lot of toys – and the 30d SE builds on this tally, with Dynamic Stability Control, the automatic gearbox and metallic paint among other additions.
For around £1,500 more than an SE, xLine is an elegant styling package, bringing desirable interior and exterior finishes, 18-inch wheels and a Sport leather steering wheel.
M Sport gets the lot, including all the sporty styling touches inside and out. There are also 19-inch wheels, sports seats, an extra Sport+ mode in the DPC, run-flat tyres and Servotronic variable Sport steering. This top-spec trim level adds a similar premium on top of an xLine.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
All BMWs include the Media Package, and this means sat-nav is standard on the X3, as part of the company’s move in 2015 to ensure mapping was no longer a cost option for its UK range. This is a brilliant addition, as it gives all X3s a premium feel. Even so, if you want the full-colour maps on the iDrive display screen, Media Professional is a £900 upgrade across all models. We think it’s worth getting.
Talking of iDrive, it’s arguably the best infotainment control system in the automotive world. It works intuitively at all times and is a result of BMW’s perseverance with – and continued improvement of – the set-up in the face of stiff criticism of the early control mechanisms.
Standard SE models get a six-speaker sound system, but the company offers two powerful upgrades: its own BMW Advanced set-up (for around £350) or a full-on Harman/Kardon affair for about £900 on its own. Check the options list carefully, though, as the top stereo upgrade is actually offered in a number of equipment packages for the X3 that bring in other welcome options for a four-figure fee.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
The BMW X3 is a very practical car, especially compared to rivals in the compact SUV market such as the Range Rover Evoque. It’s longer and taller, with much more interior space as a result of its dimensions. It’s a great choice for caravan owners, too. Not only do all models feature xDrive four-wheel drive, but higher-powered versions offer a towing capacity of up to 2,400kg.
It’s very similar in physical size to the Audi Q5 and Porsche Macan, with all models falling into a weight bracket of between 1,805kg and 1,935kg. That’s not exactly light, but by modern SUV standards, it’s acceptable – and it’s what leads to the X3’s considerable handling prowess on the road. Thanks to the all-round Park Distance Control system that comes fitted as standard on all models, parking shouldn’t be a major issue for any driver.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
In the rear, three adults will fit in relative comfort, although a tall transmission tunnel means you wouldn’t want to stay in the middle seat for too long. The car has grown since the original X3, and that means there’s more legroom for all occupants, while the glasshouse design ensures plenty of light floods the cabin to prevent it from feeling too gloomy within.
Practicality is a strong point, with 550 litres of boot space available – that’s more than either the Porsche Macan or Audi Q5 can manage. Fold the rear seats flat and luggage capacity increases to 1,600 litres. However, the X3 can’t match the Land Rover Discovery Sport for maximum load space – the British SUV has a 98-litre advantage, with a 1,698-litre capacity when its seats are dropped. It also has an edge over the BMW with its versatile seven-seater layout.
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Nevertheless, a useful 40:20:40 split rear seat arrangement is offered as an option on the X3, meaning awkward items can be carried with relative ease.
Reliability and Safety
BMW has forged a strong reputation for building robust and reliable cars, so it’s no surprise the pre-facelift X3 finished an excellent 12th overall in the Auto Express Driver Power 2014 satisfaction survey.
However, this facelifted model went even better in the 2015 edition of the survey, as it came home 24th out of a much bigger field of 200 cars with a 90.86 per cent overall rating. That made it the second best performing BMW on the list, sitting only five places below the 4 Series.
According to owners, the only areas where the X3 could improve were ride comfort (73rd) and in-car technology (85th) – hardly disastrous results. Meanwhile, 18th place for ease of driving, 23rd for performance and 36th for handling tell their own story of how good the car is.
Although the latest model has benefited from some visual and mechanical tweaks, the overall design is fundamentally unchanged, so you can expect a trouble-free ownership experience – the car was ranked an impressive 38th for reliability in Driver Power 2015. However, if you do encounter any issues, it’s worth remembering that BMW’s franchised network has been cited as quite poor compared to rivals in our Driver Power dealer surveys over the years. In 2015, it finished 23rd out of 31.
There will be few complaints about the X3’s safety credentials, with Euro NCAP awarding the SUV five stars in 2011. As you’d expect, BMW equips the car with plenty of airbags as standard, as well as stability control and tyre pressure monitoring, while options include a £550 surround-view camera, £250 speed limit warning and an £895 head-up display. Adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist and blind-spot monitoring are part of the £1,400 Driving Assistant Plus pack.
The X3 is supplied with a three-year, unlimited-mileage warranty as standard, and towards the end of the term, owners will be offered a BMW Insured Warranty (for a model-specific fee) to extend cover on an annual basis.
There are no fixed service intervals on the X3 as it features Condition-Based Servicing, so the car will tell you when it needs some attention from a dealer. And while replacement parts come at the high price you expect from a premium manufacturer, BMW offers some competitive pre-paid servicing packages to take the sting out of ownership costs.
These comprise Service Inclusive (£475), which covers servicing costs for five years and 50,000 miles, or Service Inclusive Plus (£1,470), which also incorporates maintenance costs for the same period of time – items such as brake pads, brake discs and windscreen wipers are included. Given the prices of genuine BMW brake discs alone, this package is well worth specifying.