Car reviews - BMW - X3 - sDrive20i
Comfortable standard ride, competent handling, smooth-shifting automatic transmission, premium interior execution
Room for improvement
Vague steering feel, lethargic engine performance, more active safety features should be standard, expensive options
BMW’s new-generation X3 impresses as a daily runabout in entry-level sDrive20i form
24 Apr 2019
BMW kicked off the premium-SUV craze when it launched the first-generation X5 in 1999. The large-size crossover prompted its Mercedes-Benz and Audi rivals, among others, to join the action, creating a new segment that would forever change their model-by-model sales splits.
However, we’re now living in 2018 and the mid-sized X3 is now more fashionable than its X5 big brother. Needless to say, when the Bavarian brand launched the third-generation X3 in November 2017, it was kind of a big deal – and so it should have been. It is BMW’s current best-seller.
To increase the latest X3’s appeal, an entry-level sDrive20i variant joined the range four months later. Unlike other variants in the line-up, it employs a rear-wheel-drive system in a nod to its soft-roader origins. That being said, is the sDrive20i any good? Read on to find out.
Price and equipment
Priced from $66,529 before on-road costs, the sDrive20i represents the entry point into the third-generation X3 range. Our test car is optioned with Glacier Silver metallic paintwork ($1950), black Vernasca leather upholstery with contrast stitching ($2500) and a panoramic sunroof ($3000). Its upgrade to a 10.25-inch touchscreen infotainment system is a no-cost option. As such, the price as tested is $73,979.
Standard equipment includes Ferric Grey 19-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 245/50 run-flat tyres, dusk-sensing LED headlights, LED daytime running lights (DRLs) and tail-lights, cornering lights, power-folding and -adjustable side mirrors with heating functionality, rain-sensing windshield wipers, matte-aluminium exterior trim, roof rails and a power-operated tailgate.
Inside, a windshield-projected colour head-up display, keyless start, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, three-zone climate control, power-adjustable front sports seats with driver-side memory functionality, a leather sports steering wheel, a USB port, two 12V power outlets, satellite navigation with live traffic, voice control, digital radio, a 100W six-speaker sound system and Bluetooth connectivity feature.
When you’ve got premium ambitions, your execution has to be at a certain level to succeed. Thankfully, the sDrive20i has no problem rising to the occasion. From the moment you take your seat, it’s apparent that it means business. Soft-touch plastic adorn the cockpit’s upper surface areas, although the dashboard does look a little shiny for our liking.
Elsewhere, our test car’s black Vernasca leather upholstery is found, adding a sense of genuine plushness. However, the hard plastics on the lower door trims go some way in cheapening the otherwise flawless interior, which is punctuated by high-gloss black highlights and Pearl Chrome finishers.
However, the sDrive20i partial digital instrument cluster is badly executed due to its half-baked attempt to incorporate a traditional speedometer and rev-counter. Why BMW insisted on rolling out the base X3 without the full 12.3-inch unit that its higher-specification siblings employ is unknown. After all, it’s literally sitting behind the chopped-up attempt at tachometer. Naturally, a $2500 spend is required to get the optional Innovations package that includes the real deal.
Conversely, the windshield-projected colour head-up display is a knock-out success, thanks to its large size and unrivalled clarity. Similarly, the aforementioned 10.25-inch touchscreen is powered by BMW’s excellent iDrive6 infotainment system, delivering ease of use and sharp graphics. While the sDrive20i comes with a 6.5-inch unit as standard, it can be upgraded to the larger display for no cost. Why? We still have no idea.
Measuring in at 4708mm long, 1891mm wide and 1676mm tall with a 2864mm wheelbase, the sDrive20i offers 550L of cargo capacity, but this can expand to 1600L when its 40/20/40 split-fold second row is stowed. The boot is well-designed, with its flat floor and square aperture allowing bulkier items to be loaded easily. Rear occupants won’t be disappointed either, with generous amounts of legroom and headroom on offer, although shoulder-room can be a little tight when sitting three adults abreast.
Engine and transmission
The sDrive20i is motivated by a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine that produces 135kW of power at 5000rpm and 290Nm of torque from 1350 to 4600rpm, while its eight-speed ZF torque-convertor automatic transmission exclusively sends drive to the rear wheels.
As a result, the 1621kg sDrive20i can sprint from standstill to 100km/h in 8.2 seconds. How does it perform in reality? Err, okay. If you bury your right foot, it labours on the way to maximum power, which is but a fleeting moment. This unit’s wide spread of maximum torque is instead where it’s at.
A meaty wad of Sir Isaac’s best kicks in early and sticks around for a while. This means the sDrive20i is more than happy to putt around town. When driven at the leisurely pace, it is more than up to the task. Just don’t head for an open country road and expect much, especially if it’s full of cargo and occupants.
Three driving modes – Eco Pro, Comfort and Sport – allow the driver to alter engine mapping and automatic transmission shift patterns while on the move. Eco Pro, as its name suggests, is for the environmentalists … best to give it a miss, then. It’s no fun, absolutely killing throttle response. Comfort, however, is the most logical choice for everyday driving, while Sport adds the slightest of edges, so much so that it almost goes unnoticed.
