The latest BMW X3 offers British buyers a seriously strong compact SUV. But will that translate into orders? Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
The second generation BMW X3 compact luxury SUV has been given a mid-life facelift, during which point the Germans have tweaked the engines for more power and efficiency, slotted in another trim level and loaded more standard gear into what was already a class act. Forget what you knew about the old X3. This one deserves your undivided attention.
Buyer behaviour is a curious thing to study. The perception of a product often lags some way behind the reality. Car manufacturers can launch a mediocre product and it's sometimes the much improved successor that bears the brunt as customers are turned off. BMW's X3 is a car that has never really recovered from a shaky start. When it was first launched in first generation form in 2004, it warranted its reputation as capable but built down to a price. Next to the larger bulletproof X5, the X3 felt reedy and half-baked, with no diesel engine even offered to begin with.
Come 2010, the second generation X3 arrived and the model finally came good. Despite that, it never made the sales it deserved. By then, the damage seemed to have been done. The X3 was an also-ran in the eyes of many customers. BMW has steadily improved the car since then, with more efficient engines and a raft of well-judged upgrades. It's now been facelifted and now offers better value than ever but will the penny finally drop with UK buyers?
You might think that sandwiched between the X1 and the X5, the X3 wouldn't have to spread its talents too broadly, but such is the span of rivals of this size that the X3 needs to cater for quite different customer expectations in the compact luxury SUV segment. To that end, the all-diesel range opens with a front-wheel drive model, the 150PS sDrive18d. Need drive going to each corner? Then try the xDrive20d model with an uprated 190PS version of BMW's 2.0-litre diesel installed. With 380Nm of torque on tap, you'll get to 62mph in 8.1s. Above this, there are a couple of six-cylinder engines. The xDrive30d makes a healthy 258PS and takes just 5.9 seconds to get to 62mph, while the xDrive35d is a real powerhouse, its 313PS demolishing the sprint in just 5.3 seconds. It also makes a monstrous 630Nm of torque and might be Britain's most underrated and overlooked performance car.
The four-cylinder X3 engine lines in the UK offer the choice of a six-speed manual that comes as standard or a lovely eight-speed automatic by ZF, with the auto fitted as standard to the six-cylinder cars. The independent suspension does a good job on our notoriously poor road surfaces and BMW's Drive Dynamic Control system is available as an option. The DDC set up that was previously seen on a number of BMW's other products allows drivers to switch between Normal, Sport and Sport+ modes to alter the set-up of the vehicle. Adaptive dampers adjust the ride and body control, throttle response and steering weight are altered, automatic gearshifts are varied in speed and the DSC stability control system is tweaked, all transforming the way the car drives.
Design and Build
Often these mid-life facelifts are real blink and you miss it stuff, a tweaked side repeater here, different grille elements there. Not this time. The X3 gets much the same frontal treatment as the larger X5, with the kidney grille monopolising the real estate between the redesigned headlight units. Push a bit more money into your dealer's hand and the headlights can be full LED units. Both the front and rear bumpers have gained shapelier contours, while the LED indicators are now housed in the exterior mirrors. Add four paint finishes and five alloy wheel designs and that's the lot on the outside.
The second generation X3 was always a class act inside, with only some of the less obvious plastics feeling a bit scratchy. This latest car improves the look and feel, as indeed it needs to up against quality like the Audi Q5 and the Porsche Macan. There are understated chrome fillets, as well as other quality finishes like piano black trim and wood panelling with pearl chrome highlights, plus functional improvements like cupholders beneath a sliding cover in the centre console. One thing that hasn't changed is that the X3 still offers a serious amount of interior space. Pop the hatch and there's 550-litres with the seats up and 1,600-litres with the seats folded.
Market and Model
Prices start at around £31,000, which puts entry-level X3 models around £300 over an equivalent Volvo XC60 but still around £400 less than an Audi Q5, which is pretty much where this vehicle needs to be. The eagle-eyed amongst you may well have noted that the price has crept up by around £2,000, which seems quite an ask for a more imposing front end treatment. Fortunately, there's a good deal more to this product revision than just the styling and engine tweaks. You now get heated seats, an automatic tailgate and BMW Business satellite navigation on every model. That's on top of leather upholstery, climate control, cruise control, a DAB radio, 17in alloy wheels, front and rear parking radars, automatic wipers, and automatic lights.
BMW offers the usual SE and M Sport models but has also inserted an X Line trim into the range. The new xLine models can be identified from the outside by metallic inserts in the bumpers, satin aluminium side cladding and bars in the air intakes, simulated underguards at the front and rear and 18-inch alloy wheels. Inside, there's xLine leather upholstery, dark copper trim and a sport leather steering wheel. Is that worth £1,500 over the price of an SE model? That's entirely your call.
Cost of Ownership
As you'd expect from a current BMW, emissions are low and fuel economy is excellent. To give you an idea of how far we've come, when the MK1 X3 was first launched in the UK in 2004, its 3.0-litre engine made 231PS and emitted 293g/km of carbon dioxide. The benefit of a decade's engineering is evident in the fact that today's 3.0-litre develops 313PS and emits just 157g/km. Today's xDrive35d will also get 47.1mpg from a gallon of fuel which is astounding. Go for the entry-level X3 sDrive18d and you'll see 56.5mpg and emit 130g/km.
The updated all-aluminium, 2.0-litre diesel engines use common-rail direct injection with solenoid valve injectors and work with increased injection pressure of 2,000bar. This drops the fuel consumption of the X3 xDrive20d, when partnered with the eight-speed automatic gearbox, by 7.1 per cent compared to the outgoing model. You can also add an optional 17-inch aero wheel with reduced-rolling-resistance tyres which trim CO2 emissions by a further 7g/km. In this configuration, the X3 xDrive20d can manage 56.5mpg with emissions of only 131g/km. Go for the sDrive18d in that guise and the numbers are 60.1mpg and 124g/km. That takes some beating.
Almost by stealth, the X3 has morphed into one of the best all-round products in BMW's portfolio. No rival manufacturer can get close to the way it delivers power and efficiency and the prices being asked for this latest model, despite creeping up quietly, are still more than reasonable. Drive an X3 after driving a similarly-priced Volvo XC60 and the BMW will feel like an iPhone 5 compared to Volvo's Motorola flip phone. They will not feel like the same thing. Not remotely.
BMW's difficulty is in communicating that to a British public who, once they're committed to spending £30,000 on a premium compact SUV, tend to start and finish their search with Range Rover Evoques. The X3 has been thoroughly rehabilitated and deserves a second chance. A vehicle this good ought to speak for itself, but since many of you are not listening, it needs all the advocates it can get. Don't take my word for it. Try it for yourself and make your own mind up. This one more than merits a fair crack.