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Driven: BMW X3 xDrive20d M Sport. Image by BMW.

Driven: BMW X3 xDrive20d M Sport
The very heartland of modern-day BMW, driven for a week. How does it fare?

 



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BMW X3 xDrive20d M Sport

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5

Good points: Does an awful lot of things to an incredibly high, polished standard

Not so good: It's not cheap, it's not massively memorable, the sublime Volvo XC60 exists

Key Facts

Model tested: BMW X3 xDrive20d M Sport
Price: X3 starts from 39,120; xDrive20d M Sport from 42,620
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel
Transmission: xDrive all-wheel drive, Steptronic eight-speed automatic
Body style: five-door SUV
CO2 emissions: 132g/km (VED 205 first 12 months, then 450 per annum next five years of ownership, then 140 annually thereafter)
Combined economy: 56.5mpg
Top speed: 132mph
0-62mph: 8.0 seconds
Power: 190hp at 4,000rpm
Torque: 400Nm at 1,750-2,500rpm

Our view:

Is this the absolute quintessence of modern-day BMW? Oh, sure, we all like to think of the company making semi-affordable, rear-wheel-drive performance coupes that are among the greatest dynamic treats in the world, but the days of BMW, as a marque, consisting of 3-, 5- and 7 Series with a couple of oddity hanger-on ranges to top up the books have long since gone.

Let's look at all the available evidence. The world, currently, simply can't seem to get enough of SUVs. Here in the UK, the M Sport trim has long been the most desirable specification for any BMW, no matter what size or shape of machine it is applied to. And the 2.0-litre, four-cylinder diesel - always an extremely strong seller, although how long that state of affairs will continue with the unfounded backlash against the fuel-type remains to be seen - is also all the engine you need on the road.

Therefore, while your residual mental image of a core BMW might be an E46 M3 holding a stance of mild to insane oversteer, actually it's something like the X3 xDrive20d M Sport that drives the modern company today. And it's a heart-warming, rags-to-riches tale for BMW's mid-sized 4x4 (it is until the X7 arrives next year and skews the BMW SUV balance towards the larger-boned vehicle), because - when it first arrived in 2003 - it was a bit of a joke.

Built to capitalise on the incredible reception and success of the company's first-ever SUV, 1999's X5, the X3 looked 'fugly' (to quote the now-outdated vernacular) with its black plastic bumpers and uncomfortably edgy design, it rode with all the grace and lan of a skateboard clattering across a sheet of corrugated metal, and - in a pre-PCP car-buying era - its list price was so phenomenally close to its bigger brother X5 as to make the X3 appear totally redundant. Come on, who would've gone into a dealership 15 years ago and, when presented with two near-identically priced SUVs, then said: "Yeah, I'll take the smaller one that looks like it has already been crash-damaged and which has a cramped interior fitted with strangely sub-standard plastics"?

Sell, though, the unconvincing original BMW X3 did and, rather like Porsche's hideous original Cayenne, this German SUV has been endlessly distilled through facelifts and all-new model launches, to the point that this third-generation machine - which we've already driven in 30d and stonking M40i guises - is a genuinely handsome thing.

Yes, the styling of the 'G01' Mk3 X3 is strikingly similar to a post-facelift 'F25' Mk2, but there are enough differences to make it stand out just enough to be clocked as fresh. It looks really good in Phytonic Blue, the 19-inch alloys are not too big, not too little and the cabin is also lovely, replete with blue stitching and plenty of fantastic toys. Admittedly, a lot of best kit on our test car was made up of cost extras, which will soon see the injudicious X3 buyer setting sail out of the safe financial waters of Port 42,620 and into the terrifying chop and waves of Deep Sea 50 Grand Diesel SUV, but there we are. Can't have everything, we suppose.

No matter; it's a spacious cabin, plenty big enough for five adults and there's a big boot hiding beneath a powered tailgate. So, it passes the quality and practicality tests. And, once on the move, it pretty much aces the dynamic examination, too. Sure, a four-pot diesel is never the most alluring of engines but the BMW unit is one of the best in the business, as it's quiet, velvet-smooth and plenty punchy enough to deal with the 20d's 1,825kg mass, making the X3 feel admirably quick in all situations. We almost need not say any more that the eight-speed ZF Steptronic is an utter peach of a transmission but, for the purposes of journalistic integrity, we will.

