Car reviews - BMW - X3 - xDrive30d
Brilliant engine and transmission package, excellent tech, dynamically satisfying, big boot and good up-front storage
Room for improvement
Uncomfortable front seats, cramped rear accommodation, poor suspension and engine behaviour in Comfort mode, air-con not quite a match for Aussie summer
BMW has stepped up its X3 game to better compete with rivals, just not quite enough
26 Jul 2018
BMW’S third-generation X3, designated G01, felt like a long time coming even though the second-generation F25 had served a typical seven-year product cycle following its unveiling at the 2010 Paris motor show.
This was perhaps because BMW SUVs never felt quite like proper BMWs until you reached the X5. Still, probably by virtue of Australians ditching their sedans and wagons in favour of high-riders, the X3 has become the brand’s most popular model.
Until the performance-oriented, six-cylinder petrol X3 M40i arrived in July, the 30d tested here served as range-topper. As with most BMWs, you are paying for a breathtakingly good drivetrain at this level – and some impressive tech.
But in areas that truly matter more to most Australian buyers, the new X3 is not objectively superior to its best rivals.
Price and equipment
The X3 range starts at $69,900 plus on-road costs for an xDrive20d, while the 30i strikes the middle ground at a fraction over $74,100 plus on-roads, and the 30d tested here commands top spot at $82,737 plus on-roads.
Equipment levels are appropriate for this substantially priced luxury SUV. As standard, the xDrive30d includes adaptive LED lights, keyless entry, a head-up display, DAB+ digital radio reception, a powered tailgate, BMW’s Professional navigation system, and a digital multi-functional instrument panel.
Keeping things in check are a host of driver aids, including Driving Assistant Plus that serves up partially autonomous driving with adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assistance and collision warning systems. Reinstating a bit of driver engagement is the variable sport steering, which can be tailored – along with other key inputs and responses – through BMW’s performance control menu.
The example we tested was fitted with a range of upgrades that ramped the price up to $94,850 plus on-roads. The bulk of this additional cost was made up by the $3800 M Sport cosmetic upgrade package – including Shadow Line trim, Vernasca leather and 20-inch alloys – plus the panoramic electric sunroof ($3000) and 16-speaker Harman/Kardon premium surround-sound system ($2000).
Our test vehicle also featured a few other interior upgrades, including lumbar support for front occupants ($700), ambient interior lighting ($450), a luggage compartment separating net ($400) and a BMW display key ($450). Run-flat tyres are also standard.
Cost-free colour options are limited to non-metallic white (as tested) or black, and there’s a restrained selection of subtle metallics available at a premium of $1950. Otherwise, on the options front, there are plenty more that can be added – ranging from a heated steering wheel through to gesture control.
Resplendent in Alpine White with its chunky M Sport styling pack and fetching 20-inch alloys, there’s no doubt our test X3 had visual presence.
Pulling open the door, there was further visual appeal courtesy of the blue upholstery stitching, carpet edging and other cabin providing a contrast and complimenting the ambient lighting to gently brighten the otherwise purposefully black cabin.
The main ingredients to this initial wow factor were, of course, optional but once settled in for a closer look it was clear this latest X3 cabin represented a substantial step up over its comparatively austere and cheap-feeling predecessor.
Unfortunately the beauty was only skin deep as during our week with the X3 we never found a comfortable setting for the front seats.
The backrest seems to curve away from the upper back, denying the shoulders any support. The optional lumbar support on our car was impossible to get right and the same was true of the backrest angle. Use of the memory function is essential as it takes an age to restore an acceptable position after swapping drivers.
It’s a shame as BMW was famed for the excellent driving position of its cars – but the X3 fails big time. Even the extendable thigh supports we usually look forward to every time we drive a BMW felt wrong in this vehicle.
More positively, much of the excellent technology from the 5 Series has made its way into the X3, including the intuitive and feature-packed iDrive 6 multimedia system with epic 360-degree camera function for eliminating any doubt when parking and clear, versatile hybrid digital/analogue instrument panel.
We were also impressed by how quiet the X3 was on the move, with only the coarsest of coarse-chip surfaces causing a rumble to echo around the voluminous wagon cabin and an engine note that was never obtrusive and actually quite enjoyable.
