Despite having done extensive market research before committing their first SUV/Crossover, the X5, to production, I am sure there were plenty in the corridors of power in Munich who were a bit apprehensive about the market would really react to the idea of a BMW of this type. As we all know, they were in fact spot on, and they had a huge and doubtless profitable hit on their hands with a car which had few real rivals in the market back in 1999. Seeing how the market was going, it can’t have been hard to decide to build smaller and cheaper versions of the same sort of concept, and sure enough following a launch at the Frankfurt IAA Show in September 2003, the X5 gained a smaller relative, the X3, which unlike the US-built X5 was assembled at the Magna Steyr plant at Graz in Austria. It followed the same sort of formula of taking ingredients from the similarly-sized saloon car family, and clothed them in a taller and roomier body with additional ground clearance. It received a somewhat luke-warm press reaction, but the market took to it, and BMW did what they always do when their product does not hit the proverbial bulls eye at launch and quickly finessed it, so it soon had even the press rating it as a proposition. A second generation followed with a Paris Show launch in 2010 and now built alongside the X5 at Spartanburg in the US and this time, it seemed that they had more or less got it right from the outset, and sales continued to increase as fast as BMW could build them. Seven years on, in June 2017 and the third generation model was launched, once again built in the US. Visually, this one was close to the car it replaced but under the skin it used all the latest engines, gearboxes and technology that BMW were featuring in the rest of their range, which also allowed them to offer the X3 in a wide variety of models over quite a price spectrum. Globally, it has become one of their most important cars selling in large volumes, both in Europe and America and indeed beyond, with production of over 200,000 units in 2018. I never got to try the first two generations of the X3, but as part of a move at Hertz US to add BMWs to their fleet – after years of large numbers of customer asking for them, apparently – some X3s have arrived for 2019. And they are certainly proving popular, as my friends at the LAX facility told me that they rarely stay around for long. So perhaps i was lucky wen I turned up on the penultimate morning of my Spring 2019 visit to find one that was available. It turned out to be brand new, with just 7 miles on the clock, a figure I would add to quite considerably as an iffy forecast for the LA basin was all the encouragement I needed to head well east, to the Joshua Tree National Park, meaning that I would cover close to 500 miles in the day. Ample chance, therefore, to see what I thought of BMW’s entrant in a class that is now well provided with alternatives.
Unlike a lot of cars these days who hide the details of their complete identity and configuration somewhere on some paperwork, if you are lucky, the badging told me exactly what I got here: an sDrive30i. in BMW speak, sDrive means two (rear) wheel drive whilst 30i does not any more mean a 3.0 engine, but simply that it has more power than something badged with a lower number (not that BMW will sell you that in the US, but they will in Europe) and less than the M40i (that they will), and i of course means petrol injection as opposed to diesel. A 30i actually has a 2.0 litre turbo four to power it and it puts out a healthy 248bhp. This comes coupled to an 8-speed automatic transmission. Sufficient, despite the bulk and weight of the car, you would have thought for a lively performance. Sadly, the answer to that is “not really”. For sure, the X3 sDrive 30i is not slow, with a quoted 0-60 time of sub 7 seconds and it does not feel under-engined in a way that I suspect some of the European entry level cars just might do, but nor is it brisk, let alone rapid. It is smooth, though. Although there are only 4 cylinders, the engine is refined and it goes about its business with relatively quiet eagerness. The transmission is well matched to it, and operates pretty much seamlessly, with the car seemingly always in the right gear and well able to respond to your right foot. There’s certainly no aural pleasure to it and just the way the engine reacts makes you wonder about how true to BMW’s original ethos this car really is. When I handed the car back, I found I had actually covered 486 miles, and it needed 16.7 gallons to refill it, which computes to 27.61 mpg US or 32.99 mpg Imperial. This is a decent result, though considering how the vast proportion of those miles were at a steady speed on the freeway you might expect a bit better than that. There is a Stop/Start system, but as I did not encounter much in the way of traffic, it had little cause to cut in during my test.
