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Does a tax-friendly plug-in hybrid powertrain harm the practicality or driver appeal of this premium-badged SUV?

What is it?

Here's another review on a plug-in hybrid executive option from a German premium brand, I’m afraid. Apparently, everybody wants one. It must be true, otherwise why would there suddenly be so many?

For now at least, the BMW X3 xDrive30e may be one of the more significant examples of this new tax-efficient band of cars, however. It’s an SUV, which will make it appeal to a great many for its practicality; unlike some electrified luxury SUVs, it might just be cheap enough to sneak onto your company car scheme; but mainly because it’s one of very few cars of its kind that qualifies for a 10% benefit-in-kind rating.

Interested fleet ‘user-choosers’ who do some cross-shopping will notice that even the very latest versions of the equivalent Volvo XC60, Audi Q5 and Mercedes-Benz GLC ‘plug-ins’ don’t quite make it into the same tax bracket. The only other premium-branded, part-electrified, mid-sized SUV that does is the new Land Rover Discovery Sport P300e.

For private buyers, UK prices on the car start just below £50,000, making it a good chunk more expensive than any other four-cylinder X3 and about level on price with the six-cylinder 30d diesel. Like most other X3s, it can be had in SE, xLine or M Sport trim, and in all versions it gets four-wheel drive and an eight-speed automatic gearbox.

There are one or two technical distinctions and stipulations associated with the car, though, of which canny customers ought to be aware. It uses the same combination of a 181bhp four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine and a 108bhp electric motor for power as BMW's other 30e derivatives, plus the same 12kWh lithium ion drive battery, which in this case sits under the back seats.

Unlike in Volvo and PSA Group PHEVs, the motor is housed within the transmission and so drives through all four wheels, just as the piston engine does. But the X3's drive battery does displace the fuel tank, which is carried above the rear axle instead of in its usual berth, and that difference does adversely affect loadbay space just a little.

M Sport trim is likely to be the most popular choice in the UK market, with its racier styling touches, and in this case you can have it without worrying that the extra rolling resistance of the bigger wheels and tyres or the weight of the extra kit will tip your optioned-up car into the next tax bracket.

It's possible to put enough optional kit on an X3 xDrive30e that you will end up paying 12% BIK rather than 10%, but M Sport trim doesn’t tip the balance on its own – not even if you have it with the 20in wheels and adaptive dampers of the optional M Sport Plus pack.

If you don’t go for the optional adaptive suspension, be aware that 30e M Sport BMWs are the only ones that don’t get lowered, stiffened passive sport suspension as standard; they stick with the same springs and dampers as SE and xLine versions. Mostly because this is such a heavy car, I suspect. They do get enlarged M Sport brakes as standard, though, which would cost you extra on a 20d M Sport.

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What's it like?

We tested the car in M Sport trim but without the M Sport Plus pack and the suspension and steering upgrades associated. It had the impressive performance and drivability we’ve come to expect from BMW’s plug-in hybrid options and most of the practicality, refinement and interior classiness of the wider X3 family, too. Perhaps not quite the ride and handling sophistication of other versions, however.

Offering seating for five, the cabin remains spacious by class standards. It’s fitted out in a way that’s appealing on the eye and solid to the touch. The compromise in boot space isn’t a huge one; effectively, you lose the bottom three inches of load space across the boot floor. But for the initial lip, however, there’s no awkward lump in the loading area midway along its length. Boot space falls from 550 to 450 litres up to the windowline but, when looking at what is left from the X3’s boot opening, you would never guess the compromise was worth that much.

If you go for M Sport trim, BMW includes the 10.3in ‘Operating System 7.0’ touchscreen infotainment set-up and 12.3in digital instruments for no extra cost. Standard digital connectivity in M Sport trim cars includes networked sat-nav services and Spotify music streaming (the latter, after a year, is by subscription only), as well as smartphone mirroring for both Apple and Android phones.

Cheaper trims support only Apple CarPlay via a wireless connection. If you want wireless phone charging, a head-up display or an onboard wi-fi hotspot, you can get them as part of an optional Technology Package (£1900) which also upgrades the audio system.

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The infotainment can be mastered via the iDrive scroller, via fingertip touchscreen input or by voice command, and its usability is very good. Customisable homescreens, whose layout you can adapt so that the information you refer to most often is always displayed, help a lot once you’ve figured out how to configure them.

There's a familiar degree of complication about the driving experience, too, but only as much as comes with the modern premium car territory, and you will have negotiated it long before the end of your first lengthy drive.  There’s the usual choice of driving modes (Comfort, Sport, Eco Pro and Adaptive), and the hybrid system adds only one more button with which you will need to fiddle, marked eDrive. It allows you to switch the powertrain between all-electric, hybrid and battery-save running modes, with hybrid being the default choice and the one the majority will use most often.

In hybrid mode, the car has a generally slick, well-rehearsed way of managing its power sources. Most town running will be done electrically. While the size and weight of the X3 clearly demand more of the 108bhp motor than the 30e versions of the 3 Series and 5 Series, it still copes quite well in urban environments, with enough pedal response and accessible power to make good progress through stop-start traffic.

As you leave the city, you will rouse the piston engine if you want the car to accelerate briskly, which it will certainly do. But it’s still easy enough to get up to 70mph without burning any hydrocarbons – and you won’t be holding anybody up while doing so.

Out of town, electric-only range isn’t quite worth the 31 miles in practice that the WLTP lab tests promise (although it might well be in exclusively urban running). On a typical UK office commute, you would probably see something between 20 and 25 miles of electric range on a full charge. Charging the battery back up to 80% from a 16-amp post or wallbox connection then takes just over two-and-a-half hours at a maximum charging rate of 3.7kW.

