Like its mass-market counterpart, the premium compact crossover segment has really been heating up over the past few years. That puts the BMW X3 in a good position to outpace sales of BMW’s larger X5 crossover. With smaller X-boxes available, the middle X could even, someday, unseat the venerable 3 Series sedan from its perch at the apex of the BMW sales curve.
BMW has redesigned the X3 for 2018, transposing the shark nose, wider kidney grilles and well-defined body creases recently introduced to the 5 Series sedan. The X3’s styling still looks a bit dowdy next to the upcoming 8 Series coupe and even the new X2 subcompact crossover, although its conservative styling will likely square with potential X3 customers. At any rate, it’s an aesthetic that holds up well next to competitors like the Audi Q5 and the Volvo XC60, which also tend to play it safe in that regard.
In terms of capability, BMW’s small crossover has everything people looking with interest at the corresponding Audi and Volvo—as well as the Mercedes-Benz GLC-Class and even the Jaguar F-Pace—would want: luxury, precision and utility.
BMW customers have come to expect nothing less than the best, and they’ll certainly find that level of perfection inside the new X3. Everything from seat stitching to button placement is well thought out. The seats are supportive and firm, and in just the right amounts. The model I tested came with beige-colored seat leather that was as beautiful to the eye as it was pleasant to the touch. Dark oak wood trim (also available in aluminum and other wood tones) added an extra dash of elegance in an interior that was nicely polished.
For an extra $350, heated front and rear seats can be added into the $3,300 Premium Package, which includes a heated steering wheel, navigation and a head-up display. Front and rear seat passengers have adequate head, leg and hip room, and visibility is good all around. The belt line doesn’t kick up until it reaches the rear quarter windows, so even rear seat passengers benefit from relatively low windows. An optional panoramic moonroof only adds to the openness of the interior.
The X3 sits toward the top of its class in terms of cargo volume. It has nearly 29 cubic feet with the rear seats up and 63 cubic feet with the seats folded flat. Only the cavernous Volvo XC60 has more room inside—38 cubic feet with the seats up and more than 70 cubic feet with the seats down.
The X3’s cargo space is well laid out, though, with a wide, flat cargo floor that will swallow a folded jogging stroller and several bags of groceries with room to spare. I didn’t particularly care for the drop-off at the rear edge of the spare tire cover, as smaller items had a tendency to roll back there while I was driving, then fall out the back of the vehicle when I opened the rear hatch. But kudos to BMW for including a spare tire, which every car, truck, van, airplane, or spaceship should have.
Remember those science fiction forensic crime movies from the ’80s and ’90s? The technology and graphics, and the beeping noises they made, were too good to be true.
I’ve experienced a bit of déjà vu looking at the razor-sharp displays in BMW’s latest cars. Of course, unlike those corny movies of old, the tech in a BMW is real and it actually works. The parking assist feature, for example, uses high quality cameras to present a crisp image of what’s outside to the driver. The graphics that overlay onto the camera view show quadrants and distances to help the person parking avoid hitting anything. The system is accurate, has great graphics and, better yet, the warning tones it emits aren’t overwhelming or even annoying.
As always, though, BMW’s iDrive system is a little on the cumbersome side, although the graphics are top-notch there, too. It pays to spend a few minutes flipping through menus to get the gist of where everything is before venturing forth on the road. Some cars allow you to figure things out without much effort, but BMW requires you to do your homework before getting behind the wheel.
A little studying goes a long way, though—iDrive is not rocket science. I’ve always liked the big control knob that operates the system, and appreciate the presence of a volume knob for the audio system. BMW’s ubiquitous stubby automatic shifter handle is just as annoying in the X3 as it is in other of the company’s cars. It’s not what anyone would call intuitive, and I often found myself revving in Neutral when I was ready to take off in Drive or Reverse.
The X3 has plenty of buttons, but not an overwhelming amount. And they’re placed in a way that makes sense. Adrian van Hooydonk, BMW’s design chief, has promised a more minimalist approach in the future, but I think the company’s engineers are already on the right track.
Forget about BMW’s nonsensical X3 nomenclature. This model, the one with the 2.0-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder, is called the xDrive30i. The more powerful model, the one with a 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-6 living under its hood, is dubbed M40i. It would have made more sense to call them 20i and 30i, respectively, but that’s not how things worked out. Who knows why?
The turbo-4 I tested was responsive and torquey, and exhibited minimal turbo lag. The X3 includes three different driving modes, which can be selected with easy-to-find buttons next to the shifter. In Sport mode, it was like a racehorse chafing at its reins. Comfort mode still dished out plenty of power, with softer, lower-rpm transmission shifts. Eco Pro mode made for a sedate driving experience with solid fuel economy numbers.
With Eco Pro mode engaged, I managed to get more than 22 miles per gallon around town. On a loop that included highway driving, the fuel economy shot past 25 mpg—a number that was easy to kill when I engaged Sport mode and drove with a heavier right foot.
Even though the X3 is the taller, slightly more schlubby sibling of the 3 Series Sport Wagon, it still handled like a BMW. This model came with the optional Dynamic Handling Package ($1,400), which included dynamic damping control, bigger brakes, and sport steering. It was easy to slice in and out of slower moving traffic and own the road like a stereotypical BMW driver. The setup handled bumps and potholes well, too.
When it comes to doing things the right way, BMW has plenty of experience. Big picture, this year’s X3 gets a snappy, efficient 4-cylinder engine and a slick-shifting 8-speed automatic with steering wheel-mounted paddles for manual shifting in Sport mode.
On the details side of things, features like quilted seat leather, wood accent panels and crisp parking assistance graphics on the wide infotainment screen give the BMW a feeling of quality that’s difficult to match in a car that isn’t German. But the car isn’t even completely German. The X3’s design may be of Teutonic origins, but it’s built—as it has been since the 2011 model year—in South Carolina, for the North American market.
The X3 may not have the more fetching design cues of stablemates like the X2 crossover and the upcoming 8 Series coupe, but it has gotten a more modern look that should play well with small crossover buyers.
One note of caution: with a BMW, it’s very easy to tack thousands of dollars onto an already spendy vehicle’s base price by adding options that may come standard from other brands. The model I tested carried a price tag of nearly $58,000—more than $15,000 above the xDrive30i’s base price.
Then again, you get what you pay for. In this case, it may be worth having.
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