– Pretty damn quick
– Cabin space and features
– Sharp handling
– Very expensive
– Conservative styling
– Not much of an offroader
The BMW X3 was a big money-spinner for the German carmaker. But that’s in Europe. This is the Middle East, where odd things happen. Dictators are toppled overnight, islands sprout out of the water in tree-like shapes, and more BMW X6s are sold than 3-Series cars. In this landscape, the X3 has always been a bit of a flop. So BMW did the most Middle Eastern thing possible. BMW made their new X3 bigger.
While the previous X3 was penned conservatively, the new one attempts to be more stylish, although it still appears fairly conservative, even with the swipes along the sides, the tail lamps cribbed from the 7-Series, and the big 19-inch alloys. Our tester was the turbo-six model, packing some serious heat under the hood, but all you get to show for it are some confusing “xDrive35i” badges and some puny exhaust tips. An “M” package is available though, that adds a muscular body kit.
Inside, things are much nicer. While the previous version’s cabin had a ridiculous amount of hard-plastic bits for a premium brand, this new-for-2012 model feels almost as upscale as the pricier X5. Soft-touch materials cover the doors, centre-console and most of the dash, accented with real wood trim, while thick cloth makes up the A-pillars and the headliner, matching the beige leather on the padded door inserts, armrests and seats.
Space is excellent inside this five-seater, and we’d guess it has at least as much rear legroom as the BMW X5, with ample headroom as well. The front seats are moderately-bolstered, and offer a commanding forward view, as you’d want in an SUV, although the view out the rear is surprisingly limited. The luggage boot is big, with a number of useful net pockets and grocery-bag hooks along the sides. Inside, there are enough cup-holders, door pockets and nets for everyone.
On the tech front, it pretty much offers everything that pricier BMWs have, such as the iDrive computer, navigation, heads-up display, numerous airbags, smart keyless entry and start, panoramic glass roof, electric parking brake, solid CD/MP3 stereo, parking cameras with sensors, HID headlights and a decent automatic a/c with rear vents, among other items. Even that fancy joystick shifter is now there.
As mentioned before, this particular flavour of the X3 comes with the 3.0-litre turbocharged inline-6 engine, mated to an 8-speed automatic and a quick-acting all-wheel-drive system. Making 306 hp at 5800 rpm and 400 Nm of torque from only 1200 rpm, we fired off a 0-100 kph time of 6.1 seconds, that too without any wheelspin drama. You could chase down muscle-cars all day as they spin away their extra horses in a hail of tyre-smoke. You’d also be happier at the petrol pumps, as we managed a fuel consumption of 13.3 litres/100 km, not bad given how we kept pounding on the throttle pedal.
The X3 is also a proper handler, giving the 3-Series a run for its money. Not surprising, considering it is based on the 3-Series platform anyway, but that extra ride height is not noticeable at all when sawing at the steering wheel. There is hardly any perceptible body roll on hard cornering, while grip is a given, thanks to wide 245/45 tyres up front and 275/40 rubbers out back. The brakes also serve up good stopping power, while stability-control nannies are quietly present but hardly needed. The steering is sharp and nicely weighted, but offers limited feedback, while there is a minor-but-annoying lag in responding to throttle inputs at low speeds.
Around town, the X3 is easy enough to putter around in, with thin front A-pillars not blocking your view of suicidal pedestrians, and numerous cameras helping you to park even while you can’t see much out the smallish back window. The fuel-saving start-stop system is even more annoying than the throttle lag though, shutting off the engine automatically whenever you come to a stop and then restarting with a minor jolt when you press the accelerator. We turned it off after the first few times it did that.
On the highway, there is no shortage of overtaking oomph, as there is instant power on tap at any speed. The ride is also fairly smooth and comfortable, but there is some obvious tyre noise and a slight firmness felt on some road surfaces, probably due to the run-flat tyres more than anything else. Some ambient noises, such as trucks on the next lane, also creep in, as does some wind noise at speeds beyond 120 kph.
The X3 is not an offroader at all, with limited ground clearance, no low-range gearing, and lots of low-hanging plastic bits. Still, we predict it can do fine on flat beach sand as long as you keep moving, while gravel and wet roads are always easy.
Our verdict is pretty simple really. The BMW X3 is a superb vehicle, as practical as it is sporty, and as fast as it is efficient. But it is very expensive, at least in xDrive 35i form, competing with huge V8-powered Japanese SUVs at the same price. However — and this is a big point – the X3 costs almost the same as a new 335i sedan. If you find yourself at the BMW showroom, the upgrade might actually be worth it, if you prefer the extra practicality for almost the same driving dynamics.
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