REVIEW DATE: 24 Apr 2009
BMW's greenest X3 could persuade some of the SUV genre's harshest critics. Steve Walker reports.
BMW burst onto the SUV scene in 2000 with its X5 luxury 4x4. It was big, fast, lavish and unashamedly designed for use on the road rather than off it. Back in those days, the idea that vehicles fitting the X5's description would become quite the sensitive social and environmental issue that they have done seemed about as likely as BMW launching a meek 2.0-litre diesel SUV with 143bhp and 45mpg fuel economy. Times have a curious habit of changing and BMW's X3 xDrive 18d appears much better suited to the current ones than any X5 V8.
The X3 is a smaller, more affordable sibling to the X5, its arrival having freed BMW's largest SUV to blunder off up market and battle toe to toe with the likes of Porsche's Cayenne, Audi's Q7 and the Range Rover. Taking care of business at its lower price point, the X3 still adheres to BMW's overriding 4x4 philosophy by focusing on road-going performance and handling without the distraction of incorporating too much off-road capability. When you look at how 4x4 vehicles are used in the UK, it's an approach that smacks of commonsense. The X3 is fitted with some barnstorming engines at the upper end of its range that make it indecently quick point to point with the added security of all-wheel-drive. The unit we look at here, however, is from the opposite end of the spectrum, a comparatively small and unexciting diesel.
You can never quite rely on BMW's model designation system to relay the facts. The X3 xDrive 18d isn't the most elegant title for a premium compact 4x4 and neither is it the most accurate for a premium compact 4x4 that has a 2.0-litre diesel engine. It's a similar story further down the range where the 116d, 118d, 120d and 123d all use versions of the same 2.0-litre lump. Thankfully, it's a great engine. In this guise the four cylinders, fed by a high-tech common-rail fuel injection system, develop 143bhp at 4,000rpm and 350Nm of torque from 1,750rpm. With the standard xDrive all-wheel-drive system distributing that motive force, the X3 xDrive 18d can reach 62mph in 10.3s and will eventually hit a 121mph top speed. It's some way removed from the kind of performance available at the top end of the X3 range but so are the associated costs.
"The X3 is targeted squarely at road use and it excels on the tarmac."
Buyers of 4x4 vehicles often pay little heed to the kind of 4x4 mechanicals they're getting and this is particularly true with vehicles like the X3 that are targeted specifically at on-road use. BMW's xDrive is worthy of more attention than it often gets with its permanent 4x4 layout and advanced electronic control system. Sensors monitor the amount of grip at each wheel and redistribute power to the front or rear axles to optimise traction. This brings added security in testing conditions on the road and when towing but it will also give the X3 decent ability on off-road tracks or grass. Drivers looking for a hardcore off-roader should definitely look elsewhere though.
The X3 is a noticeably smaller and less overbearing prospect than its X5 stablemate but it shares elevated driving position and serves up loads of cabin space. The rear seats are virtually as roomy as the larger X5, so much so that some family buyers may well question the need for the larger car. A hiccup comes in the middle berth of the rear bench where a chunky transmission tunnel running the length of the vehicle restricts legroom but the boot area is usefully shaped and very large.
The latest X3 reduces the size of the old cheap-looking black side panels to mere running strips and a colour-keyed front spoiler sits below a redesigned bumper assembly. A bigger kidney grille reflects BMW's pride in the latest X3 and front foglights are now incorporated into the main section of the bodywork. Move round to the back and there are LED tail lamps. The interior, the source of much of the X3's reputation for being built down to a price, is now a more salubrious environment. The materials used on the centre console have been uprated and there's a better looking three-spoke steering wheel on offer.
The main rivals for the BMW X3 are other premium compact 4x4s such as Audi's Q5 but the car has also been known to hijack sales of full-size luxury 4x4s and family 4x4s with its practical interior and polished road manners. The xDrive 18d model opens up further possibilities at the lower end of the range for the X3 to pinch customers from the compact 4x4 market. This entry-level model doesn't represent a huge step up in price from the range-topping versions of Toyota's RAV4, HondaCR-V and Land Rover's Freelander.
Anyone brainwashed into thinking that all SUVs are environmental disasters on the scale of the Exxon Valdese should be prescribed a couple of hours locked in a room with the X3 xDrive 18d and its specification sheet. The 45.6mpg economy and 165g/km emissions the car returns aren't particularly spectacular but they are respectable for a five-seat family vehicle of any denomination. A 1.8-litre Toyota Verso MPV, a 2.0-litre Ford Focus CC convertible and a little 2.0-litre Mazda MX-5 roadster are all bigger scourges on the environment in economy and emissions terms.
If questioned a decade ago, is the X3 xDrive 18d the kind of SUV that BMW would have envisaged itself building today or the result of a thorough browbeating from the green lobby changing society's attitude to the 4x4? Whatever the answer, it's a vehicle that puts an additional spanner in the works of the argument suggesting all SUVs are evil.
This isn't your rugged, go-anywhere 4x4 vehicle. The X3 is targeted squarely at road use and it excels on the tarmac. The xDrive 18d model will inherit these attributes along with the surprisingly practical interior and while the performance will be below what some buyers expect from a BMW, the low running costs and price should win many over.
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