Don’t expect any vaulting advances from BMW’s latest X3, the formula for this all-new version is very similar to that of its predecessor. 

Given that BMW has sold over 1.5 million X3s over the first two editions and 14 years, that shouldn’t be a surprise, inching inter-generational progress the evolutionary hallmark of every car that’s a big hit. 

In fact this third-generation X3 contains useful advances on multiple fronts, not the least of them on the aesthetic, dynamic, connected and tactile fronts.

Tactile? If you order your X3 with Fineline open-pored wood, and Aluminium Rhombicle interior trim highlights, you’ll discover that it’s impossible to resist touching each of these textures a second time, and many more, once you have run your fingers over them. The open-pored wood allows you to feel the contours of its grain on both dashboard and door tops, while the aluminium trim decorates the centre console, dashboard and more.

The X3’s delightfulness is in the detail

This may seem the stuff of mildly irrelevant detail, except that it underlines how well-finished this cabin is, regardless of your décor choices, making this latest X3 a particularly satisfying place to occupy. Especially if it’s filled with the natural illumination provided panorama roof, leather upholstery and so-called Sensatec trim to the dashboard, this double-stitched leather further heightening the aura of craftsmanship.

As for trim levels, there are three core trims – SE and M Sport. Entry-level models get 18in alloy wheels, cruise control, LED headlights, aluminium roof rails and dual chrome exhausts as standard on the outside, while inside there is tri-zone climate control, heated front seats and BMW’s excellent iDrive infotainment system complete with sat nav, Bluetooth and USB connectivity and DAB radio.

Upgrading to xLine adds 19in alloy wheels, more underbody protection, sports seats, LED front foglights and a larger fuel tank. Topping the range is the M Sport trim, which adorns the X3 with a sporty bodykit, LED foglights, an improved braking system, sports suspension, and a 10.25in infotainment system and semi-digital instrument cluster.

Those opting for the M40i get a few extra additions such as 20in alloy wheels, adaptive LED headlights, electrically adjustable front seats, variable sports steering set-up and a digital instrument cluster.

The seats are very comfortable too, those in the rear, which optionally recline, serving a more comfortable posture and more space, too, this the result of a wheelbase lengthened by five centimetres.

Despite the stretch this new X3 occupies very similar roadspace to the last, the rest of its dimensions barely changed. The ideal 50:50 weight distribution remains too, but there are subtle and extensive changes to the suspension that promise a useful advance, these detailed in the tech box. The X3 is game for modestly challenging off-road adventures too, what with its 204mm ride height, reasonable approach and departure angles and a 500mm wading capability.

Propelling the BMW X3 forwards

A broad choice of engines is offered, ranging from 181bhp 2.0i turbo petrol four to the 355bhp 3.0 litre six cylinder M40i, the diesel 187bhp 20d and six cylinder 261bhp 30d provided in-between. All come with an eight-speed paddle shift automatic transmission as standard.

Among these only the 30d is significantly changed compared to the engines of the outgoing X3, its peak torque climbing usefully to 457lb ft from the previous 413lb ft; power output also rises slightly, from 254bhp to 261bhp.

The X3’s overall weight is up to 55kg lighter depending on the model, the combination of this and the 30d’s greater power slicing its 0-62mph by a tenth to 5.8sec, while its top speed lifts to 149mph from 144mph. A sizeable drag coefficient reduction, from 0.36 to 0.29, also helps, detail aero improvements including air curtains across the front wheels, a rear spoiler with sculpted end-plates, additional underbody cladding and active radiator grille vanes. The double kidney grille itself is taller and distinctly more emphatic than before, besides capping a slightly shorter front overhang. 

Stretching the BMW X3’s legs

The new X3 carries a distinctly more athletic demeanour too, the gentle rake of its roofline, the slightly flat-topped wheel housings, the longer wheelbase and a more horizontal, waist-level bone-line that no longer begins with a Concorde-esque droop all conspiring to make its predecessor appear slightly ungainly. Not that the outgoing model felt like that on the move, and this new X3 still less so.

It was BMW that built the first SUV that didn’t feel slightly precarious in a bend, the 1999 X5’s confident poise and keener steering making it easier to forget your distance from the road below. Over 18 years and 5.4 million X models it has progressively improved on that, this latest X3 sufficiently at home with direction changing that you can chuck it about like a large hatchback.

The X3 30d is noticeably less incisive than the impressive new M40i, but it’s very able and doesn’t push its sporting capabilities to the fore, as befits this more mainstream version. Instead, you become aware of its strengths more gradually, rising miles uncovering confident balance, modest body roll, calmly responsive steering and a pleasingly supple ride. Off-road, where the X3 has deeper abilities than many similarly scaled crossovers, it has adaptive four-wheel drive, hill descent control and robustness in its armoury. The test car was fitted with BMW’s variable damper control, incidentally, which should be considered essential unless you’re numb to the niceties of ride and handling.

More widely appreciated will be the X3’s impressive refinement, the commotion of motion additionally suppressed by an acoustic windscreen and the improved aerodynamics. The BMW’s 3.0 litre diesel six is a civilised device too, its high compression combusting rarely betraying its diet. It also provides plenty of solid zest across a broad rev range, making any journey pretty effortless. In fact, below 1500rpm this six is surprisingly sleepy, the fast-swelling strength of its torque suddenly undammed at 1500rpm. That would be annoying if this were a manual, but with a well-managed eight speed auto harnessing the engine’s efforts, you must actively hunt out this shortfall to find it.

As you’d expect there’s a battery of electronic protection features, including lane departure warning, city brake and rear collision warning. New to the X3 is a more advanced driver assistance suite, its semi-autonomous camera and radar generated content including active cruise control, corrective steering within lanes, evasion assistance and traffic jam assist. There’s scope, then, for making this X3 very connected and very protected.

Is the X3 a worthy investment?

The car beneath all this increasingly common technology is a good one. It carries its SUV height and mass with aplomb, it provides fine-mannered dynamics that a keen driver will find reasonably enjoyable (the keen will favour the rapid and fleet-footed M40i, however) and its interior is that well crafted that it’s a pleasure to sit in and touch. There’s plenty of scope for configuring it to suit your favoured materials and palette, too.

This X3 also bears the hallmarks of the car’s advance towards autonomy, if without breaking any new ground. More useful for many will be its heightened connectivity potential. Some will probably prefer to spend on that, and various other options, rather than choosing the 30d over the less potent but still brisk 20d. The 30d’s extra cylinders and extra thrust add refinement and go for no more than a small impact on economy. Indulgent diesels, however, could be becoming a thing of the past.

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