IN a country where pick-up trucks, food servings and soft drinks are notoriously oversize, it seems appropriate that BMW’s American-built X3 mid-size soft-roader has been upsized to almost the same dimensions of the original X5, the company’s first full-size SUV, or off-road style wagon.
But the bigger, beefier, second-generation X3 is still dwarfed by America’s Detroit-built workhorses particularly on bustling, 12-lane interstate highways around Georgia and South Carolina, as Drive recently experienced during the international launch.
Despite its growth, however, the new model is 20kg lighter and more powerful and efficient than its predecessor by using more lightweight materials and the introduction of fuel-saving technologies including an eight-speed automatic transmission in conjunction with an auto engine stop/start as standard. The latter two make their debut as a pair.
Where the original X3 was widely criticised as possessing the least BMW-like driving characteristics and questionable perceived quality, the new model addresses these concerns.
BMW says that the combination of a broader footprint, 4WD system that biases drive to the rear wheels, a choice of improved suspension arrangements, better weight distribution and an electric power steering system (an X model debut), amount to a more involving drive.
Much of our test loop involved billiard table-smooth roads and lethargic highways – not a fair representation of Australia’s lumpy and sometimes harsh gravel surfaces.
Looking for any surface resembling Australian roads, our test cars coped well through a rough patch of road works despite running on 18-inch alloys and lower-profile, run-flat tyres.
According to BMW Group’s chief assessor of driving dynamics Heinz Krusche, the company has been working closely with its five run-flat tyre suppliers to reduce the side-wall stiffness for improved comfort. As a result, deflated travel distance has been reduced from 150km to 80km, which BMW stresses are conservative recommendations.
Only one engine variant available on test is relevant to Australian buyers, the diesel-powered 20d, and it wasn’t fitted with an auto – the only gearbox bound for local showrooms.
The X3 will initially debut with a familiar 2.0-litre turbo diesel as the sole engine variant when it arrives here around March next year. BMW Australia says there will be “no substantial price increase,” meaning the 20d should remain within striking distance of the previous model’s $62,200 price tag.
Other engine variants expected in the-not-too-distant future include a 28i powered by a 190kW/310Nm 2.8-litre petrol-six from the 528i saloon and a range-topping 30d featuring 3.0-litre, turbo diesel six-cylinder, which, in its current guise across various models, delivers 180kW of power and 520Nm of torque. Both are also set to receive the eight-speed auto.
The spotlight for now, however, remains on the volume-selling 20d, with four out of five Australian X3 buyers opting for the previous entry-level diesel model.
Tuned for modest gains, the 20d’s engine delivers 135kW of power from 4000rpm (up 5kW) and 380Nm of maximum torque between 1750-2750rpm (up 30Nm). Economy, meanwhile, improves by a claimed 14 per cent to 5.6 litres per 100km (from 6.5L/100km) and CO2 emissions by 15 per cent from 172g/km to 147g/km.
Coupled with an irrelevant six-speed manual, the 20d felt much livelier than the outgoing model with the increased torque a welcome addition reducing the need for gear changes.
Relatively quiet with minimal engine vibration entering the cabin, the 20d is pleasantly dead silent while stationary thanks to the stop/start fuel saving function, until the engine is quickly fired back to life as brake pedal pressure is released. We averaged between 7.4L and 7.8L/100km of fuel during our test which also involved a light-duty off-road course.
While most X3s are expected to see only sealed bitumen, at least owners will be pleased to know that their soft-roader can comfortably traverse a decent dirt road, minor river-cum-puddle crossing or moderately steep descent.
This is made easy by the standard Hill Descent Control function which maintains a pre-determined speed removing the need for braking.
We were also teased with a stove-hot 35i performance model not destined for Australia due lack of demand, says BMW. The move is also likely to prevent any potential cannibalisation of the more-expensive X5.
Powered by a familiar 225kW/400Nm 3.0-litre turbocharged six-cylinder petrol engine, the 35i dashes from 0-100km/h in a claimed 5.7 seconds (almost three seconds quicker than the 20d) while using 8.8L/100km of fuel.
Behind the wheel of the 35i, we were able to sample the eight-speed auto and optional Dynamic Drive Control at work which switches between ‘normal’, ‘sport’ and ‘sport plus’ modes for varying degrees of ride comfort.
As the 35i shifted its weight through tight corners with relative ease and minimal body roll, the four-wheel-drive system was able to apportion up to 80 per cent of drive to the rear wheels for spirited driving.
As demonstrated in the new 5-Series mid-sized sedan, the clever transmission imperceptibly works through the gears leaving us only to contemplate its collaboration with the diesel.
Inside, the new model’s 83mm longer and 28mm wider body directly benefits rear-seat passenger legroom (which easily caters for 180cm tall occupants in comfort) and added boot space of 550 litres extending to 1600 litres with the 40/20/40 split-fold rear seat folded flat.
Up front, the X3 mimics the driver’s cockpit of late models with tactile and rubberised steering wheel-mounted buttons, quality, soft-touch materials, the now- intuitive iteration of the iDrive multi-function controller and a handy electric park brake.
Thankfully, the new model eschews its predecessor’s flimsy and awkwardly positioned cupholders for conventionally located cup and bottle holders and ample storage cubbies.
Other interior features include Bluetooth compatibility with smart phones for music and file sharing, head-up display, reversing and top-view cameras and internet access when stationary – most of which likely to be on the 20d’s options list.
Where the original X3 looks narrow, slabby and boasts little road presence, the latest X3 gains a much-needed dose of steroids, borrowing styling cues from the larger and muscular X5 – a model that has been a worldwide sales success for the Bavarian brand.
Exterior highlights include angular headlights with trademark dual-round LED daytime running lights (when fitted with xenon headlights) a broad kidney grille, T-shaped tail-lights and strong concave and convex body surfaces that mimic some of its bigger brother’s athleticism.
Unfortunately, though, the X3 misses out on the X5’s massively flared wheel arches and fat rear rubber for a sumo-squat stance.
Though it could still benefit from even more road presence for X5-like cult status, the new X3 is a welcome leap forward over its woeful predecessor. More a case of evolution than revolution, at least the X3 can hold its head high knowing it’s a now credible and downsized alternative to its revered bigger brother.
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