THE X FACTOR
BMW's X3 offers many of the attributes of their all-conquering X5 4x4 in a more manageably sized package. June Neary tries the improved second generation version for size
Will It Suit Me?
I must admit that I like the idea of a big BMW 4x4 and having tried the BMW X5 at a friend's house in Worcestershire, I found myself rather warming to it. It was only when I tried to pilot the thing through a Birmingham rush hour that my enthusiasm paled somewhat. Yes, the elevated seating position gave a great view of what was going on, but it just felt like a lumbering beast amidst a sea of teeming citycars. If they could retain the look and feel but package it into a more manageably sized model, that would surely have to be a winner. It seems that somebody at BMW obviously concurs, because the improved second generation X3 we're going to look at here is just that - albeit a little larger than the first generation version and therefore about the same size as the MK1 model X5. There's a strong family resemblance, too, but look for that upwardly rising rear side window and you'll have tagged the X3. I was looking forward to a spell behind the wheel.
So this 'evolved' X3 is larger, plusher, faster and more efficient than ever, stacking up impressively against prestigiously-badged alternatives from Audi, Land Rover and Volvo in this sector. And because it's targeted almost exclusively towards on-road use, it's another example of just how car-like a model of this kind can be. Facelift changes for this revised MK2 model have seen both front and rear bumpers gain shapelier contours, while the LED indicators are now housed in the exterior mirrors. If the notion of a 'baby X5' makes you think you'll be sacrificing interior space, don't worry. You don't. Compared to the first generation X5, there's a similar amount of space inside and despite featuring split fold rear seats that can't fold flat, the overall luggage capacity is actually more than an X5 and the simpler one-piece rear tailgate is a good deal more practical. The rear bench itself hasn't any fancy sliding, reclining or removable tricks, but you can specify its push-button folding mechanism in 40:20:40 form to offer a bit more flexibility should you need to increase the 550-litre boot to 1500-litres by folding the back chairs forward. So, yes, whether you need to transport dogs, flat-pack furniture - or even a mountain bike with both wheels attached, it will probably fit.
Behind the Wheel
At the wheel, the dash and seating position are just tall enough for your perch to feel SUV-like and the leather-lined, beautifully finished cabin feels an up-market place to be, dominated by its standard 6.5-inch colour iDrive display screen, upgraded to 8.8 inches with the Professional Multimedia package I tried. The iDrive control is down by the gearstick, supplemented by extra buttons to make it easier for you to find everything from navigation to ventilation. But then, wasn't the original point of iDrive to reduce button clutter? Whatever. The all-diesel range opens with a front-wheel drive model, the 150PS sDrive18d. Need drive going to each corner? Then try the xDrive20d model I sampled with an uprated 190PS version of BMW's 2.0-litre diesel installed. With 380Nm of torque on tap, you'll get to 62mph in 8.1s. Above this, there are a couple of six-cylinder engines. The xDrive30d makes a healthy 258PS and takes just 5.9 seconds to get to 62mph, while the xDrive35d is a real powerhouse, its 313PS demolishing the sprint in just 5.3 seconds. BMW is keen to tell us about this model's xDrive permanent four-wheel technology. Doubtless, the way that this electronically controlled system can distribute torque as needed to all four wheels depending on the grip at either front or rear will be useful in a snowy snap. Apparently, though, it's really there to make ordinary, everyday tarmac motoring that bit more enjoyable, helping to control the car through bends by, in true BMW style, sending more power rearwards and, if necessary, even lightly braking the inside rear wheel in tight cornering to increase mid-bend agility and traction. As for the rocky ride that owners of the original first generation model might remember, well things are much improved here, with a redesigned independent set-up offering a far more comfortable set-up.
Value For Money
The X3 doesn't come cheap, with prices starting at around £31,000. Don't, in other words, bother comparing it against conventional compacts 4x4s - Toyota RAV4s, Honda CR-Vs and the like: the X3 competes in an altogether more exalted, premium section of this market. This car really competes against more tarmac-orientated competitors at the plushest end of this segment, cars like Audi's Q5, range Rover's Evoque or Volvo's XC60.
Could I Live With One?
I've got a great deal of time for BMW's latest X3. It seems to have come of age in this second generation guise. Now all I have to do is get over the fact that BMW are expecting this car back next week.