Our car also had the rocking 16-speaker premium audio system, with its 600W ample for drowning out any unpleasant noises from outside or inside the vehicle. Even better, when listening to audiobooks or podcasts, reproduction was so vivid that it felt as though the speakers were in the car with us.
The big, easily accessible boot with shopping bag hooks, useful elasticated securing straps and netted-off compartment and and neat sliding tie-down points that also add a touch of class to the luggage area with their shiny metallic construction. The false floor even has a little gas strut to hold it up while you load and unload it.
And then we move to the rear seat, which is pretty cramped considering how big the new X3 looks – and feels to drive.
The rear doors do not open all that wide, legroom is poor and taller occupants feel further crunched up due to the oddly low position of the bench relative to the floor, forcing their knees upwards.
A lack of room back there also compromises front occupant space if a bulky rear-facing infant capsule is installed – in any case it’s a problem getting a child in and out of one due to the shallow angle of the door opening.
On the upside, easy-to-use Isofix anchorage points and well-located top tether points make installing child restraints easy, but the X3 is really better suited to kids who are old enough for forward-facing or booster seats. You’ll have to trade up once they start getting adult-sized though.
Storage is OK, with big front door bins shaped to secure bottles and a good amount of space beneath the central armrest compensating for a small glovebox. The two cup-holders in the centre console are well-sized and designed and there is also a lidded tray with wireless smartphone charging for compatible devices plus connectivity sockets.
In the back are two more cupholders in the central fold-down armrest, rather thin door bins that can thankfully still hold bottles and map pockets that are of the flimsy net type that cannot conceal items such as iPads.
Also, considering it is made in sticky subtropical South Carolina, it was somewhat surprising that the X3’s air-con struggled to cope with humid Queensland summer heat. The black, heat-absorbing cabin materials didn’t help either, and we wondered how bad it would have been if the paintwork had been similarly dark. We ended up driving everywhere with the climate set several degrees lower than we would in most cars.
Engine and transmission
You’re really buying into this 30d variant for the brawny straight-six turbo-diesel that produces 195kW of power at 4000rpm and 620Nm of torque from 2000-2500rpm. To put things in perspective, the turbocharged four-cylinder 30i puts out 185kW – not far off – but a comparatively weedy peak torque figure of 350Nm.
As a result it’s substantially quicker than the petrol variant – despite a weight disadvantage – serving up a 0-100km/h time of just 5.8 seconds compared with 6.3s for the 30i. Burning diesel rather than petrol also more than compensates for the two extra cylinders and a litre of displacement by being far more economical, with a claimed consumption of 6.0 litres per 100 kilometres as opposed to 7.6L/100km for the petrol.
On test we got 8.2L/100km while a GoAuto colleague got 11.5L/100km in the 30i, a much larger real-world gap. Then again, we couldn’t even match the official combined figure on a motorway run – where we recorded 6.4L/100km.
The deep, gruff sound of the engine perfectly fits with its assertive character. It’s a hell of a thing, with frankly excessive thrust available at any legal speed.
Even better is the transmission calibration. It’s almost telepathic in that it is always in the right ratio at the right time, which coupled with the brilliantly flexible and torquey engine makes driving the X3 30d almost as seamless as an electric car.
So good is the X3 transmission that there’s arguably greater enjoyment in marvelling at how well it does its own thing on a twisty road than taking control manually using the paddle-shifters.
We also celebrated the X3’s Individual drive mode setting for enabling us to separately configure the engine and transmission characteristics.
The engine has to be in Sport mode because it’s just too frustratingly ponderous in Comfort for point-and-squirt progress in traffic, especially from standing start. Thankfully the transmission can remain in Comfort to prevent it holding annoyingly long onto each gear ratio.
It remains a mystery why BMW left it to customers to set the car up how it should have been from the factory, the most likely reason being the need to get its impressive official fuel consumption and CO2 emissions figures over the line.
Ride and handling
The X3 is not a car that shrinks around the driver. It always feels hefty and large, despite being one of the lightest in its segment.
