A chunky, compact off-roader with on-road dynamic ability? Ahh, that will be the BMW X3 then. Now available with a much improved 2-litre diesel engine that achieves the Holy Grail of more power and better fuel consumption, it will account for most X3 sales in the UK. But what about with the automatic transmission? Russell Bray crunches the numbers
I love the joke about the lost motorist who stopped to ask an old gentleman the way to his destination. After stroking his beard and thinking, the old man replied: “Well, if I was going there, I would not have started from here.” I would think that hard pressed automotive engineers feel similarly about the new rash of ‘sporting’ 4×4 vehicles – they are designed to have some off-roading ability, but have been told to make them sporting, despite the fact that they tower over low slung sports cars. The only difference is that with a car, compared to a journey, if you don’t get it right first time you can usually try again.
BMW’s original X3 rather missed the mark initially. It was hit with the ugly stick, boasted more than its fair share of black plastic cladding, and also acquired a reputation as too expensive, and for being priced closely to the acclaimed, bigger X5. That meant it only sold quite well. The 3-litre diesel engine was the motor to go for because the 2-litre, from the 3-Series, felt too weedy to cope with the X3’s extra weight. But that situation has been reversed with the latest 2.0d, which is expected to account for 70% of X3 sales in the UK. It is available in two versions, the SE, which puts it close to a well specified Land Rover Freelander or Nissan X-Trail, and the smoother looking, but no faster, M Sport for £31,470, as tested here. Steptronic automatic transmission, as fitted to the test car, adds £1,470 to the price.
I thought the engine felt smoother, but it’s more powerful too, pumping out 177bhp (up 27bhp) and with an extra 15lb ft of torque, now 258lb ft. Acceleration to 60mph in 9.2 seconds (0.3 seconds longer than the manual) still isn’t going to excite you. But once you are rolling, if you use your height advantage to plan overtaking manoeuvres ahead, reasonably rapid progress can be made across country. There’s good news at the pumps too, with an 11 per cent improvement in fuel consumption for the manual to 43.5mpg on the combined cycle while CO2 emissions drop ten per cent from 191g/km to 172g/km. An auto-equipped 2.0d manages 42.2mpg and178g/km. Both now fall into Band E for road tax. Top speeds are up five mph. I found the best way to drive the car is in a smooth, but brisk style, by flipping the selector lever either back into sport or sideways into manual mode. Then, once you have accelerated from rest with more alacrity, to slot the box into D and leave the car to its own devices. Left in sport mode, the car felt too “busy”.
The X3 is surprisingly sprightly when accelerating and nimble in corners, the off-roader really belies its size and weight. It never feels clumsy or unbalanced (providing you allow for weight transfer), so you don’t have to slow down for bends as much as in less sophisticated machinery. Electronics are helping here. Most small 4x4s want to plough doggedly straight on if pushed hard into a bend, commonly known as understeer.
The X3 uses BMWs xDrive system, which not only splits engine power between the front and rear axles, but has the added advantage of having a dynamic stability control system that then splits the power between individual wheels, helping to counter understeer and keep the car on line. Responding in just 100 milliseconds, xDrive reacts more quickly than more conventional fourwheel- drive systems. The intelligence of xDrive comes from the DSC stability control system, which delivers vehicle data including individual wheel speed, steering angle, lateral acceleration and any sideways movement. The system can then detect situations in which traction loss is likely and, in an instant, transfer drive to the specific wheels with the most grip. Where traction loss is unavoidable, DSC cuts power and, if necessary, applies brakes to individual wheels allowing the car to regain grip. Because xDrive predicts a loss of traction rather than just reacting to it, the system helps you when driving enthusiastically or negotiating rough terrain. Few owners will venture far off road in their X3, but I have tried them in quite deep ruts and streams and its fording depth, ground clearance and angles of arrival and departure are good. Hill descent control is fitted as standard, but I would still want proper off-road tyres to tackle serious slopes. An added safety touch is trailer stability electronics which checks if a trailer starts to sway and activates the stability control system. BMW has also revised the front suspension for sharper handling and the steering speeded up for more agility, combined with a surprisingly small turning circle.
All X3s are colour sensitive and a white one which looked great in southern Spain isn’t going to resell well here. BMW revamped the styling in 2006, reducing the size of the cheap looking black side panels, and the M Sport version looks better without them at all. A colour matched front spoiler, below the reshaped bumper and bigger radiator grille, gives the car a more assured presence in the golf club car park.
Build quality appeared excellent in the short time the test car was with me, though some passengers thought the cabin a little bare. What were they expecting – flower beds, a rockery? I thought, wrongly, the X3 was a niche too far, but it seems to have sold well enough despite high prices which would have tempted me into a (used) X5 instead. The forthcoming MINI SUV might be a different matter though.
You can, it seems, make an elephant dance on the head of a pin, providing you are prepared to spend enough on engineering and electronics. And, with this new engine, although I would go for the manual rather than the auto, the X3 is lively enough to justify the famous blue and white propeller badge. Improving the vehicle again will be hard work.
On sale: Now // Price from: £32,940 //
Main rivals: Land Rover Freelander 2 TD4 SE Automatic, Nissan X-Trail 2.0 dCi 150 Aventura Explorer Extreme Automatic, Vauxhall Antara SE 2.0CDTi 16v Automatic
- Price: £32,940
- Engine: 1995cc, 4 cylinder, turbodiesel with diesel particulate filter
- Max Power: 177bhp at 4,000rpm
- Max Torque: 258 lb ft at 1,750rpm – 3,000rpm
- Max Towing Weight: 1,700kg
- Combined Consumption: 42.2mpg
- CO2 Emissions (taxband): 178g/km (E)
- 0-62mph: 9.2 secs
- Max speed: 127mph
Six-speed steptronic automatic gearbox
xDrive four-wheel-drive system with fully-variable torque split
18-inch alloy wheels
Power assisted steering
Space-saving spare wheel
Airbags, front and side, driver and front passenger
Head airbags, front and rear
Alarm system (Thatcham 1)
Dynamic stability control
Anti-lock braking system with electronic brake-force distribution
Automatic differential brake
Automatic stability control
Cornering brake control
Dynamic brake control
Engine drag torque control
Hill descent control
Front fog lights
Front and rear head restraints
Park distance control, front and rear
Rain sensor with automatic headlight activation
Tyre puncture warning system
Rear Isofix child seat attachment
Electric and heated door mirrors
Automatic air conditioning
Electric windows, front and rear with comfort closing
M aerodynamics package
Automatically dimming rear view mirror
M Sport leather multi-function steering wheel
Radio/CD with MP3 functionality
M Sport leather gear lever
Much better looking, well engineered, you don’t have to sacrifice a spirited drive for a tall driving position
Firm-ish ride will not be to all tastes, boot not as large as you expect, premium prices