The BMW X3 is both frugal and rewarding to drive, a rare and clever technical achievement

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The first BMW X3 arrived in 2004 and shared mechanical components with the four-wheel-drive version of the E46 3 Series.

Much of the BMW X3 development was subcontracted to Austrian company Magna Steyr, which also built the car. As the first mid-size SUV with a premium badge, it had strong early sales in the UK, with a peak of 7600 cars registered in 2006. But the BMW's volumes slumped as more modern rivals entered the market and just 2000 found buyers here in 2009.

The second-generation X3 represents a seismic leap in dynamics and quality over the original model

The original BMW X3 was the first mid-size SUV to offer both the draw of a premium badge and unashamedly road-biased driving manners. Its sales success was in spite of a lack of critical acclaim.

But the second-generation BMW X3 – known within BMW by its F25 design code – faces a far tougher test in a more crowded and competitive marketplace. Everything from the Range Rover Evoque and the Ford Edge to the Audi Q5 and Mercedes-Benz GLC is vying for a share of an increasing market, while now the bigger and more capable second-generation BMW X1 sits beneath the X3 in BMW’s SUV line-up.

BMW has sharpened the X3’s appeal accordingly. Not only is it bigger than the car it replaces, but it’s also claimed to be quicker, greener and even slightly cheaper once extra standard spec is factored in. In 2014, the X3 was facelifted with a range of new engines along with some exterior changes dominating the update.

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The X3 range is limited to twin-turbocharged four-cylinder and six-cylinder diesel engines in the UK. All of the current generation X3 come with four-wheel drive, the pre-facelifted model offered a rear-drive-only sDrive18d. The 3.0-litre diesel, available in two states of tune in the BMW X3 xDrive30d and BMW X3 xDrive35d, offers even better performance and only marginally less impressive economy and emissions than the 2.0-litre four-pot unit, which produces 187bhp.

All versions are offered in a choice of three spec levels – SE, xLine and M Sport – while the four-cylinder models can be had with either a manual or automatic gearbox; the six-pot versions are automatic only.


BMW X3 rear

The good news is that this BMW X3 is a far more harmonious piece of design than its gawky-looking predecessor, a car that always appeared to be teetering on top of overly narrow tracks. The new X3 looks lower to the road, although ground clearance is almost identical, and the heavily contoured flanks give it a reasonably muscular stance. From head on, it bears a strong family resemblance to the BMW X5, with a very similar radiator grille and headlamp treatment.

When the X1 was launched, we noted that it was only slightly smaller than the Mk1 X3, so it’s no surprise that the new mid-size model has expanded in turn. It’s 83mm longer and 28mm wider than its predecessor – although the quest for aerodynamic efficiency means that its height has reduced by 13mm – and it sits on a slightly longer wheelbase. In fact, its ‘footprint’ is nearly the same size as the original X5, even though it’s 82mm shorter overall.

The X3 has much more of a family look than previous models

The standard wheel size is 17in and there is the option to upgrade to either 18in or arch-filling 19in. Most wheel options include run-flat tyres.

The contour line that rises from the front arch to run down the side of the car gives the doors a slightly concave surface. The X3’s doors don’t extend over the sill in the manner of some SUVs (like Land Rover’s Freelander). So if you’ve got dirty sills after some light off-roading, there’s an increased chance of dirtying your clothes on entry/exit.

BMW’s now traditional styling detail, the Hofmeister kink, is present and correct around the rear window.

We also found that the paint finish is to a far higher quality than the previous X3’s.


BMW X3 interior

As befits a car in this segment – and of this price – the BMW X3’s cabin is a classy, well finished place. The switchgear and instruments are shared with other BMW models, but the X3’s blend of a tall dashboard built around a central display screen and its relatively upright seating position work together to create an unmistakable SUV vibe.

It’s decently spacious, with enough adjustment in the front seats and steering column to ensure that even the tallest driver can get comfortable. Using all of the front legroom dramatically diminishes the space left for rear seat passengers, but a decent compromise will allow four average-sized adults to sit in reasonable comfort. The X3 is bound to become something of a school run favourite, in which case there’s plenty of space for kids in the back and good access through the rear doors.

The electric handbrake automatically applies itself when the engine is switched off or the driver’s door opened, but it needs to be disengaged manually each time.

Boot capacity has been increased to an airy 550 litres – 70 litres more than that of the previous generation – and it is accessed via a low tailgate aperture. We have sampled BMW's sports seats (standard on M Sport models, optional on SEs), which gripped a bit too keenly for comfort on longer journeys for our liking.

The entry-level SE trim includes nappa leather upholstery, 17in alloy wheels, front and rear parking sensors, dual-zone climate control and hill-descent contol, while other creature comforts include heated front seats, 6.5in display iDrive infotainment system, including sat nav and DAB, and cruise control. Upgrade to xLine and you will find larger alloys, sports steering wheel and door sill finishers, while the range-topping M Sport trim gets an aggressive bodykit and styling features, sports suspension, sports seats, run-flat tyres and 19in alloy wheels.

As with any BMW, there are numerous options that can be added to the X3 to make it more comfortable or unique to the owner, such options include wireless charging, a Harman and Kardon speaker system, TV and Wifi preparation, electric towbar, heated rear seats, and reversing or 360 degree cameras.


BMW X3 side profile

The BMW X3 benefits from the familiar magic weaved by BMW’s Efficient Dynamics programme, which has given almost all of the company’s model range class-leading green credentials. The X3 delivers similarly impressive numbers.

But the most impressive aspect is the effective invisibility of the economy-boosting eco tech, none of which gets in the way of the driving experience. The four-cylinder X3s manage the neat trick of being both greener and quicker than their rivals. 

