2018 BMW X3 First Drive Review: Shifting the Center of Gravity


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The 3 Series might be BMW’s iconic touchstone, but the X3 is fast becoming its lodestone. The sales figures tell the story. In the nine months through September 2017, BMW sold 32,127 X3s in the U.S. It still sold more 3 Series over the same period—43,215—but it’s the trend, not the number, that’s important: X3 sales were up 3.6 percent year on year while 3 Series sales were down 18.6 percent. And that’s not an anomaly—in 2016 3 Series sales finished 25.5 percent down on 2015 while X3 sales were up 38.4 percent. The center of gravity is shifting at BMW.

The third-generation X3 is therefore a critically important new vehicle for the Bavarian automaker. One in three BMWs sold worldwide these days carries an X badge, and BMW clearly expects the X3 to soon supplant the X5 as the company’s most popular SUV, having announced plans to augment production out of Spartanburg, South Carolina, with new X3 assembly lines in South Africa and China opening in 2018. The new X3 is slightly larger and roomier than its predecessor, as you’d perhaps expect, but more importantly, it feels a more mature vehicle to drive, quieter and more composed on the road, and laden with BMW’s latest technology. You can tell this is a product that’s now core to the BMW brand.

The first of the new X3s will arrive in U.S. BMW dealers next month. Two models will initially be available—the $43,445 X3 xDrive 30i, powered by the 248-hp/258-lb-ft turbocharged I-4 and the $55,295 X3 M40i, the first ever M Performance X3 variant, with a 355-hp/369-lb-ft version of the 3.0-liter turbocharged I-6 under the hood and a bunch of sport-oriented mechanical components and appearance items. The X3 xDrive 30d, powered by the 3.0-liter I-6 turbodiesel with 261 hp and a hulking 457 lb-ft of torque from 2,000 to 2,500 rpm, will join the lineup in 2018.

The new X3 rolls on BMW’s new and highly flexible KLAR architecture, which also underpins the new 5 and 7 Series models. Compared with the previous X3, it’s about 2 inches longer overall and about a half-inch wider. More importantly, the wheelbase has been increased by 2.2 inches, which means a welcome increase in rear-seat legroom. The exterior design is an evolution of the previous X3’s, though it articulated the current BMW house style, with fuller surfaces and softer lines. It not only looks more sophisticated than the old X3, especially riding on 19- or 20-inch wheels, but also boasts an impressive drag coefficient of just 0.29.

The old X3’s interior looked cheap and felt it. By contrast, the new X3’s cabin is plush and premium, with a richer mix of colors and materials, plus digital dash hardware and switchgear that’s clearly been trickled down from the more expensive 7 and 5 Series. The dash is dominated by a 10.0-inch infotainment display screen that BMW claims is the largest in the segment and can be controlled—depending on which options you choose—up to four different ways via touch, gesture, voice, or the good old fashioned iDrive controller. With the rear seats up, cargo capacity is 28.7 cubic feet. The seats can be folded flat via levers just inside the rear hatch to increase that to 62.7 cubic feet.

We tried the diesel-powered xDrive 30d on a network of mildly rocky trails through the Sintra hills, just north of Lisbon, Portugal, and came away impressed with the diesel engine’s easy drivability—and the surprisingly compliant and controlled ride in the rough stuff, especially as it was fitted with the optional 20-inch wheels and sporty 245/45 front and 275/40 rear tires set to standard street pressures. BMW’s X models are generally regarded as soft-roaders, but the new X3 boasts 8 inches of ground clearance, excellent Hill Descent Control, 25 and 22 degree approach and departure angles, and can wade through water almost 20-inches deep, so you can genuinely take it farther off-road than you think.

BMW has positioned the M40i as the hero vehicle of the new X3 lineup. In addition to the punchy six-cylinder engine, it comes with bigger, more powerful M Sport brakes—13.7-inch rotors up front with four piston calipers and 13.5-inch units at the rear versus 13.0-inch rotors and single piston calipers all round on the regular X3s—plus 19-inch wheels instead of 18s and sportier suspension and steering calibrations. Visual differences include more aggressively styled front and rear fascias, different sills, and M badging.

The M40is we drove in Portugal all rolled on the same top-end wheel and tire combination fitted to our xDrive 30d tester. With spring rates that are effectively 5 percent stiffer up front, 8 percent stiffer at the rear, and that have stiffer stabilizer bars, the ride proved noticeably busier, with a lot more vertical motion transmitted through the cabin. Even so, the M40i felt nowhere near as brittle as the previous-generation X3 did on big wheels and tires.

It’s sport sedan quick, the M40i, especially with everything set in Sport + mode. BMW claims a 4.6-second 0-60-mph acceleration time, and, if you ask nicely, it will reset the 130 mph speed limit—a function of the standard fitment all-season tires—to a proper German autobahn-storming 155 mph. The M40i dives into corners with alacrity, grips hard, and then punches out past the apex once you get on the gas. Left to its own devices, the eight-speed automatic feels alert and responsive, but fanning the paddles is still better for ensuring you’re in the gear you want, exactly when you want.

We’re less convinced by the M40i’s variable sport steering, however. As is the current trend at BMW, the rim section of the sports steering wheel is too thick and sculpted, which makes you feel like you’re wearing boxing gloves when you driving. And, paradoxically, the extra effort that’s been dialed into the system in the name of ‘sportiness’ actually makes the M40i’s steering feel slower and more ponderous than that of the regular X3. The regular X3’s steering is actually not bad—it’s better than some of BMW’s recent effort, and we’d prefer it in the M40i.

The M40i will grab all the headlines, but a well-specced xDrive 30i with the standard suspension and steering settings but on 19-inch wheels and tires, is, for most people, going to be the pick of the new X3s. According to BMW, it’s only 1.4 seconds slower to 60 mph. Besides, where in the U.S. can you drive 155 mph?

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