If you’re after more performance, though, then flick the automatic transmission across to its own, separate Sport mode, which is much more aggressive. Ratios are appreciably held onto longer and higher in the rev range, but it’s still able to settle down while cruising. In any mode the ZF unit is predictably wonderful, seamlessly swapping gears and doing exactly what it needs to when it needs to.
While claimed fuel consumption on the combined cycle test is 7.4 litres per 100 kilometres, we have averaged 10.1L/100km over 300km of driving, which has been skewed towards city stints over highway runs. Even so, BMW claims 8.8L/100km on the urban cycle, so the sDrive20i’s efficiency comes into question when considering how sedately we have driven it and the well-integrated idle-stop system’s efforts. Carbon dioxide emissions have been tested at 169 grams per kilometre.
Ride and handling
The sDrive20i’s suspension set-up consists of a double-joint spring strut up front and a five-link set-up at the rear, while its speed-sensitive power steering is electric with a variable ratio. Despite missing Dynamic Damping Control – a $1462 option – standard ride comfort is surprisingly very compliant.
Specifically, it benefits from lacking the overly-firm adaptive M Sport system that most X3s are optioned with. As a result, potholes and speed humps do little to disturb this quality, with recovery proving to be quick, while higher-quality roads feel like a dream to drive on.
See, BMW has built itself a reputation on building vehicles that prioritise handling over ride comfort. While this might seem unusual for a premium car-maker, the Bavarian brand prides itself on offering ‘the ultimate driving machine’.
That being said, we’re not suggesting the comfortable sDrive20i doesn’t handle, because it puts in a class-leading effort, partly thanks to its rear-wheel-drive dynamics and reduced kerb weight. Throw it into a bend and bodyroll is kept to a minimum, with it noticeably feeling lighter on its feet than its all-wheel-drive counterparts. The lack of stereotypical oversteer and traction issues is sure to please, too, given its positioning towards family buyers.
We do feel, however, that BMW has taken a step back with the X3’s power steering. Its feel is awfully vague, offering the driver no reliable indication of what the wheels and tyres are up to. Despite this, the sDrive 20i is a point-and-shoot weapon of sorts, thanks to its directness. As such, the tough transition to electric set-ups continues to haunt most manufacturers.
Furthermore, it is also an uncharacteristically light effort from the marque, which typically runs heavier tunes – something we prefer. Even engaging the aforementioned Sport driving mode does little to improve matters, only adding a little more heft. Perhaps the entry-level X3 is softer than before to appeal to less-enthusiastic drivers. Not your typical BMW, then.
Safety and servicing
The Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) awarded the X3 xDrive20d and xDrive30d range a five-star safety rating in November 2017. When this assessment was made, the sDrive20i had not been released yet. The two assessed variants scored 93, 94 and 70 per cent in the adult, child and pedestrian protecting categories respectively. Safety assist testing returned a score of 58 per cent.
Standard advanced driver-assist systems in the sDrive20i extend to forward collision warning, low-speed autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, park assist, a reversing camera, front and rear parking sensors, speed limit recognition, cruise control, a manual speed limiter and hill-descent control.
Nonetheless, adaptive cruise control with stop and go functionality, lane-keep assist, steering assist and front cross-traffic alert remain on the options list as part of the $2154 Driving Assistance Plus package that, frankly, should feature at this price point.
Other safety equipment includes six airbags (dual front, side and curtain), anti-skid brakes (ABS), and the usual electronic stability and traction control systems.
As with all BMW models, the X3 comes with a three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty that includes three years of roadside assistance. Service intervals are every 12 months or 15,000km, whichever comes first. Capped-price servicing is available, with a basic package covering five years/80,000km costing $1495.
During our week with the sDrive20i, it’s become apparent that it is most things to most people. It’s no performance vehicle, but it does has enough get up and go to attack urban environments without being overwhelmed. The brilliance of its automatic transmission is clearly at work here.
To make matters better, the sDrive20i’s suspension is uncharacteristically comfortable for a BMW. However, the company’s long list of expensive options rears its ugly head yet again. What you do get, however, is impressive … if you ignore the obvious active safety omissions.
While the steering’s vague feel doesn’t lend itself to dynamism, the sDrive20i is a very competent handler – a trait that enthusiastic drivers will enjoy when pushing it hard. However, we feel every driver will love its well-designed, premium cabin. Not bad for a price-leader, hey?
Lexus NX300h Luxury 2WD (from $57,300 before on-road costs)
A petrol-electric alternative to the sDrive20i, the NX300h excels with its supple ride and well-balanced steering, but the powertrain lacks get up and go and the cockpit design is a bit busy.
Mercedes-Benz GLC200 Wagon (from $61,990 before on-road costs)
Derived from the best-selling model in its class, the GLC200 features a sporty chassis with a strong engine and transmission but is let down by its fussy suspension set-up on rough roads.
Alfa Romeo Stelvio Petrol (from $65,900 before on-road costs)
As the new kid on the block, the Stelvio has already made a strong impression with its sporty handling and gorgeous looks, but its annoying idle-stop system and harsh ride raise questions.
Model release date: 1 December 2017
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