Whilst doing that steady speed freeway travelling, what matters most are noise levels and ride quality. And in these regards, the X3 does well. It is pleasantly refined and quiet with all sources of noise well controlled. It rides well, too. US market BMWs do not seem to come on run-flat tyres, riding in this case on 225/60 R18s and they generally lack the often crippling M-Sport suspension, with the result that they ride much better than their European versions. That was the case here. Off the freeway and onto slightly more interesting roads and this is where the case for the X3 did not exactly fall apart, but certainly failed to impress. Frankly, it just felt rather ordinary. Many BMWs feature a really chunky steering wheel but the one in this version of the X3 is that bit slimmer and to my mind all the better for it. In Comfort mode, the steering is light, which makes it easy to drive and certainly to park and manoeuvre, but there really is not much in the way of feel no what you are doing. Sport mode does improve things somewhat. More disappointingly, on the twistier roads there was evident body roll and you could sense that this car would start to understeer if you were to push it, admittedly harder than I was able to do in public. Equally disappointingly, the brakes, whilst effective, were a bit spongey and as this was a brand new car, I know that is not because they were worn at all. There are different driving modes, but testing these out did not seem to make a huge difference at least the way I was driving the X3. Visibility is as good as you get with a modern car, with large door mirrors and the rear-view camera is a useful aid when reversing. A large panoramic glass sunroof, added from the options list, made the cabin feel light and airy despite the black trim of the test car.
The interior of the X3 very much follows house style, with a relatively simple dash layout (thankfully!). Superficially the quality looks good and certainly the design is cohesive and everything fits nicely together, but the real quality of some of the materials has clearly been reviewed by the accountants. There is some of the fashionable gloss black plastic in here, of course, which will show dust and fingerprints very quickly, as it always does and there are some fake wood inlays which were among the better of this type. I also noted a number of X3 logos embossed into the trim to remind you which model you are driving or sitting in. For sure, overall, though the X3 is well beaten by what you get in an Audi Q5 or a Volvo XC60. There is a simple instrument cluster with two large dials for the speedometer and rev counter and smaller ones to either side of these for fuel level and water temperature. because the main dials are close together, the trip computer type data is squeezed a bit and as I generally find with BMWs, because this results in the odometer reading being right at the bottom in the centre of the cluster, I cannot see it, or the other data along the same line, from my preferred driving position. Thankfully, BMW abandoned their irritating one-touch column stalks and you get traditional ones to do indicators and wipers. There is a wide but not that deep infotainment screen in the centre of the dash, mounted up high, above the central air vents, where it is easy to glance at. This includes HD and XM Satellite radio which are standard on all X3s and also featured a navigation system which is still a cost option. Audio quality is good through the 12 speakers around the car. There are audio controls beneath the air vents, and as this is an iDrive system, a control wheel and additional buttons in the centre console, this is one of the easiest systems to use. The quality of the screen graphics is good and the system is responsive. As well as the audio functions you expect, slightly surprisingly, you still get a CD slot. Beneath this unit are the buttons for the dual zone climate control. The steering wheel boss has cruise control on the left and audio repeater buttons on the right hand spokes. BMW seem to have gone their own way with gearlevers lately and the X3 was no exception, but once you worked it out, it was easy enough to use. The Start engine button is to the left of the central air vents where it is easy to see and reach.
The seats of the test car were leather trimmed, but as I have often found with entry level BMW models, the leather is nowhere Audi quality and ends up endowing the car with a slightly cheap feeling to it, BMW can, and indeed do offer better, but you have to pay for it, which seems a bit off for a premium priced car, but every 1 and 3 Series I have driven has come across the same. There is full electric adjustment of the seats and there is also a pull-out bolster under the driver’s thighs to provide extra support for those who, unlike me, are long in this bone. Despite the range of adjustments, which at least meant that in conjunction with a steering wheel that telescopes over a wide range up/down and in/out. I could get the driving position I wanted, I found the seats a bit shapeless and so whilst not uncomfortable, I have to record that I have come across better. There are heating elements for both front seats and whilst the weather was a bit disappointing, it was not cold enough to need to test them out. As successive generations of the X3 have got that big larger, so the rear seat space has always been a beneficiary, just as it has been with the 3 Series and the result is that space here is now plentiful. Even with the front seats set well back, there should be sufficient legroom. The central tunnel is not big and the console unit between the front seats does not extend too far back. Three adults should be able to fit across the width of the car. The angle of the rear backrest can be reclined somewhat, and with the seats split 40/20/40, each person sitting in here can choose what they best prefer. Needless to say, even with the seat back at its most upright, there is more than enough headroom. There is a central drop-down armrest which incorporates cupholders and occupants here have their own climate controls. there are stowage nets on the backs of the front seats and pockets on the doors for those odds and ends that always accumulate.
