Capitalizing on the success of the X5 launched way back in ‘99, BMW released their smaller, 3-series based, X3 compact SUV into a then brand new market segment that is now almost over saturated with choice.
Despite the somewhat frumpy styling, bone-shaking ride quality over all but the smoothest of autobahns, and the lack of capability when the road ended, the X3 rewarded its drivers with sporty handling, a premium interior and the cachet associated with the badge.
The $30K price tag made it more accessible to young professionals that wanted to get into the brand but just weren’t able to fork over the moola for the bigger and much pricier X5.
The 2nd generation, launched in 2011, addressed the ride quality and came with optional turbo power, more space and much more agreeable styling, luckily for customers the softer ride didn’t come with any loss to the dynamics—it was still one of the best in class. A class that now included the Audi Q5 and Mercedes GLK, slowly nipping away at the X3’s sales.
2018 sees a brand new X3 that has been completely redesigned from the ground up. The styling gets a much needed update with brand new 3D-look kidney grilles and new standard full LED headlights. The M40i that I was driving for the purposes of this review came with the mirror caps, grilles, front bumper trim and air breathers finished in cerium grey, similar to the trim on the range-topping M760Li that I tested last year. This champagne coloured trim looks great and adds an extra layer of class.
In my opinion this is the best looking X3 to date.
The wheelbase has grown 5 cm, and that translates to a cabin that is now roomier and more comfortable. The rear seats can recline manually with the pull of a small lever and it feels just as spacious as the larger X5. The last X3 felt a bit cramped in the rear, so this is a welcome upgrade.
The overall quality of the interior has been vastly improved over the last generation, once again mimicking the cabin environs of its more expensive siblings. The chocolate brown leather trim with blue contrast stitching on my tester was a feast for the eyes.
Many more features from that flagship 7 have trickled down into this new X3. The optional surround view camera system that gives the driver a bird’s eye view of the car, and renders it in 3D on the latest touch equipped iDrive screen, is the best camera system on the market—bar none.
While the base engine on the 30i remains largely unchanged, the M40i now gets the vaunted B58 which produces a very healthy 355 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque, making this X3 get up and go with a verve seldom experienced in this class. The last gen 35i was no slouch, but this new one feels like a jet running on full afterburners. The 0-60 time of 4.8 seconds—aided by the latest xDrive AWD system—makes it the fastest in its class. Keeping in mind that these numbers are only a few tenths of a second slower than the last generation M3, should help put its brawn into perspective.
Does it need to be this fast? Not in the least, but the acceleration can be addictive and when you’re able to post fuel economy numbers of 11L/100 km without trying it really feels like there’s nothing to lose—well, maybe your license.
Driven more responsibly the X3 is still a peach with an acceptably firm ride and excellent road manners that really make you think twice about the virtues of sedans and their lower centres of gravity.
The EPS (electronic power steering) systems get better with each successive generation and while they still aren’t as good as hydraulic racks, they get the job done.
This steering is perfectly weighted in sport and sport plus driving modes but perhaps a bit too light in comfort. Toggle through the different drive modes—eco pro, comfort, sport, sport plus(only on M40i)— and each change brings a noticeably different driving character to the vehicle.
In so many cars I test, that have driving modes, the changes can be subtle to the point where they are almost indistinguishable from each other. Not so here. Selecting sport firms up the steering and chassis, putting the engine and transmission into attack mode. Sport plus goes a step further offering up more performance in almost every way. Trying this mode on Lakeshore was not a good idea, turning the car into a growling pit bull that went ballistic the second you prodded the accelerator. Even with light throttle application, I couldn’t get the car to shift under 4K rpm and without a shove to the lower back.
While this mode might seem useless, I can see that rare customer tracking this SUV and actually having a good time doing it. Speaking of shift times, the ZF 8-speed boxes in BMWs are consistently some of the fastest shifting units that I have experienced. The programming that governs the shift behaviour accounts for a lot and BMW has had this formula nailed down for a while.
It makes me feel that dual clutch transmissions are needlessly complicated and while they might be fast, the slush boxes of today are so good that I predict them going the way of the dodo bird except in some super high strung race-ready applications.
Case in point, the new M5 is currently one of the fastest accelerating sedans in the world and now uses the ZF 8-speed automatic as its sole gear swapper.
Handling has always been one of the cornerstones of BMW and it is still excellent here. It feels like a slightly more ponderous 3 series and while that might not sound very good, it is actually high praise. Turn in is quick and sharp, and the X3 does not lean, giving more confidence to fling it into corners at speeds you didn’t think possible.
Confidence is the word to remember here and instilling this in a driver allows them to push harder. There are many capable vehicles with very high limits but are let down by poor steering and lack of feel, making it difficult for the driver to explore their capabilities. These are intangibles and it’s difficult to put a finger on what exactly creates these sensations to instill this driver confidence, but BMW has been a master of intangibles for a long time.
Now while I wished I were able to explore a bit more of the handling, the freak ice storm from last week put a damper on that plan. Although it did allow me to get a feel for how this X3 behaves when Mother Nature attacks.
Equipped with winter tires, the X3 laughed in her face and said “is that all you got?” If this BMW gives you confidence in the twisties, then in inclement weather it makes you feel like a super-hero.
Obviously you still need to have your wits about you and keep within the laws of physics lest you end up in a ditch, where I saw quite a few examples of this over-zealousness on my icy drive.
This is the best X3 yet, and it’s this good because BMW seems to have listened to what customers didn’t like about the first two generations and used that knowledge to make this one just right.
The X3 has been improved in almost every way; it can also be equipped with an optional factory installed trailer hitch that allows it to tow up to 4400 lbs—a first on a BMW SUV.
The new 2018 X3 is in dealers now and the competition has a lot more to worry about.
Photos © Kunal D’souza
2018 BMW X3 M40i
BODY STYLE: 5-door Luxury Compact Utility Vehicle
DRIVE METHOD: Front-engine, All-Wheel Drive
ENGINE: 3.0 Litre turbocharged inline 6 cylinder; (Power: 355 hp @ 5500-6500 rpm; Torque: 369 lb-ft @ 1520-4800 rpm)
CARGO CAPACITY: 550 litres(behind rear seat) 1600 litres (seats folded)
FUEL ECONOMY (premium): 11.1/7.0/8.4 L/100 km (city/highway/combined)
PRICE: $61,500 (base); $74,895 (as tested) not including destination charge of $2245
WEBSITE: BMW X3