A few years ago, BMW was the benchmark for driver involvement. The M cars were the pinnacle, as you’d expect. But even its SUVs felt so alive in comparison with the competition. The steering feel, the front end grip, the way the cars cornered with ease – BMW’s X5 and its little brother, the X3, just wiped the floor with the others.
Fast forward to 2018 and things have changed. The 2018 BMW X3 is still an amazing machine, with space, power and quality aplenty, but driving involvement? Let’s just say that BMW has been left behind in that department.
Let’s start with the good. The X3 is bigger in every dimension, including the price. And while the list price seems reasonable for the amount of improvements the X3 has made over the previous model, add in a few options and the price quickly escalates.
The starting price is $43,645, which is around $3000 more than the previous model, and it’s definitely well stocked, but when you add in a few niceties, you can watch the dollars add up in a staggeringly quick fashion.
Our test car had an electric panorama glass sunroof, Driving Assistant Plus, metallic paintwork, Fineline Cove wood trim with Pearl Chrome highlights, Leather ‘Vernasca’ Mocha seats with decorative stitching, and even then you’re only part of the way there.
It also had the Innovations Package which includes Comfort access system, Parking Assistant Plus, Adaptive LED headlights, and Multifunctional instrument display, LED fog lights, Dynamic Damper Control, luggage-compartment separating net and finally 20-inch light alloy wheels in two colors and you come to a grand total of almost $18K more than the original price before on-road costs. Ouch.
The model we tested here is one that’s more popular in Europe and some Australasian countries, being the xDrive20d. As the name suggests, it’s all-wheel drive (there’s a rear-wheel drive variant coming very soon), but under the bonnet is a 2.0-litre turbocharged diesel.
While an engine that small could seem a little underdone, BMW is an expert at creating lively, low-capacity motors. Clearly, diesel engines aren’t in favor, so this one could be one of the last we’ll see for a while. But with how refined this motor is, we’d like to see it keep going for a little while longer.
Oil-burners are usually a bit clattery when idling, but this engine is the gold standard when it comes to smoothness. Producing 187 hp and 295 lb-ft, the turbodiesel is able to get it from 0-62mph in just eight seconds.
Helping match the engine’s smoothness is the lovely eight-speed automatic which also comes with paddle shifters if you want to take manual control. However, we’d wager that most drivers will just leave it in Drive and let the car sort out shifting. Considering how good this gearbox is at reading driving situations, this is definitely the best option.
Even in stop-start conditions, the automatic engine shut-off and restart doesn’t interfere with the gearbox’s ability to get the vehicle going. Thank the quick spinning starter motor for that. In fact, this fuel saving device is usually annoying, but in the X3, we didn’t once consider switching it off.
Power runs to all four wheels (hence the “x” in xDrive) but the X3’s drivetrain has a rear-biased set up that allows the X3 to be quite playful when you want it to be. Traversing very slippery surfaces such as gravel, snow or even sand, is easy, and the all-wheel-drive system works a treat in keeping the X3 moving along quite well. That said, it’s not quite as happy on the beach as say a Land Rover Discovery Sport, thanks to a bit less ground clearance and slightly longer overhangs.
As you will have noticed from the options above, our test SUV had an optional adaptive suspension system, which will firm up the suspension for when you want to tackle some twisty tarmac. That’s great for handling, especially with these gorgeous 20-inch wheels, and it’s as easy as simply pressing the drive selection button and dialling up the “Sport” mode.
Choose the Comfort setting and the X3 can only soften up the dampers, with these tyres and their tiny side walls still relaying the inherent firm ride through the car. It means that although these wheels and tyres look good and imbue excellent handling, if you want a more comfortable ride, you’ll need to go with some smaller wheels.
So, dynamically, the X3 is extremely accomplished and regardless of which damper setting you choose, it’s still comfortable enough for everyday driving. So here’s where the issue we spoke about earlier highlights itself.
The previous BMW X3 had a hydraulic steering pump, which gave it class-leading weighting and feedback, especially as you wound on steering lock. However, the new model’s electric steering has created a situation where the X3 feels numb, plus the weighting is too light, creating a very disconnected sensation.
This is a real shame because for years BMW was the company that had the best steering feel in the business. We know why BMW has done it – electric steering is far better for fuel economy as it puts less strain on the engine than a hydraulic pump, and thus the engine burns less fuel – but when this aspect is a core brand value, it means that there’s less incentive to opt for an X3 instead of, say, an Audi Q5 or Mercedes-Benz GLC.
Where the X3 does make itself more appealing is inside. The new model’s interior space is huge for this class and like the excellent Volvo XC60, the X3’s back seat has a heap of legroom and headroom.
This X3 is actually larger and roomier than the first generation X5, if you can believe it. The build quality is excellent, too, with some high class materials (the stitching on the dashtop looks great) and the new iDrive system works as intuitively as you’d expect. That said, if you’re coming from the previous iDrive setup, some of the menu items have been shifted around and some consolidated.
The trunk is accessed by a using powered tailgate, and there’s 40:20:40 rear seat split-folding, which can expand boot space from 550 litres to a massive 1600-plus litre space (19.4 cu. ft to 56.5 cu. ft).
And the list of conveniences is as long as your arm: Bluetooth telephony and streaming, a head-up display (HUD), digital radio with an excellent sound system, wireless phone charging, emergency call button, Connected Drive (which has an app so you can find your car anywhere in te world), parking assist and all the latest safety gear. Yes, the 2018 X3 is comprehensively stocked.
And that’s why we think that the BMW X3 is a good package when simply left as is. If you don’t care about steering feel (and let’s be honest here, most SUV buyers don’t), then when left without optional extras, the X3 is a decent thing.
The pricing is quite good in base form, it’s spacious, comfortable, well-built and looks great. In fact, given the X3’s size, you have to wonder who would need an X5 or even an X7 for that matter. It’s able to be easily driven and will fit most families while still keeping the tradition of German design and technology.