There is a decent boot, though the floor level is humped up slightly so it is higher than the bottom edge of the tailgate. This does make space for a full-sized spare wheel to sit underneath, though this is crammed in with nowhere around it for any odds and ends. Still it will comfort many to know that it is there. Despite the raised floor, the boot is still deep under the standard and retractable load cover and it is a nice regular shape, so prove generous to meet every day needs. The rear seat backrests are split 40/20/40 and simply drop down to create a long and flat load area. Inside the cabin, ample provision is made for bits and pieces with a good-sized glovebox, generous pockets on the door, a central armrest cubby, and a useful tray which is actually the lid over the cupholders in the console and a small lidded cubby over the driver’s left knee.
There is a much smaller range of X3 models in the US than we see in Europe: just three, and all of them petrol powered. These are the sDrive30i, xDrive30i and M40i. The sDrive30i and the xDrive30i are identically equipped, save for the sDrive being rear-wheel-drive and the xDrive being all-wheel-drive. The M40i has a more powerful engine and a few more standard features. Under the bonnet of the sDrive30i and xDrive30i is a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine (248 bhp and 258 lb/ft of torque) paired to an eight-speed automatic transmission. Standard exterior features include 18-inch wheels, LED headlights and foglights, automatic wipers, roof rails, a power tailgate, a rearview camera, and power-folding, auto-dimming and heated mirrors. Inside, you’ll find an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel with wheel-mounted shift paddles, keyless ignition, adjustable driving modes, tri-zone automatic climate control, power-adjustable front sport seats, a 40/20/40-split rear seat with individual seat recline, simulated-leather upholstery, driver-seat memory settings, a 6.5-inch central display, BMW’s iDrive infotainment interface, a USB port and a 12-speaker audio system. There are multiple option packages available for the sDrive30i and the xDrive30i. The Convenience package adds LED headlights, keyless entry, a panoramic sunroof, satellite radio, and four-way power lumbar adjustment for the front seats. The M Sport package adds the contents of the Convenience package, plus 19-inch wheels, more aggressive-looking front and rear bumpers, a sport steering wheel and a simulated-leather-covered dashboard. Selecting either of these opens the gates to the Dynamic Handling package, which includes adaptive suspension dampers, upgraded brakes and variable-ratio steering. The M40i gets the content of those optional packages as standard. It also has a turbocharged 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine (355 bhp, 369 lb-ft of torque), adaptive LED headlights, automatic high beams, a sport exhaust, a sport-tuned suspension, front and rear parking sensors, a launch control feature, and the contents of the above three packages. Whichever X3 you get, consider adding the Driving Assistance package, which has forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, and blind-spot monitoring with cross-traffic alert. There’s also the Driving Assistance Plus package (Driving Assistance package, adaptive cruise control, front cross-traffic alert and lane keeping assist) and the Parking Assistance package (front and rear parking sensors, an automated parking system and a 360-degree parking camera). Then there are the big-ticket Premium and Executive packages that either require some of the previous packages or bundle features from them. Notably, the Premium package adds features such as heated front seats, a navigation system, a larger 10.3-inch central touchscreen, a digital gauge cluster, and Apple CarPlay. Some of the above features can be ordered as stand-alone options. Additional extras, depending on packages selected, include 20- and 21-inch wheels, ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, manual side window shades, wireless phone charging a 16-speaker Harman Kardon sound system, and a trailer hitch. As with most rental cars, the test car came pretty much in standard spec, though it did appear to have the Convenience Package added to it.
Plenty of reviewers. on both sides of the Atlantic have eulogised over the X3, rating it very highly. Whilst I make no secret of the fact that I am not really a “BMW person”, if their cars impress me, as some do, and some don’t, I am not going to allow any bias or prejudice to preclude me from saying that I agree with those reviewers. This one, though left me a bit indifferent. For sure, it scores well on space and practicality, but this is a BMW, which not only means the “ultimate driving machine” but given is pricing and market positioning should also exude a premium feel when you sit in it. And this car did not really tick either of those boxes. It was pleasant enough to drive, but certainly not better than its equally premium-badged rivals, almost all of which I have sampled, though not necessarily in quite equivalent engine and trim versions. And the quality inside suggested that here’s another car where BMW have pared it back to what they think they can get away with, rather having the sumptuous feel of certainly an Audi and to some extent most of the rivals. The X3 sells very strongly, for sure, but I suspect that is down to a combination of very competitive finance deals (and sizeable discounts, as several people I know have found out!) and the fact that people still like the idea of driving a BMW no matter how it drives. So a decent enough car, but if there was a line of all the premium-badged crossovers, at least in this guise, the BMW would not be the one I would rush to pick.