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The stakes have never been higher for BMW’s mid-sized SUV, now the X3 in its third generation. So can it deliver?

The BMW X3 family has undergone a bit of a coming of age in transition to its third full-model generation, something about which you’ll be reading in detail in this review.

And the BMW's growing up and general maturing process coincides neatly with a dimensional expansion that has made it a longer, wider car than the original BMW X5 that arrived on the scene in 1999.

Rear LEDs are sculpted, à la Porsche’s Macan, and add a little interest to the X3’s resolutely bulky proportions

Since the first BMW X3’s launch in 2003, BMW has sold more than 1.5 million units worldwide, a success story it will no doubt be eager to continue with the version that’ll take the model into its third decade on sale.

The car’s increase in overall length – 51mm over the outgoing 2011-2017 BMW X3 model – creates more space in the back than ever before and aesthetically the X3 looks even more athletic. There’s no drastic departure from the design language of the second-gen model, but the mild redesign helps give the soft-roader a new lease of life and brings it closer in line with BMW’s other models.

The X3’s price position within BMW’s SUV range is as you’d imagine it to be. Starting at £37,980, it’s more than £10,000 cheaper than the no-frills version of the X5 and just over £11,000 more expensive than the school-run-favourite BMW X1 – even though the car is now a much closer match on size for the X5 than the X1. A good omen for metal-for-the-money fans, perhaps.

Those after a slightly fruitier X3 will see the appeal in the BMW X3 M40i – the first X3 to receive the M Performance treatment – thanks to its 355bhp 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine and claimed 0-62mph time of 4.8sec.

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The car we’re testing here, however, is the bigger-selling, more sensible and family friendly SUV, the BMW X3 188bhp 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel, although four-cylinder petrol and six-cylinder diesel engines arealso available.

BMW claims the latest X3’s design is more confident and off-road inspired – and for the most part, as the road test always has, we’ll leave its visual merits up to you to judge.

Where the car is really going to have to impress, though, is on the tarmac. BMW has a knack for making cars a cut above the competition when it comes to driving dynamics, but the X3 hasn’t traditionally been the best of them.

This road test will determine whether this new version better lives up to its maker’s reputation.


BMW X3 front kidney grille

What has changed for this middleweight SUV? Very little and, at the same time, rather a lot.

The car’s wheelbase has been extended by 50mm and its overall length by a similar margin, and it’s based on BMW’s lighter, stiffer CLAR platform, as used in the firm’s latest generation of longways-engined saloons and estates.

An BMW X3 or an Audi Q5? If going for four cylinders, I’d take the smoother Audi, but a straight six X3 30d M Sport would be tough to beat

The car has ended up looking sizeable although not excessive for its class. A long bonnet and short overhangs give it a more athletic stance than some rivals and BMW’s trademark kidney grille has become even more prominent than it used to be on the car and increasingly sculpted.

Weight is said to be down by 55kg, with aluminium used for the doors and bonnet and high-tensile steel now found within the floorpan. Our test car weighed a touch more than 1800kg – almost exactly matching the fine-handling Alfa Romeo Stelvio in similar specification.

The engine line-up is similarly familiar. It’s the 188bhp 2.0-litre diesel 20d going under the microscope here, although you can up your cylinder count from four to six by opting for the 3.0-litre 261bhp 30d. Elect for petrol and there’s a choice of either the 181bhp 20i or the 3.0-litre of the M40i, which packs 355bhp.

A reportedly improved iteration of BMW’s eight-speed Steptronic automatic gearbox is fitted to all variants (there’s no manual option this time around) as is the xDrive full-time all-wheel-drive system, which defaults to a 40/60 front-to-rear torque split but can, if conditions dictate, deliver the lot to either axle.

Hill descent control is standard, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this car can pass as a proper off-roader, despite the impressive half-metre wading depth.

The X3 comes in three trim levels, beginning with SE, with the more luxurious xLine above it and stiffened M Sport sitting at the top, M40i notwithstanding. 

BMW X3 interior

Step inside the X3 (and it is stepping rather than climbing) and you’ll quickly understand what BMW evidently has, which is that buyers in this segment want a vehicle at the confluence of practicality and luxury.

Architecturally, there’s little to distinguish this car from its predecessor, but the detail changes have been executed with aplomb.

They’re gimmicky, but the hidden ‘X’ motifs that become visible when you open the X3’s doors are a nice touch

Much of the switchgear is now electroplated, the crisp dials are newly digital but cupped by physical chromed crescent decorative trims (stylish, although they do straitjacket the potential of the display) and the unusual trim finishings convey a level of lavishness hitherto unfamiliar to X3 owners.

