BMW’s X3 is a premium medium sized SUV with a noticeable leaning toward sporty handling that debuted in its current second-generation form in 2010 - though it underwent an update in 2014 - as the middle child between the smaller X1 and the larger X5.
Because of where it stands in the market as well as the inherent tendency for the Munich automaker to endow their cars with better handling at the expense of a class-leading ride, the X3 is spacious and practical but is able to handle nearly as well as the 3 Series.
During BMW’s first outing with the X3 back in 2003, that initial generation (E83) didn’t have much by way of direct competition. Now, though, the landscape has become rather competitive as it now has the Audi Q5, Mercedes-Benz GLC, Volkswagen Tiguan, Jaguar F-Pace, and the Porsche Macan overlapping an more often uncomfortable margin of the X3’s pie.
Armed with strong engines, typical BMW-level strong build quality, impressive handling chops, and a desirable badge, the X3 can certainly hold its own. But has the mid-size SUV aged gracefully enough to be able to fend off the collective allure of the younger competition?
“Compared to the car it replaces, the second-generation X3 grew to the point that it was almost as large as the original X5.” - Motor Trend
There’s always going to be a subset of the population that have completely opposing views on how a car should look. In the case of the X3, certain angles can lend it a flattering light but it’s fair to say that there are many other better looking cars in the BMW stable.
This generation X3, forgetting the 2015 facelift for a moment, made its debut in 2010, just as BMW was experimenting with even more angular designs before settling on the template we see them using now. The aforementioned LCI (Life Cycle Impulse), did manage to round out some of the more contentious design elements to the original design.
Be in no doubt, though, that this is very definitely identifiable as a BMW even from a distance. It does share many of the cues that make up the X5 and X1, though for whatever reason they don’t seem as proportionate here on the X3, particularly from the front.
Engine and Drivetrain
“The best thing about both the 3.0-litre engines is that, for turbodiesels, they sound pretty good when being extended.” - AutoExpress
Four engines are available locally for the X3, with two options each depending on whether you’d prefer a petrol or diesel. They are all turbocharged four-cylinders and mated to a Steptronic 8-speed torque converter automatic sourced from ZF with power supplied to all four wheels via the standard xDrive AWD system.
These are all found in existing BMWs and have proven to be quite exemplary in their class - petrols have plenty of power spread linearly across the rev band and diesels are generally quite refined and can be tarting with the petrol versions, things kick off with the 20i which generates 135kW and 270Nm.
The more powerful petrol engine uses the same N20 engine but is tuned to extract 180kW and 350kW in the 28i. Fuel consumption is about identical for them both (claimed at 7.5-litres/100km on a combined cycle) but the punchier option is a full 1.5 seconds quicker to 100km/h, treading on hot hatch levels of acceleration.
However, it’s actually the range-topping diesel that is actually the quickest of the bunch. Equipped with a 3.0-litre N57 6-cyliner motor that shoves out 190kW and a mighty 560Nm, it can achieve the century sprint in 5.9 seconds while returning a claimed 5.9-litres/100km. It may not be as zingy or pleasing to the ears under load compared to the petrols, but as diesels run, BMW’s are at the top of the class.
Pick the lesser of the two oil burners, though, and there is still decent performance on offer, coaxed from a 2.0-litre turbodiesel developing 140kW and 400Nm. As such, the 20d is the most frugal with its fuel, claiming to need only 5.2-litres to last it for a 100km journey.
“The X3's interior is classic BMW, from its traditional analog gauges to its sensible ergonomics and restrained sense of style. Most surfaces are covered in high-quality and rich-looking materials, while the center stack cants slightly toward the driver for a more intimate feel.” - Edmunds
Like all BMWs, the X3 has what could be argued as the most driver-focused interior in its class. Immediately noticeable upon first sitting is the angled centre console and switchgear which, of course, is as well made as is to be expected of all the current generation Munich products.
The placement of the iDrive screen is well integrated into the centre stack but the housing wrapped with the screen does give a dated feel to the experience as that’s a staple of BMW’s older interior playbook.
The seating position itself, though sporty, is high up enough to exude an unmistakably SUV-esque feel and there’s ample room in the cabin, though competitors such as the Mercedes-Benz GLC and Audi Q3 do a somewhat better job at looking upmarket in addition to feeling expensive.
