The improved BMW X3 sDrive18d offers strong value and an intriguing rear-wheel drive chassis. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
The BMW X3 sDrive18d is far from the most obvious compact SUV choice but if you like the subtly tweaked looks but can do without the expense of all-wheel drive, it's a potentially clever pick. 2WD compact SUVs are normally front-driven. This one has drive going to the rear end, an interesting solution in a car that looks decent value.
Few cars have quite the same capacity for destroying your preconceived ideas as does BMW's X3. Many still remember it as a bit of a duffer and the first X3 that was launched in this country is best forgotten. BMW got things right second time round though with the 2010 launch of the second generation X3, a design that was bigger, better to drive, more handsome and more efficient. It even started to get quite sporty at the top end of the line, but here we're looking at the entry-level car. Which, as it happens, might just be the most interesting variant on sale. Just don't call it a 4x4 because it's not. The X3 sDrive18d directs drive to its back wheels. Most 'faux-by-fours' are front wheel drive, being based on vehicles which usually drive their front wheels and call the back wheels into play when the fronts lose grip. That's not BMW's way and the sDrive18d is a bit of a curious item as a result, albeit one that's not without its own appeal, especially in the mildly updated 150PS guise we look at here.
Some may wonder what the point is of a rear-wheel drive SUV. After all, directing power to the rear wheels when the engine's up front is generally viewed as the setup that offers the worst traction in slippery conditions, right? Forget about all that for a moment though and think of this X3 as a 3 Series Touring that's been hitting the gym and it all falls into place. Worried about winter grip? Budget for some winter tyres. Let's face it, you're not going to take the thing off road. X3 owners just don't tend to go in for that. Under the bonnet of this subtly revised model is an uprated 150PS four-cylinder 2.0-litre turbodiesel that's got some respectable torque at its disposal, fully 360Nm in fact between 1750 and 2500rpm. Couple that with less weight than in any other X3 and it results in a car that can accelerate to 62mph in well under 10 seconds and which will only wave the white flag at 121mph. A six-speed manual gearbox is fitted as standard although there is a butter-smooth eight-speed automatic available as an option. Whisper it, but this car might just have the nicest steering of any X3 as well.
Design and Build
Often these mid-life facelifts are real blink and you miss it stuff, a tweaked side repeater here, different grille elements there. Not this time. The X3 gets much the same frontal treatment as the larger X5, with the kidney grille monopolising the real estate between the redesigned headlight units. Push a bit more money into your dealer's hand and the headlights can be full LED units. Both the front and rear bumpers have gained shapelier contours, while the LED indicators are now housed in the exterior mirrors. Add four paint finishes and five alloy wheel designs and that's the lot on the outside. The second generation X3 was always a class act inside, with only some of the less obvious plastics feeling a bit scratchy. This latest car improves the look and feel, as indeed it needs to up against quality like the Audi Q5 and the Porsche Macan. There are understated chrome fillets, as well as other quality finishes like piano black trim and wood panelling with pearl chrome highlights, plus functional improvements like cupholders beneath a sliding cover in the centre console. One thing that hasn't changed is that the X3 still offers a serious amount of interior space. Pop the hatch and there's 550-litres with the seats up and 1,600-litres with the seats folded.
Market and Model
The sDrive18d is only offered in the base SE trim level. That features Nevada leather upholstery, two-zone air conditioning, iDrive controller and colour display, metallic paint, satin aluminium roof rails, 17-inch alloy wheels and Dynamic Stability Control with extended features. The enhanced DSC includes brake drying, brake fade compensation, brake pre-tensioning and hill-start assistant. You'll need to budget at around £31,000 if you want the manual model, or just above £32,500 if you prefer the automatic variant. That's not actually bad value for money given that this X3 drives well, is spacious, well equipped and very well finished. To put it into perspective, that's still less than you'd pay for the plushest version of Honda's CR-V.
Cost of Ownership
With less weight and no all-wheel drive mechanicals scavenging power, it's little wonder that this is the most economical X3 BMW makes. The combined fuel economy figure is 56.5mpg and before we nod and think 'not bad' it's worth remembering that this is a chunky SUV that gets to 62mph in 9.5 seconds and is packed with gear. That figure then, is little short of amazing and even around town there's a figure quoted in excess of 50mpg. We normally say that if you want a broad brush illustration of what you'll get in day to day driving that it's usually better to look at the urban figure and I'm sure most owners would be delighted with a 48mpg average. There's good news when it comes to emissions too. At just 131g/km, the X3 sDrive18d is in a taxation class below any other X3 - which might make the difference between this model being eligible as a company car choice for some. I know of more than one big company that limits staff to picks from VED bands A-E only.
Sometimes the best answers aren't always the most obvious ones. If you'd have asked me before whether a rear-wheel drive BMW X3 was a good idea, I'd probably have demurred. After all, what does it do better than a 3 Series Touring? In objective terms, not a whole lot. In subjective terms though.... well, where do you want me to start? It's just a more desirable item to many buyers who would see an estate version of a 3 Series as maybe a little too staid. The X3 has gradually morphed into one of the strongest products in BMW's portfolio and offering a more affordable, more economical choice at the right end of the range can only be a good thing. No, there are no four-wheel drive mechanicals and a dusting of snow would certainly have this model in trouble. That said, it's so much cheaper than the rest of the range that a set of winter tyres and snow chains in the boot would see it plough through virtually anything the British winter could throw at it. BMW's aren't always viewed as bargains. Here's one that is.