As with the engine calibration, we drove the X3 everywhere with the suspension in Sport mode as there was something of an unhappy marriage between the big 20-inch wheels on run-flat tyres, soft damping and firm springs that meant our X3 never really felt settled during urban and suburban driving in Comfort.
Sport mode fixed this without making the ride unbearably hard. Meanwhile, Sport mode steering is only useful around town if yesterday was leg day at the gym, and for some reason you can’t make it back there today.
But in the right environment it delivers so much confidence when cornering, even on slower, tighter bends. There is plenty of communication on offer, further enhancing engagement and enjoyment. Great forward visibility quite literally completes the picture.
The steering ratio is almost hot hatch like, but not darty or nervous feeling. As such, the X3 can be a pleasure to swing through suburban roundabouts as much as it rewards on a back-road blast.
In the latter environment the X3’s impressive grip and traction levels make the most of the confidence on offer and elevate the X3 above most rivals in terms of rewards for the keen driver.
Out here, though, Comfort mode gets even worse and there’s more than enough compliance to smooth all but the most rippled roads and shrug off mid-corner bumps that throw lesser cars off line.
Borderline feral Sport+ mode was a bit too much even while fanging it, with Sport mode working best. When taking the same roads at a more sedate pace, restoring our cocktail of Individual settings was just as good on country lanes as it was in town.
Braking performance is brilliant, too, with a perfectly weighted and predictable pedal action that is a joy to use at any speed.
On gravel the X3’s communicative nature, sense of balance and general responsiveness were brilliant for keeping things predictable but Comfort mode was preferable for the throttle as Sport’s heightened responses made measured inputs on rough ground that bit more tricky. But Sport remained the suspension setting of choice here as the X3 felt more planted and settled.
We really shouldn’t be surprised when a BMW SUV handles well. It’s just plain odd that it rides best in Sport mode.
Safety and servicing
The BMW X3 attained a maximum five-star rating in ANCAP tests, performed in November 2017, scoring 35.4 out of 38 for adult protection and 41.2 out of 49 for child protection. It fared particularly well in side and pole impact tests.
Like all BMWs, the X3 xDrive30d comes with more crash-prevention aids than you can shake a stick at, as well as a comprehensive list of other safety kit – including front cross-traffic warning, steering and lane assistance, side collision warning, a surround-view camera and adaptive auto-dimming LED headlights.
Keeping an X3 ticking along won’t break the bank either, as BMW offers a set of all-inclusive service packages for the X3. The basic deal, which covers the annual servicing requirements for five years or 80,000km, costs $1495 and covers fluids, filters, plugs and general checks.
As is the case with other BMWs, the standard unlimited-kilometre warranty covers the X3 for three years and includes roadside assistance.
The previous two generations of X3 were the mid-size SUV you bought because you really wanted one with a BMW badge, for they had few redeeming features other than inferred prestige.
OK we’re being harsh but the new one is happily much better.
Its best points are the powerhouse of a diesel engine and its pairing with an almost miraculously well-tuned eight-speed ZF automatic transmission, followed by dynamic qualities that live up to BMW’s brand promise – provided you follow our advice in terms of customising the various drive mode settings.
We were disappointed by the rear accommodation and front seats we just couldn’t get comfy in, although we’re sure your BMW dealer can guide you through the options list to find some some plusher pews.
BMW has had some time to get its act together with this latest-generation X3 and done a convincing job of it, but we don’t feel it has quite beaten the excellent all-rounder that is the Mercedes GLC or surpassed the classily accomplished Volvo XC60.
Volvo XC60 D5 R-Design AWD automatic from $73,990 plus on-road costs
The recently revamped XC60 is a cosseting and classily styled choice, albeit one that’s nowhere near as gratifying as the BMW to drive. Additionally, any car that makes you stab the touchscreen to change the climate settings loses points in our book.
Audi Q5 2.0 TDI quattro S tronic Sport from $70,700
This is a popular choice thanks to its decent AWD system and low fuel consumption. It’s also pretty good to drive but a little cramped and lacking the outright punch of the BMW.
Mercedes GLC 350d from $86,583
The allure of a three-pointed star counts for a lot, as sales success of the GLC demonstrates. It’s not all badge, though; this handsome mid-sized SUV drives decently and is well equipped.
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