Compared to the first-generation X3, this new model is noticeably larger for rear passengers, though legroom could be at a premium if large enough driver happens to be ahead. Five passengers can be ferried in relative comfort, though for long journeys, we reckon four is the reasonable maximum.
In the boot there’s a very generous 550-litres of boot space that arrives at a nicely square storage floor, virtually zero load lip, and useful variable tether points to keep everything nice and organised. Fold the seats, which unfortunately do not lie completely flat, and there’s more space on offer than a 3 Series Touring at 1,600-litres.
Behind The Wheel
“The X3’s chassis—an adaptation of the 3-series’—delivers levels of engagement and poise rare among its peers.” - Car and Driver
As the sporty driving position probably alluded to, it probably comes as little surprise that the X3 is also one of the best SUVs of its class to drive thanks to a well balanced chassis and firmer suspension.
That last point may not suit all potential owners, though some verdicts say that it’s a fair compromise between handling and comfort. Be mindful of the runflat tyres too, as their heavily bolstered sidewalls make for a stiffer ride by default.
Either way, it’s obvious that the X3 has been developed to emanate great road manners instead of more capable off-road abilities, and the xDrive has correspondingly no trouble delivering more grip even when the conditions get a little trickier.
The optional adaptive suspension (Dynamic Damper Control) can go some ways to cushion the more jarring of road imperfections when set to its most comfortable setting, and should be selected if an unfettered ride is what is demanded, though it doesn’t help that the X3 doesn’t do as well as its rivals in the noise insulation department.
Safety and Technology
“Compared with systems in the Audi Q5 or Volvo XC60, BMW’s iDrive is far more logically laid out and has crisper, more modern graphics.” - What Car
As standard, the X3 comes with six airbags, front and rear parking sensors, reversing camera, and, of course, electronic stability control. ANCAP awarded it a 5-star safety rating when the current-generation version first made landfall in 2011.
It does, notably, miss out on autonomous emergency braking - a curious omission at this price - but can be had through either of two optional packages: Driving Assistant or Driving Assistant Plus. The two suites will both apply the brakes for you should it detect an imminent collision, but the Plus is operates via input from both camera and radar-based sensors, works at highway speeds, and will bring the car to a complete stop should it need to whereas the less expensive option will only brake the car to a slow crawl.
Each will come with the iDrive infotainment system, though only the two higher-end variants will gain Navigation System Professional that features the larger 8.8-inch display (as opposed to the smaller 6.5-inch panel) along with a 9 speaker, 205W audio system.
As the halfway house between the X1 and X5, the X3’s appeal does seem to come more naturally, or so it would seem. It’s the sweet spot, so to speak. And in a lot of ways it successfully marries the X5’s practicality with the more approachable size of the X1.
If you’re looking for a practical BMW, the X3 will fill that need. It drives much like a 3 Series Touring, and the extra ride height and cabin verticality is rarely felt in any meaningful way. Combined with the extra practicality and some margin of off-road (or all-weather ability), then it should a rather easy decision.
The truth is that the X3 doesn’t really do anything all that eye-openingly well or particularly badly. Oftentimes, it’s too much of an all-rounder for its own good, feeling quite generically BMW and a little too banally SUV-like, depending on the situation.
But perhaps that’s where the genius of its engineering is on fully display - the fact that it handles both disciplines in a fairly seamless way that’s only appreciable in retrospect. It’s the road car that turned SUV so well that nobody seemed to notice.
What Car - 4/5 - “The BMW X3 is an excellent large SUV. It's classy, spacious and good to drive.”
Car and Driver - 4/5 - “if you can’t bear the thought of driving an actual station wagon instead of a station wagon on stilts—and can deal with BMW’s uninspiring interior design—the X3 remains a fine choice in a fiercely competitive segment.”
AutoExpress - 4/5 - “Given its advancing years, the BMW X3 is still a strong contender in the compact executive SUV class. The 2.0-litre diesel is a strong performer, and the cabin has an edge for build and material quality, even though it’s looking dated.”
Edmunds - “…if you're shopping for a compact luxury SUV, the 2017 BMW X3 remains a go-to choice. It's capable of meeting both your practical needs and luxury aspirations, while stacking up well to new and more recently redesigned competitors.”
Motor Trend - 4/5 - “Should you need to haul any combination of cargo, gear and/or people, the X3’s cabin is also spacious, making it a practical choice for those with active lifestyles….In its class, the BMW X3 is one of the best driving entries, offering sporty driving dynamics that belies its size.”