The quality of build and materials seems to have been nudged forward, too, and there’s a softness to the cabin, with no discernible play in any of the fixings.

The feeling is that it has all come together with a laser-guided precision that wouldn’t feel amiss in an Audi Q5; and were it not for the raised ride height, you’d swear you were in BMW’s latest 5 Series.

Thankfully, the fundamentals remain unsullied, with the optional front sports seats of our test car being expertly positioned – they feel low enough to impart confidence but with enough perch to afford an excellent view of the road ahead – and nicely bolstered.

There can be no complaints about the amount of space on offer, either, especially along the rear bench, where head room feels endless and the X3’s lengthened wheelbase has liberated a useful tranche of additional leg room.

The angle of those rear seats can also be adjusted individually and they split 40/20/40. Rounding off the X3 as a practical proposition is a load bay that can swallow a very competitive 550 litres, or 1600 litres with the rear seats folded down, and three-zone climate control, which now caters for passengers in the rear seats, as well as differentiating between the driver and front passenger.

The X3 gets BMW’s sixth-generation iDrive infotainment system, but it’s a set-up you have to upgrade to fully unleash.

Picking BMW’s Professional Multimedia option (£680) and then adding the Technology Package (£1545) bundles together gesture control, a wi-fi hotspot, wireless smartphone charging and BMW’s digital instruments.

Music lovers might also want to spend £160 on BMW’s Online Entertainment internet music streaming option and £820 on a Harman Kardon stereo. In short, you can have the system you want – if you pay for it. BMW doesn’t even give you Apple CarPlay as standard.

The upgraded infotainment system does at least strike you as worth its premium. The display is large, crisp, bright and responsive and can be controlled via touchscreen, voice control, gesture control (in only limited ways) and rotary input device.

BMW has also become the first car maker to integrate a Microsoft Exchange email server connection into its cars and the X3 offers this at extra cost, allowing you to edit and send business emails securely.

2.0-litre BMW X3 diesel engine

The character of this 20d engine – codenamed B47 and first seen in the previous-generation 5 Series – hits something of a sweet spot for cars of this type, although it’s not perfect.

Paired with the eight closely spaced ratios of the short-shifting Steptronic transmission, it’s nicely refined under load and develops enough accessible torque to guarantee that progress remains unflustered and discreet almost all of the time. It is, in a word, amenable.

Chassis is unflappable even when you seek to unsettle it on a trailing throttle around the off-camber corners

Engaging? Not so much. Peak twist of 295lb ft arrives between 1750rpm and 2500rpm, soon after which the eight-speed auto is keen to move up a gear and drop the engine speed back into its comfort zone.

Even in manual-shift mode, our test car would hold on until only 4800rpm or so, which is well short of the indicated 5500rpm redline and suggestive of a dearth of efficiency in the higher reaches of the rev range, despite the use of a variable-geometry turbocharger. It’s an engine tuned for the workhorse demands of its target audience, certainly.

With that torque, the X3 is an on-paper match for the Q5 2.0 TDI, although it is a way short of the flooding 347lb ft you get in the 2.2-litre Stelvio diesel.

Our road test data (collected in similar conditions) indicates that the Alfa Romeo is substantially quicker, barrelling to 60mph in 6.8sec compared with the 8.3sec of its Audi counterpart.

Still, since it matched the sprinting prowess of the equivalent Q5 almost exactly to 60mph, 100mph and over a standing quarter mile and easily outstripped the mark of a Jaguar F-Pace, the X3 can’t be considered slow.

With all-wheel drive, limited power and plenty of tyre contact patch through which to drive, traction was never a problem for our test car, even in slightly slippery conditions.

The X3 was also the equivalent of an adult passenger heavier than its Italian rival on our scales, which will have had a hand in its slight touring-economy deficit to the Alfa Romeo Stelvio (49.7mpg plays 48.8mpg).

That still makes for a cruising range of almost 650 miles dispatched with minimal fuss and – thanks to the acoustic glazing of the windscreen and, optionally, the front side windows – very little in the way of wind noise. A class-leading drag coefficient of 0.29 undoubtedly helps in this regard.

BMW X3 cornering

If there’s one area in which BMW has made good progress with the X3, it’s the ride quality.

The original was found wanting in this regard, although its replacement improved matters greatly, and now this latest model is even more accomplished.

Strong, robust handling balance and effective torque vectoring let you open the X3’s taps early in tighter bends

Indeed, normally we might dissuade you from specifying 19in wheels – as fitted to our M Sport test car – but in this case there’s still a good chunk of Michelin sidewall on offer so the X3’s ability to absorb ruts and coarse surfaces remains unsullied.

