First Drive: BMW X3

BMW's new X3 is a much improved product

BMW's new X3 is a much improved product

At only a generation old, BMW’s X3 model could have been expected to mature with the passage of time, but who would have predicted it would grow up quite so literally?

The dimensions of the newly arrived X1 put the model confusingly close to the outgoing X3. If anything, the increased proportions of the all-new X3 mean it stands on the toes of the full-size X5.

No doubt the next generation of the kingpin ‘X’ model will redress that issue – but don’t be surprised to see the new X3 challenging the X5 for its popularity prominence in the near future – in Europe and the UK at least.

The big-selling X5 was, of course, the model that proved SUV’s could offer versatility, comfort and handling in equal measure. Its compact follow-up, the X3, failed to impress on the same level.

Although it handled with traditional BMW competence and enthusiasm, poor ride quality was chief among the criticisms.

‘X’ vehicle fans will be pleased to hear that the new X3 emulates its larger sibling in terms of more than just size – a cosseting ride now comes as standard.

A new suspension set-up has eliminated the crashy quality of the outgoing model. The option of BMW’s Dynamic Drive Control is present, which adapts the suspension settings according to driving style and offers manual selection of Normal, Sport and Sport + modes. It won’t be missed on models with the basic setup, however; the standard suspension offers an ideal combination of the typically responsive BMW experience and a smooth ride befitting a vehicle of the X3’s new-found size and luxury status.

The exterior dimensions are naturally reflected inside, where there’s an impressive amount of legroom for rear passengers. The high-rise seating position doesn’t impact on headroom, either, and leather is standard on UK models – boosting the luxury ambience.

An i-Drive system is also standard for navigating menus via the large colour screen – like the X3 itself it has overcome a troubled start to boast a polished and refined package.

2010 BMW X3The X3’s range of optional extras is equally impressive, particularly the Heads Up Display system which proves as beneficial as elsewhere in the BMW range. It allows the driver to remain focussed on the road but still be kept up-to-date with essential information. Passengers can take in the smart, executively styled and beautifully finished cabin as well as enjoy an advantageous seating position that’s not present in equal measure in the smaller X1.

Diesel remains key to the success of models such as the X3, so much so that the X3 will initially be launched with a single diesel engine option in the UK. Further engine choices will follow at a later date but, regardless, BMW expects the xDrive20d model with its 184bhp four-cylinder unit to account for some 80 per cent of sales.

It’s set to be one of the most economical choices available from a vehicle of the X3’s size and soft-road, four-wheel drive ability. CO2 emissions of 149g/km and 50.4mpg efficiency are achieved through a 25kg weight loss compared with the outgoing model, the standard Efficient Dynamics measures including brake energy recovery and on-demand power application and the addition of stop-start to both the standard six-speed manual and the optional eight-speed automatic.

In manual form the stop-start system is swift and unobtrusive. It’s intelligent, too, differentiating between pulling up to rest for a longer period and pausing to turn across traffic, for example. In the latter scenario, the engine will continue to run.

Refined in terms of road and engine noise at the wheel, the new X3 proves undemanding to drive. The electric power steering provides a measured blend of response, feedback and weight and the manual gearchange offers the usual BMW slick, springy and accurate shifts.

2010 BMW X3Greater presence on the road will enhance the ownership, rather than the driving, experience. The X3 has a wider, more aggressive stance with more contours and angles present in the body panels and light units. It’s a much more assured design that will make downsizing from an X5 as palatable as upsizing from a BMW saloon, estate or X1.

A considerably more refined and purposeful product, the X3 has grown up in terms of more than just its size.

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: 6-speed manual transmission, driving all four wheels.
Performance: Maximum speed 131mph, 0-62mph 8.5 seconds.
CO2 emissions: 149g/km.
Economy: 50.4mpg.

By Richard M Hammond

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