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First drive: BMW X3 pre-production prototype. Image by BMW.

First drive: BMW X3 pre-production prototype
BMW readies the fourth-generation X3 for market and invites us for a drive of its pre-production prototypes.

   



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BMW X3 M50i xDrive prototype

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Last year, the third-generation G01 BMW X3 proved to be the Munich concernís best-selling model of all worldwide, even outstripping the long-serving 3 Series. And with more than 3.5 million finding homes globally since the X3 launched as BMWís second SUV all the way back in 2003, itís clear that the company has to get this all-new, ĎG45í fourth-gen car just right. Weíve been invited down to its Miramas test-track facility in the south of France to find out just how itís getting on with the dynamic set-ups of a couple of G45 models, so hereís what weíve discovered.

Test Car Specifications

Model: 2024 BMW X3 M50i xDrive (G45 pre-production prototype)
Price: tbc
Engine: 3.0-litre six-cylinder turbocharged petrol
Transmission: eight-speed Steptronic automatic, xDrive all-wheel drive
Power: tbc
Torque: tbc
Emissions: tbc
Economy: tbc
0-62mph: tbc
Top speed: tbc
Boot space: tbc

Styling

Much of this review is going to look like it is shrouded in secrecy, because BMW isnít getting the X3 ready for showrooms until October of this year. As a result, the cars we drove were swaddled in heavy camouflage and BMW wouldnít talk about the styling, so we canít tell you much about the G45 aesthetically other than it doesnít look much bigger than the car it is replacing, plus the rear number plate now sits in the back bumper, rather than on the tailgate. But BMW did deign to give us the following two facts: one, its wheelbase is exactly the same as the old one, so 2,864mm sits between its axles; and two, itís more aerodynamic than the model it replaces, with active front air vents, AirCurtains in the front wheel arches on M Sport and M Performance versions, a flatter underbody, disguised aeroblades on the D-pillars and a range of aerodynamically optimised 19- to 21-inch alloys (there are non-optimised 18- and 22-inch items bracketing these, as well) all contributing to a 0.27 coefficient of drag figure - thatís 0.02 better than the outgoing X3ís 0.29Cd value.

Interior

Itís much the same story in here as it is on the outside, as a load of panels of cloth shrouding had been painstakingly erected in the X3ís cabin to hide its basic dash architecture. What cannot be concealed, however, is the fact that the widescreen Curved Display infotainment system will be brought to bear in the G45, tying it in more closely with its larger, grander X5, X7 and iX relations. Perhaps the better news is that the X3s we were in retained the iDrive dial on the transmission tunnel, so not every function in the SUV will apparently be touch-controlled. Beyond that, all we can add is that the driving position is excellent, while the steering wheel in the M50i (more on this anon) we drove was not too fat; please, please, please, BMW chiefs, if youíre reading this - make sure that last feature makes it into the fully finished production versions.

Practicality

Thereís very much Ďnot a lot we can sayí here, as we have no concrete numbers for you on passenger room or boot space, nor did we get a clear look at any of the carís various interior storage solutions. All we can ascertain at this stage is that, like its predecessor, it looks to be a spacious midsized SUV with decent rear passenger accommodation and a sizeable cargo area, although this is obviously pure guesswork based solely on a visual appraisal of these features of the X3.

Performance

Umm... OK, look, we were down to drive the pre-production prototypes, so the main crux of this review is coming in the next section. But you probably know what weíre about to say here. As at this stage, BMW has confirmed precisely nothing about the exact range, badges and specifications of the G45 X3 line-up at launch. All we do know is that the petrol engines from the off will all be four-cylinder units, thereís a plug-in hybrid thatís also based on a four-pot combustion motor, and the only six-cylinder variant will be the M50i M Performance flagship. Diesel power will be offered in the Mk4 X3 family, although whether these models come to the UK or not remains to be seen.

