BMW X3 review
The BMW X3 is a hugely capable 4x4 - whether on-road or off it - with powerful, efficient engines and lots of space
The original BMW X3 didn’t make much of an impression on the small SUV market, because it suffered from below-average build quality, an awkward design and questionable off-road ability. However, this latest model – launched in 2011, and updated in early 2014 – is one of the best cars in class, rivalling the likes of the Range Rover Evoque, Audi Q5 and Land Rover Freelander. The X3 features smart exterior styling that takes cues from the bigger BMW X5, while there’s a choice of refined four-cylinder and six-cylinder diesel engines with a range of power outputs. Drivers wanting strong petrol performance will be disappointed, as diesels are the only option in the X3, but the 3.0-litre six-cylinder models should be fast enough for most. Every BMW X3 gets stop-start technology as part of the EfficientDynamics package of efficiency tweaks, but buyers prioritising low running costs should choose one of the entry-level four-cylinder versions. These are available with rear-wheel drive, in the sDrive 18d, and the weight saving over the four-wheel-drive cars brings significant benefits in terms of fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, and in turn lower road tax bills. Yet no matter which X3 you go for, you’ll be getting a car that’s great to drive on or off road, as well as very spacious, with a comfortable ride. And the X3 manages to be desirable without the overt glitz of the similarly priced Range Rover Evoque.
Our choice: X3 xDrive 20d SE
On the outside, the BMW X3 provides the chunky, rugged and utilitarian look buyers expect from a small premium SUV. It has similar dimensions to the likes of the Range Rover Evoque and Audi Q5, but hides them well, and features like roof rails, wide wheelarches and black plastic body cladding all hint at its off-road potential. Yet traditional BMW styling cues remain, like the trademark kidney grille that dominates the front end. For its mid-life facelift, BMW added new twin circular headlights, reshaped bumpers and LED indicators in the wing mirrors. Even entry-level SE versions of the X3 come with sat-nav, heated seats and an auto tailgate as standard, while pumped-up M Sport models get bigger wheels, as well as lower and wider bumpers, a silver grille finish and stiffened suspension. A new xLine trim level distinguished itself with metal inserts in the bumpers, aluminium side cladding and bars across the air intakes. Every X3 features a simple but attractive interior, with generous equipment as standard - the facelift added new cup holders and a classy piano black finish to the centre console. Goodies like leather seats, cruise control and automatic headlights are all included in the price, while a smart 6.5-inch central colour screen provides easy access to various settings via the trademark BMW iDrive infotainment system.
The X3 handles brilliantly, and corners with the kind of agility and poise that would embarrass most saloons, let alone tall off-roaders. High-spec models get BMW’s xDrive four-wheel-drive system as standard, for maximum grip and traction on and off-road, while the sDrive 18d model comes with rear-wheel drive, and still impress with their driving fun. Buyers have a choice of two diesel engines with different power outputs. The X3 sDrive 18d has a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine that sends 148bhp to the rear wheels – and it’s perfect for buyers who want the high seating position of a 4x4, but demand low running costs and don’t mind limited off-road ability. This diesel is also available in a four-wheel-drive X3, the xDrive 20d, where it delivers a respectable 188bhp and 400Nm of torque. Both 2.0-litre models are offered with manual or eight-speed automatic gearboxes, and are the very latest version of BMW's 2.0-litre diesel engine so refinement, even under hard acceleration, has improved significantly compared to the pre-facelift model. For the ultimate in performance and refinement, go for one of the 3.0-litre six-cylinder models. There’s a choice of 258bhp xDrive 30d and 313bhp xDrive 35d versions, both fitted as standard with the superb eight-speed automatic box, and the latter covers 0-62mph in just 5.8 seconds.
The latest BMW X3 is even more solidly built than the original, with fit and finish on par with premium rival Audi. There’s also a host of electronic safety kit, including hill start assist, hill descent control for navigating steeper gradients, traction control and dynamic brake assist. Active headrests, crash sensors and a full complement of airbags also played their part in helping the X3 achieve the maximum five-star rating in Euro NCAP in crash tests. All the major mechanicals have been tried and tested in other models in the BMW range, and their reliability has been proven in the Auto Express Driver Power satisfaction survey. Owners ranked the latest X3 an impressive 13th in the Driver Power 2013 Top 100, which suggests potential buyers aren’t likely to encounter many problems.
The X3 is longer and taller and than the Range Rover Evoque, with a longer wheelbase, and its interior is much more spacious as a result. There’s enough head and legroom in the rear to sit three adults in relative comfort, although a tall transmission tunnel means you wouldn’t want to stay in the middle seat for long. With the rear seats in place, boot size stands at 550 litres, although when they’re folded down, the maximum 1,600-litre capacity isn’t quite as large as in rivals like the Land Rover Freelander. Still, a handy optional 40:20:40 split seat arrangement means you can carry awkward items like bikes with relative ease. The X3 is also a superb choice for caravan owners, with higher-powered four-wheel-drive models offering a towing capacity of up to 2,400kg.
Clever fuel-saving technology on the BMW X3 includes stop-start and brake regeneration, so even the high-powered six-cylinder models are surprisingly efficient. The top-spec 313bhp 3.0-litre xDrive promises fuel consumption of only 46.3mpg and emits just 162g/km of CO2, so annual road tax bills won’t be too high. Owners will pay the price elsewhere, though – this model sits in insurance group 40. That compares to group 23 for a rear-wheel-drive X3 sDrive 18d, which delivers 60.1mpg and 124g/km if you specify an automatic gearbox. The X3 xDrive 20d (expected to account for around 80 per cent of UK sales) returns 54.3mpg and 138g/km when pared with an auto 'box -6.4mpg and 16g/km better than the 175bhp Audi Q5 2.0 TDI quattro SE. Service intervals are variable across the range, 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.