The speed the Hill Descent Control tries to maintain can be altered using the cruise control buttons

There are no mechanical surprises. Power for the xDrive20d comes from BMW’s latest 2.0-litre diesel producing 187bhp/280lb ft in the latter. BMW claims a 0-62mph time of 8.5sec for the xDrive20d, which is pretty much on the money; we averaged 8.4sec to 60mph on a damp surface in that variant.

Only at very low revs does the 2.0-litre engine give away its relative lack of capacity, with little pull available below 1500rpm. But from then onwards there’s strong, lag-free urge until the engine starts to tighten up at around 4250rpm. The ultra-precise shift action of the six-speed manual gearbox makes it easy to keep the engine in its broad comfort zone, too.

It’s at the pumps that the X3 really impresses, though. The most frugal (and discontinued) sDrive18d boasts a combined fuel economy figure of 55.4mpg with CO2 emissions of 135g/km, while the xDrive20d scores 54.4mpg and 149g/km, despite the drag of its all-wheel drive system.

The six-cylinder xDrive30d, with 255bhp and 413lb ft of torque, drops the 0-62mph time by over two seconds, making it a seriously quick SUV. Again, it’s a familiar engine, used across the BMW range.

The 30d's fuel economy is only marginally worse than the 20d's, in itself a great feat, given the performance gains. Its combined economy figure is 47.1mpg, with CO2 emissions of just 159g/km.

The range-topping 35d delivers yet more performance, shaving another 0.4sec off the 0-62mph time and offering a greater top speed of 149mph, for marginal economy and emissions losses. It's impressive stuff, but you have to question just how much performance you need from an SUV of this kind.


BMW X3 rear cornering

The greatest dynamic strength of BMW’s X-badged models has always been that they share most of their major suspension components, and a corresponding measure of their driving behaviour, with conventional models from elsewhere in the range. This obviously limits their ultimate off-road performance, but it does translate into road-friendly manners. This trait continues in the X3.

Apart from its different drivetrain, the X3 drives like a taller and slightly heavier 3 Series Touring. It steers with similar precision and offers equally well balanced dynamic responses.

Seems crazy to offer two separate steering options. Our car had Servotronic and variable-ratio sports steering

One of the biggest criticisms of the first-generation X3 was its overly hard ride, and BMW has given this car a far more compliant set-up. Even on upgraded 18in wheels and runflat tyres, the X3 rides rougher British road surfaces with almost effortless disdain. The suspension can be upgraded with an adaptive damper control system, which offers Normal, Sport and Sport+ modes. In our experience, Normal offers the best body control, negating the obvious point of the stiffer settings.

You can also elect to add Servotronic steering, which varies the level of power assistance, and variable-ratio sports steering, again an option. The presence of both systems feels like dynamic overkill on what is, ultimately, still a diesel SUV, and the steering’s ultra-sharp responses make it sometimes hard to hold a precise line on longer corners. However, the systems make the X3 feel extremely stable at motorway speeds.

Refinement is mostly excellent, with the X3’s well insulated cabin making it an extremely comfortable motorway car. Road noise is minimal at cruising speeds, although the relative quiet from below serves to emphasise wind noise from the top of the windscreen and the door mirrors.



Generous standard equipment means that the BMW X3 looks very competitively priced against rivals such as the Audi Q5 and Volvo XC60. Of course, as is always the case with a BMW, the options list is full of seductive – and pricey – extras.

You can decide whether you want some of the dynamic options that are so prevalent across the whole BMW range these days. The variable damper control system will give you a choice of ride/body control options, while Servotronic steering and variable-ratio sports steering will combine to make the helm feel considerably sharper. In our view, they’re not entirely necessary on an SUV; even without them, the X3 rides and handles better than most rivals.

The X3 is a surprisingly affordable choice for company car owners, compared with rivals

The majority of buyers are likely to go for the eight-speed automatic gearbox, especially as it doesn’t bring any economy penalty (on the xDrive20d, at least), but, beyond that, the X3 will need to be specified carefully to keep its price advantage.

On the plus side, residual values are strong; BMW predicts that the car will retain 43 per cent of its original value after three years. We think that might even be a bit conservative.

Best of all, its impressively low CO2 emissions will make it popular with company drivers. Whatever engine you choose, emissions keep VED and BIK rates down and, while you're unlikely to hit the official economy averages, you should get decently close, in our experience.


4 star BMW X3

Over the past decade, the motor industry has gradually evolved what were once rugged and crude off-roaders into civilised road cars. The process was pioneered, in large part, by the original BMW X5, so it’s entirely fitting that the new X3 has become the 4x4 that – probably – requires buyers to make the fewest compromises over a conventional model.

We’d argue that it looks a little too similar to its bigger sibling from the outside, but the fact that its quality and style inside are the same as in any other BMW is no bad thing. You certainly couldn’t say the same about the old X3’s cabin. There’s an increase in the amount of room inside; it’s not overly generous, but the combination of occupant and luggage space will do most people just fine.

It's not perfect, but a good effort. Reducing wind noise at cruising speeds and improving the electric handbrake would be worthwhile improvements

Yes, it has the macho styling and commanding driving experience that SUVs are expected to deliver. It even has a degree of off-road ability. But despite the extra height and weight that it carries, it drives like a normal car, consumes fuel at a similar rate and emits a comparable level of CO2.

The BMW X3 is a car that can destroy the myth of SUVs being gas-guzzling monsters in one fell swoop; a Chelsea tractor it is not. Its economy and emissions are more akin to a family hatch, while the comfort and refinement are as good as in a BMW 3 Series.

The X3 isn’t, by any stretch, a revolutionary car, but its multi-faceted talents mean that it is an extremely clever piece of engineering – and a damned fine car to boot.

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 2011-2017 First drives