We have BMW to blame for this SUV thing. Although there are plenty of cars that fit the template dating back to the early 1980s, it wasn’t until the X5 appeared in 1999 that the idea of a an SUV-shaped machine that actually drove in a manner closer to a car than a London bus was brought to fruition. Wearing the desirable BMW roundel certainly helped, and all of sudden everyone wanted in on the act – manufacturers and buyers alike.
Then came the inevitable spin-offs, of which the original X3 was one. But it didn’t quite hit the heights that the X5 did, and somehow the downsizing also lost some of its charm and grace. This is all ancient history now though, because there’s a second generation X3 which not only has to expunge the memories of the old car but also tackle the reams of competitors that have appeared in the intervening years.
Thankfully all appears to be well, right from the off. Walk up to the X3 and it instanty looks a more classy and cohesive piece of design. It’s much closer in appearance to the X5 than before, and this is certainly a good thing. Arguably it is better-looking because of the more compact exterior dimensions, but it draws together the classy premium feel with sufficient ruggedness to suggest it won’t baulk at traversing a muddy bank.
There are small increases in dimensions compared to the old car, but the negligible difference it makes visually translates to notable improvements in space on the inside. It never felt short on space before, but the latest X3 is generously spacious both for passengers and luggage. Up front you have the desirable high driving position, the second row of seats feels more akin to a bigger luxury car and the boot now houses an extra 50 litres of cargo. Whether you have a family with assorted junk that comes with them or you just want the luxury of space, the X3 is happy to oblige.
BMW as a whole is hell-bent on reducing emissions and fuel consumption across its range of cars, and the X3 demonstrates the remarkable progress it has made. Unusually the X3 comes with only one engine option at launch: the 2.0-litre diesel unit seen elsewhere in the range. But looking at the figures it’s not hard to see why. Power and torque are up by 4% and 7% respectively, which help cut the 0-62mph time from a hardly-sluggish 8.9 seconds to a rapid 8.5 seconds. Yet this performance boost also comes with a major cut to running costs too. Combined fuel consumption is up by 7mpg to a scarcely-belivable 50.4mpg, while C02 emissions are cut to just 149g/km – that puts this five-seater SUV in the same Vehicle Excise Duty bracket as a petrol-powered 1-Series at a measly £125 for the year.
Those figures translate to a pleasingly effortless driving experience on the road too. The 2.0-litre unit may raise its voice a little when fully extended, but the large slug of torque means you can let the excellent eight-speed transmission get on with it, either making rapid progress or sipping the fuel. As a tool for covering ground the X3 is nigh-on perfect: a combination of the easy-going power delivery and general comfort levels keep the cabin occupants happy. The standard specification helps here too: dual-zone climate control and leather upholstery are standard, not something you would necessarily expect. That all fits in nicely with the typically excellent BMW cabin – sharp design, good quality materials and a layout that is easy to understand.
SUV or not, this is still a BMW and so it responds to the driver’s inputs with accuracy and enthusiasm. It is a car for all types of road and all types of surface, feeling right at home just about anywhere. Even on the standard 17-inch alloys, the ride quality is very good indeed, indicating the fine tuning that the suspension set up has received. As a driver or passenger, all you need to know is that it is comfortable and securely planted.
That suggests the new X3 has all the answers, except perhaps that of price – BMWs don’t come cheap, right? Well the new X3 is actually £115 cheaper than the outgoing one, as well as being cheaper than two of its key rivals. Plus BMW claims lowest running costs and the best residual values in the class too. This BMW certainly has the X factor.
FACTS AT A GLANCE
Model: BMW X3 xDrive20d SE, £30,490 on the road
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged diesel unit developing 184bhp and 280lb/ft of torque
Transmission: 8-speed manual transmission, driving all four wheels
Performance: Maximum speed 131mph, 0-62mph 8.5 seconds
CO2 emissions: 149g/km
By Matt Joy