But hang on, we hear you cry - if you know nothing of specs and badges, why are you calling the fast one the M50i? Well, because BMWís engineers on site were happy to reveal that nugget of information to us, as well as confirming that under its bonnet is the familiar B58 3.0-litre unit. Albeit, the Ď50í bit of its badging suggests there will be more power than the 360hp served up by the old X3 M40i, although whether that will be as much as 400 horses or not, we couldnít get anyone to confirm. Bear in mind there will almost certainly be a full-on X3 M replacement in due course and you realise the M50i, also said to be an xDrive all-wheel-traction model with an eight-speed automatic torque-converter transmission, will have to be restricted to a degree to leave headroom at the top of the family tree.

The only other facts we can proffer up here are that, firstly, where your X3 is built this time around depends on whatís under the bonnet. Any pure petrol model (and the yet-to-be-confirmed-for-the-UK diesels), the M50i included, will be built at Plant Spartanburg in South Carolina, USA, just like every X3 since the Mk2 appeared in 2010; the original, meanwhile, was put together by Magna-Steyr in Austria. Anyway, almost all G45s will be constructed in the States, hence why the X3 will launch in that market first in October of this year, with Europe and the rest of the world following from November onwards. But the plug-in hybrid will not come from across the Atlantic, instead being built at the Rosslyn factory in South Africa. This is a recent move by BMW, with a lot of investment going into the facility on the outskirts of Pretoria in readiness.

The other point revolves around the iX3ís successorÖ or whatever itís going to be called this time. BMW happily confirmed a battery-electric G45 is on the way, but it wonít sit on the same CLAR platform as the ICE/PHEV X3s, while it isnít even a given that it will be called iX3 (although, what with recent similar product releases, weíd be highly surprised if it wasnít). Anyway, the EV version is due in 2025 and BMW invited us to look to the (shudder) Vision Neue Klasse X for inspiration on the incoming zero-emission X3.

Ride & Handling

Right, here we go - some stuff we can definitely talk about at greater length. Every variant of G45 X3 gains revised subframes front and rear, with uprated kinematics and elastokinematics (bushes, in essence) for the axles. The steering is a new belt-driven type, which aims to give more weight and feel when turning the wheel just off centre if you compare it to the old X3. BMW has also strengthened the mounting points for the anti-roll bars, which means the bars themselves donít have to be so rigid; that should improve secondary ride quality, without sacrificing outright body control. While the wheelbase is the same on the G45 compared to the G01, the track widths are not - theyíre wider on the new model for greater stability - and furthermore versions with low rolling-resistance, A-rated tyres use the latest-generation rubber for better refinement at speed.

The M50i goes even further. Naturally, as an M Performance product, its suspension is retuned with a more dynamic focus in mind, while it has an additional mounting point for the rear subframe just behind the rear axle. All the strut braces around the front suspension turrets are tougher than those on regular X3s, so the M50i has a higher torsional rigidity, while it is the only launch model to benefit from a torque-splitting limited-slip diff on the rear axle. It comes on 20-inch wheels as standard, using C-label tyres (Continental SportContact 7s, for reference) with a mismatched width front-to-rear, meaning everything on it has been designed to make it sharper in the corners and less prone to understeer - not something we thought the old M40i was notably afflicted by, but any reduction of this characteristic in a performance vehicle is always most welcome.

Our driving experience involved blasting the M50i around BMWís handling circuit at Miramas, then sampling its (limited) abilities off-road, before taking a plug-in hybrid out onto the public roads for a quick scoot up into the nearby mountains. And for all three of these trips, the new X3 excelled.

The firmer anti-roll bar mounts and tougher bushes in the X3ís underpinnings means that it loads up its outer suspension more progressively when you start hammering it through bends. Thereís lean evident in the corners, yet itís not present to such a degree that the BMW feels top-heavy; instead, all it does is inform its driver of precisely where the limits of adhesion are. The belt-driven steering is also an improvement on what went before too, as it has more bite and feel as soon as you turn the wheel to even the slightest degree, and so considering both of these main factors, they make the G45 much more agile when itís transitioning from a left- to a right-handed corner (or vice versa) at pace.