There’s grip, too, meaning the suspension has a solid base on which to operate and can by and large elude the lateral see-sawing sensation you sometimes get when tall but under-tyred SUVs struggle for purchase with the road.

The result is a deep-seated composure that’s impressive even for a marque that, with the first-generation X5, proved SUVs really could do ‘handling’.

A Audi Q5 riding on air suspension isolates its occupants from the road better still, as does a like-for-like Mercedes-Benz GLC, but in doing so, both sacrifice the perception apparent in the BMW that you can barrel into bends as keenly as if you were in a much lower, lighter car.

In short, BMW has struck a good balance with this car. And its optional variable damper control, which alters the suspension characteristics through three modes and was fitted to our test car, adds plenty of dynamic breadth of ability.

For keen drivers, the X3 sits between the class’s more talkative options (think Jaguar F-Pace, An Alfa Romeo Stelvio) and the resolutely numb Audi Q5 in how it communicates the road through its steering, although any feel at all is gratefully received.

Our test car also featured BMW’s variable-ratio steering system, which makes the X3 effortlessly wieldy during low-speed manoeuvres but can feel unnatural if you’re attempting to neatly splice a tightening radius.

It’s probably worth having, if only because it makes the car feel usefully small at times and, on the balance of duties, it will likely help more often than hinder.

The X3’s handling satisfies moderately high expectations when it’s driven quickly. With smarter directional responses and tauter body control than the average medium-sized SUV, and a fairly tenacious grip level that maintains decent inter-axle balance even when leant upon for hard cornering, the car feels like the natural choice of a keener driver – albeit one who expects the comfort and isolation of a typical SUV.

Alfa Romeo Stelvio and a Porsche Macan feel markedly more dynamic handling prospects still, in other words, but neither has the roundedness, refinement or maturity of this BMW.

The X3 has fine stability, with its electronic stability and traction controls on and off. Leave them on, dialled back to Sport+ and Traction modes, and you’ll find them unobtrusive until they’re really needed. But don’t expect classic BMW rear-drive throttle-on handling adjustability if you turn them off.


A decade ago, it would have been realistic to expect this car to lead its segment on CO2 emissions and fuel economy, given BMW’s wider record on such things, but not any more.

Look across a range of rivals for our X3 test car today – at a like-for-like Audi Q5, Mercedes-Benz GLC, Alfa Romeo Stelvio, Jaguar F-Pace and Land Rover Discovery Sport – and you’ll find the BMW sits plumb in the middle of the pack with its NEDC lab test economy and emissions claims.

CAP expects the X3 to marginally outperform the Q5 on retained value in its first year, but not by year three

It’s competitive but not outstanding, then; and that’s backed up by how the touring fuel economy test result we recorded (48.8mpg) compares with those of its competitors (Alfa Romeo Stelvio 2.2d 210 49.7mpg, Audi Q5 2.0 TDI 190 42.0mpg and Volvo XC60 D4 48.9mpg).

BMW has priced the car similarly competitively without attempting to overtly undercut its key competitors and, with our sources forecasting good residual values, the X3 should end up looking competitive when priced up on monthly finance for those willing to drive a decent bargain.

Unlike in every car in the class, BMW UK is currently providing an automatic gearbox and four-wheel drive on every X3 as standard.

Entry-level SE cars get 18in alloy wheels, three-zone air conditioning and an infotainment system with factory navigation, a DAB radio and real-time traffic information, but among the advisable options you’re obliged to pay extra for are a widescreen Professional multimedia system and (annoyingly) Apple CarPlay smartphone mirroring software.

Run-flat tyres can be avoided on the car, but only in conjunction with three of the 10 available wheel options – and therefore only if you buy an entry-level SE-trim car, or an xDrive30d M Sport, or a top-of-the-line M40i petrol.


4 star BMW X3

BMW’s mid-sized family SUV has taken large strides between its second-generation form and this, its third-model epoch.

It has now developed the kind of completeness and class that ought to make it a contender for almost anyone shopping in this increasingly popular market segment, while retaining the better than average grip, poise and performance to attract BMW’s familiar customer base.

Extra refinement, space and class lift it to the brink of class leadership

Even though our test car was fitted with run-flat tyres, it had ride and refinement good enough to bear comparison with any rival.

Even so, Audi’s Audi Q5 still has it narrowly licked for general comfort, cabin isolation and perceived quality; and knowing how much those things matter to typical buyers of premium SUVs, we can only give the Audi the nod.

However, this BMW wins our recommendation over every other rival, being truly expensive-feeling and proving composed and thoroughly well polished on the road; and yet it is also more encouraging to drive than most of its SUV rivals.

And that particular sweet spot is one that BMW has never struck quite as soundly.


Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

BMW X3 First drives