‘Front row’ compact SUV has 4×4-based dynamic appeal

by Huw Thomas, chairman, Welsh Motoring Writers

BMW’s new X3 was launched last Autumn and came here early this year. Although its focus is on-road, all UK models have the ‘xDrive’ permanent 4×4 system and Hill Descent Control. So, it can do a bit more than merely cross a muddy field.

The ‘X’ range has developed into two types. X1, X3 and X5 are recognisable SUVs with 5-door estate-type bodywork. X2, X4 and X6 offer the raised ground clearance and xDrive 4×4 of the others but are more ‘crossover’, ‘coupe-style’ hatchbacks.

X1 and X2 are front wheel drive cars with xDrive as an extra but do have the choice of a (6-speed) manual gearbox or 8- speed auto. The larger vehicles have classic longitudinal lay- outs but are 8-speed auto-only here.

Jeep could claim their 1992 Grand Cherokee as the first modern-era SUV but it was BMW’s X5 of 1999 which really defined the breed. Although developed in parallel the 3rd generation Range Rover and X5 were quite different. The former offered luxury and class-leading on/off-road ability, the latter outstanding on-road dynamics.

It had no transfer box so no low ratio gearing but the permanent 4×4 system was the key to its road-holding prowess with enough scope for the occasional off-tarmac excursion. Here then, for the first time, was an SUV for the keen driver.

Now, it could be said that the first X3 of 2003 was rather in the shadow of the X5. Although dynamically competent it was less than exceptional and the interior something of a disappointment. Not that it affected sales – over 1.5 million since 2003. Such issues were addressed with the 2nd generation X3 of 2010 and the latest X3 builds on that delivering much of an ‘X5 experience’ in a more compact form.

Compact is a relative term and the new X3 is on the substantial end of the spectrum. Longer and wider with a wheelbase notably longer, rear seat space and load area have clearly benefitted. The rear seat is split 40-20-40 for fold- down flexibility too.

Engines: 2.0i 4-cylinder petrol (184ps) or 2.0d Diesel (190ps) and BMW’s classic 3.0-litre ‘straight six’ (in-line 6-cyl not a “V”). For the first time there are very fast M-Division variants: M40i (354ps) or M40d (326ps). They sit above the 3.0d (265ps) – the most attractive proposition, budget-permitting (£46,055-£48,555). Majority choice, however, will be the 2.0d (£40,120-£42,620). (Petrol 2.0i: 39,120-£41,620.)

Car on test: 2.0d xDrive in ‘M Sport’ guise (£42,620). Not to be confused with the ‘M proper’ (it’s a trim level) but the front seats offer greater (power-adjustable) side support and an extending squab/base for the longer-legged driver.

BMW has done much to improve the 2.0d engine and it’s no longer a choice dictated by tax, cost or business reasons. It has a heavier ‘workload’ than in a saloon but it is smoother and quieter than before. It pulls strongly aided, if pressing on, by resort to the auto’s manual override (well-placed steering wheel paddles also useful here).

The 4×4 system is biased 40-60 front-back for classic rear wheel drive handling but 100 per cent can go to either axle if needs be. Ride is firm (even on ‘Comfort’) but not uncomfortable. For a ‘high-rise’ SUV, the ride-quality versus road-holding trade-off is nicely judged – steering too feels direct and well-weighted (i.e. not blandly light).

Asking prices, however, are high, standard specifications rather basic and ‘extras’ can easily add £10,000 to the initial cost. Nonetheless this is a “front row” vehicle with true 4×4- based driver appeal, easy practicality and a feeling of real substance.

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