Elsewhere, while the M50iís xDrive system can shunt up to 100 per cent of the torque at the rear axle if you want it to, it remains evident that itís a four-wheel-drive machine, although there is the most pleasing and beneficial sensation that you can adjust the SUVís attitude and stance on corner exit with a bootful of throttle - it pushes with the outer-rear wheel in such circumstances, rather than scrabbling for grip with the fronts to haul itself out of a bend. It even sounds good, too, and the gearbox is whipcrack-quick, although weíll reserve full judgment on the X3ís overall performance until we know some printed numbers for it - around the test circuit, it could keep an X4 M40i reasonably honest, but it wasnít exactly obliterating the old-timer either. However, one thing you could sense at lower speeds was that the M50i rode with astoundingly genial good grace, something which was then affirmed when heading out onto the roads in the (admittedly softer-sprung) plug-in hybrid X3.

The blend of body and wheel control on the new X3 is quite magnificent, as the SUV never wallows nor floats in the wake of large compressions in the road - this when itís in its gentler ĎPersonalí setting on the adaptive dampers - yet itís not one of those BMWs picking up every minor imperfection in the tarmacís surface. You can switch it into Sport and while the vertical movements of the body become more abrupt, theyíre never uncomfortable and you could safely envisage driving many miles with the vehicle in this setting, even on more undulating back roads. Mechanical isolation is also mighty impressive, meaning you hear very little of the new tyresí activity, the uprated suspension at work, or wind noise flowing efficiently around the aerodynamically honed body.

And off-road? Well, to be fair, the course we went round was a dry, dusty, compacted gravel track, so it hardly taxed the very limits of what the G45 can do away from metalled surfaces. But there was one vertiginous 50 per cent, 27-degree slope which the BMW dealt with in short order, including reversing down it with Hill Descent Control (HDC) marshalling the brakes; this not only showed off how good the HDC tech remains, even though youíll have likely experienced it on a million other SUVs in the past 20 years up to this point, but also the favourable departure angles of the X3ís frame. Given the camoed vehicle we used for this was another M50i on the sports-oriented Continental 20-inch tyres (i.e., it wasnít a specially off-road prepped prototype on chunky tyres or similar), then given how admirably it dealt with the course surely means BMW has blessed this new SUV with more than enough off-roading capability to cover whatever its owners might reasonably ask of it, as X3 custodians are hardly the mud-plugging, green-laning elite.

Yes, on this very early showing in a variety of driving circumstances, it would seem BMW has taken the previous X3, still a decent SUV right up to the end of its life, and made it better to drive in all regards.

Value

We donít have any clear specifications or indication of UK market-specific line-ups as yet, so weíll bring you confirmation on these facets of the BMW X3 just as soon as we have them. As long as itís not massively more expensive than the SUV it replaces, the X3 ought to turn out to be competitive in its particular top-end class.

Verdict

We obviously need more time behind the wheel of the finished G45 BMW X3 than weíve managed to grab in these two prototypes, as well as a better understanding of how the range will line up against key competitors, before coming to a definitive verdict on the relative merits of this German SUV or otherwise. But, from this brief display, BMW potentially has another class-leader on its hands - itís sharper, comfier, quieter and more capable than the model it replaces, which was already a very good midsized premium SUV indeed. On that basis, we cannot wait to try the X3 out in production format to see if it is as truly brilliant as we think itís going to be.



Matt Robinson - 14 Apr 2024



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2024 BMW X3 M50i xDrive pre-production prototype. Image by BMW.2024 BMW X3 M50i xDrive pre-production prototype. Image by BMW.2024 BMW X3 M50i xDrive pre-production prototype. Image by BMW.2024 BMW X3 M50i xDrive pre-production prototype. Image by BMW.2024 BMW X3 M50i xDrive pre-production prototype. Image by BMW.

2024 BMW X3 M50i xDrive pre-production prototype. Image by BMW.2024 BMW X3 M50i xDrive pre-production prototype. Image by BMW.2024 BMW X3 M50i xDrive pre-production prototype. Image by BMW.2024 BMW X3 M50i xDrive pre-production prototype. Image by BMW.2024 BMW X3 M50i xDrive pre-production prototype. Image by BMW.








 

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