Even when the drive battery is depleted, the powertrain still runs and performs very satisfactorily. Our testing suggested that a ‘range-extended’ fuel economy return in the low-40mpg range should be easy to achieve. Moreover, the engine starts and runs smoothly even at high loads and revs, which isn’t something you can say about many PHEVs.

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Because the car is clever enough to take data from the sat-nav and to decide for itself when to use its engine and when to shut it down, you can find that overall fuel economy is surprisingly good, even on longer journeys, only part of which can be powered electrically. Our test route was a 55-mile loop embarked on with 80% charge in the battery and concluded with just under 5%, which the trip computer recorded for fuel economy at just over 70mpg.

You can, of course, easily find fault with the logic of presenting information like this. It would be a lot more honest and informative if the car’s petrol efficiency counter simply stopped running when the engine was shut down and there were a counterpart for electric running displayed just as prominently, wouldn’t it? For the time being, though, (and for as long as the prevailing thinking is that electricity is free and petrol efficiency is all that matters) this is what we will likely continue to get. And not only from BMW, I should add.

If there’s a real disappointment here, it concerns the X3 30e’s ride and handling; which, ironically enough, is what often attracts people to BMW SUVs in the first place. Because as well as making this plug-in hybrid just a bit less fleet of foot than its saloon and estate relatives when running electrically, this car’s two-tonne kerb weight undoubtedly penalises it for close body control on uneven roads.

BMW’s standard passive suspension certainly keeps tabs on lateral body control well enough and makes the car’s handling pleasingly agile and precise for a car of this size when its operating on smoother roads. Over a typical UK commute, you would likely seldom be anything other than very pleased with the car’s grippy tautness.

But introduce it to a few sunken, testing B-roads and the chassis can come up notably short on ride fluency, suppleness and finesse. The body fusses laterally when one side of its axles are made to work harder than the other, and plenty of bouncy, underdamped movement can be allowed to unsettle the cabin at times.

Bigger, pricier SUVs tend to have adaptive suspension to help deal with the inherent problem that this X3 has: that it has quite a lot of extra weight to carry and is carrying it at greater altitude than the average saloon or hatchback, so it’s likely to be felt all the more keenly. It’s not a huge problem for the car but, if you’re a keener driver, I reckon you would notice it.

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Should I buy one?

For fleet drivers in need of a good-sized family car, who like SUVs but also enjoy a good drive, this is a very commendable option. Just make sure you get one with the M Sport Plus package and those adaptive dampers.

BMW’s plug-in hybrid technology has, for the most part, now done for the X3 what it did for the 3 Series, 5 Series and elsewhere: preserved the dynamic selling point of buying a BMW while making the car a tax-efficient modern company car of the performance, refinement and polished drivability that you would hope for. If you charge it, it will reward you with excellent running efficiency, too.

While other mid-sized SUV have less challenging dynamic briefs, happy to just be comfy and plush-feeling or roomy and capable, the X3 is expected to offer something on driver appeal. And, compared with other PHEVs, the X3 xDrive30e does that pretty well in most respects. All respects, potentially - as long as you get your order right.

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Comments
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si73 7 November 2020

I was thinking that the

I was thinking that the higher EV range of the Suzuki Across makes it a better buy irrespective of the premium badge allure of this.
Will86 6 November 2020

Mix of photos

I think some of your interior photos are of a diesel, not the PHEV. Not really an issue that the rev counter is for a diesel, but the boot photo is misleading, there's a big step in the PHEV.

xxxx 6 November 2020

BMW reliability

That is, you can rely on it to catch fire when you plug it in.

Overdrive 7 November 2020

xxxx wrote:

xxxx wrote:

That is, you can rely on it to catch fire when you plug it in.

Do you have evidence that this is a common ocurrence?

xxxx 7 November 2020

underdrive

Overdrive wrote:

xxxx wrote:

That is, you can rely on it to catch fire when you plug it in.

Do you have evidence that this is a common ocurrence?

Have you had your head in the sand. Every motoring site, Auto car 15 oct, Global recall for every bmw phev because of fires.

Overdrive 7 November 2020

xxxx wrote:

xxxx wrote:

Overdrive wrote:

xxxx wrote:

That is, you can rely on it to catch fire when you plug it in.

Do you have evidence that this is a common ocurrence?

Have you had your head in the sand. Every motoring site, Auto car 15 oct, Global recall for every bmw phev because of fires.

The recall you refererd to was a 'preventative measure' just to eliminate the potential risk they in the design of the battery, similar to Ford Kuga PHEV recall. No vehicle acutally caught fire, which makes your assertion that 'you can rely on it to catch fire' the hyperbolic BS that it is.

xxxx 8 November 2020

in which case

Overdrive wrote:

xxxx wrote:

Overdrive wrote:

xxxx wrote:

That is, you can rely on it to catch fire when you plug it in.

Do you have evidence that this is a common ocurrence?

Have you had your head in the sand. Every motoring site, Auto car 15 oct, Global recall for every bmw phev because of fires.

The recall you refererd to was a 'preventative measure' just to eliminate the potential risk they in the design of the battery, similar to Ford Kuga PHEV recall. No vehicle acutally caught fire, which makes your assertion that 'you can rely on it to catch fire' the hyperbolic BS that it is.

They only don't catch fire because bmw said don't plug them in. So just how realiable is that. How about you can rely on bmw to make a phev that cant be plugged in in case it catches fire 

xxxx 8 November 2020

to make it clear

Not only can not plug them in, you cant use the paddles or manual mode. oh and a 330e has burned itself to death in a bmw dealership in prague whilst charging

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