And the handling has enough of that sporty BMW flavour mixed into it to make you almost forget you're in a near-1.7m-tall vehicle. Composed, sure-footed and blessed with a really well-judged suite of major controls (in terms of their calibration), the xDrive20d can be hustled at a jolly decent lick along a twisting road. We wouldn't say it was exactly... fun to drive it in a spirited fashion, but neither is it as sanitised and anodyne as its Audi Q5 rival.

Nevertheless, thinking back to the discomfort of the original 'E83', what we love most about the new model is its refinement. On non-adaptive springs and dampers that run firmer M Sport settings, and with those aforementioned 19s on low-profile tyres at each corner, the X3 defies expectation to glide along with an unflustered effortlessness that's truly beguiling. Put another way, we did 422 miles in the BMW and they passed without any modicum of stress whatsoever, the X3 turning in 42.6mpg overall at 49mph, with a motorway best figure of 47.2mpg proving oh-so-impressive for a four-wheel-drive, heavy and tall SUV that can manage an eight-second 0-62mph sprint.

All sounds pretty glowing, eh? And we've not even got onto the bit where we say that the X3 is the best-balanced SUV of the German company's current line-up. The X5/X6 twins are too chunky/grotesque (respectively), the X4 is nice-looking but it's the X3 denuded of some of its usefulness, and the X1/X2 are too small and too confusing - isn't one supposed to be a coupe, or something?

So, with all this in mind, why haven't we given the X3 full marks and the sought-after crown of 'class leader'? Well, a few reasons. The price, we've already touched on. Specified like our test car, around 50,000 is a simply fearsome heap of money, tempting PCP deals or not. And the X3, for all its excellence, is perhaps devoid of any stand-out character - it arrived, we got in, we heartily approved of its appearance and its superb cabin and its fantastic kinematics, and then after a week it went away and we didn't even give it a second thought. Until we had to write this review, that is. Ahem.

The problem, though, is not that the X3 xDrive20d M Sport is bad - clearly, it is far from it. It's just that there are some better alternatives out there. As far as the X3 has developed in 15 years, from its clunky first efforts to its suave current iteration, its all-round competence cannot hide the fact that there are two very strong contenders that we think are better, and neither of them is an Audi. The Mercedes GLC just looks that bit nicer and has a more adventurous cabin design (confounding ergonomics notwithstanding), while it's even more refined and polished than the Beemer - even with that rattling old 2.1-litre diesel.

But the X3's path to market segment honours is beset by bitingly cool Swedish winds of change, in the form of the second-generation XC60. The Scandinavian SUV is picking up awards left, right and centre, and deservedly so; UK Car of the Year and World Car of the Year are already both in the bag, and there are plenty more critical outlets that have given it their own 'overall award' honours too. Slightly incorrect spec choices can almost infinitesimally mar the wonderful XC60 experience, such as opting for looks over luxury with R-Design trim or dropping a frightful amount of cash on the 407hp T8 Twin Engine hybrid, but the Volvo has much more interesting looks than the X3, its cabin is on another plane of magnificence and its potential refinement levels (D4 engine, air suspension, Momentum or Inscription trim FTW) are off the scale.

So, while the BMW X3 xDrive20d M Sport is indeed everything that modern BMW represents, coalesced into a single SUV form, and it is as blindingly good as you might expect of the mighty Munich bunch, it's not quite at the top of its game. Still a fine thing to buy and own, though.

Alternatives:

Audi Q5: Does everything you'd expect of a mid-range Audi: it's urbane, it looks good, it has the full 'wow' interior thing and it drives in a largely unremarkable, if pleasant fashion.

Mercedes-Benz GLC: Considering we never got the GLK, this thing's wonderful. Still packs the noisome old 2.1-litre turbodiesel, but it's a beautifully elegant, capable and likeable machine.

Volvo XC60: It's a bit spec-dependent - the T8 is stonkingly expensive, the R-Design looks great, but doesn't have the best ride - but get the ordering tick-boxes right and the magnificent XC60 is the best mid-sized premium SUV out there.


Matt Robinson - 15 May 2018









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