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BWW's evergreen X3 is just as good as ever. But how does it fare against newer competition?

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Since the BMW X3's inception, the firm's range of SUVs has undergone something of a coming of age.

BMW's growing up and general maturing process coincides neatly with a dimensional expansion of the X3 that has made it a longer, wider car than the original BMW X5 that arrived on the scene in 1999.

Compared with other BMWs, the kidney grille is almost subtle

BMW has sold more than 1.5 million X3s worldwide, a success story it will be eager to continue with the version that’ll take the model into its third decade on sale.

The X3’s price position within BMW’s SUV range is as you’d imagine it to be, at around £15,000 more than a BMW X1 and £20,000 cheaper than a BMW X5.

This end of the market is now practically bursting. The usual suspects from premium German rivals are here, including the Audi Q5 and Mercedes-Benz GLC, while the Land Rover Defender also offers stiff competition.

Diesels, petrols and plug-in hybrids are all available, and there are separate reviews for the electric BMW iX3 and the 3.0-litre M model called the BMW X3 M.

BMW claims the X3’s design is more confident and off-road inspired. But where this car is really going to have to impress 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.

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BMW X3 side profile

The car is based on the CLAR platform, as used in the firm’s latest generation of longways-engined saloons and estates.

A long bonnet and short overhangs give it a more athletic stance than some rivals and BMW’s trademark kidney grille is prominent, but not as shocking as that of the BMW iX.

A BMW X3 or 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

Aluminium is used for the doors and bonnet and high-tensile steel is found within the floorpan. The test car that we weighed came in at a touch more than 1800kg – almost exactly matching the fine-handling Alfa Romeo Stelvio in similar specification.

The engine line-up is familiar to BMW enthusiasts. There's the 181bhp 20i, 188bhp 20d, 261bhp 30d, 340bhp M40d and 321bhp 30e PHEV.

BMW’s eight-speed automatic gearbox is fitted to all variants (there’s no manual option) 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 just three trim levels; xLine, M Sport and M, where the M40d sits by itself.


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.

Much of the switchgear is electroplated, the crisp dials are easy to read and the trim finishings are lavish and feel better built than many of the X3's rivals.

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

The feeling is that it has all come together with a laser-guided precision that wouldn’t feel amiss in an Audi Q5.

Front seats are expertly positioned and feel low enough to impart confidence but with enough perch to afford an excellent view of the road ahead. Nicely bolstered too.

There can be no complaints about the amount of space on offer, either, especially along the rear bench, where head room feels nearly endless.

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 house a very competitive 550 litres, or 1600 litres with the rear seats folded down.

The PHEV model’s battery is packed in the boot floor. This takes away about 100 litres of boot space. It’s not what you’d call small, but other PHEV SUVs, such as the Lexus NX, do a better job.

BMW's infotainment screen isn't the largest in the business, but it is well positioned and easy to use. The display is large, crisp, bright and responsive and can be controlled via touchscreen, voice control, gesture control (in only limited ways).


BMW X3 front static

The character of the 20d engine – codenamed B47 - 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

Our road test data indicates this engine matches Audi's Q5 almost exactly to 60mph, 100mph and over a standing quarter mile and easily outstrips the mark of a Jaguar F-Pace.

The 30d adds a useful slug of torque, power and performance. It's more than 2.0sec quicker to 62mph and is wonderfully usable in day-to-day driving. The six-cylinder unit delivers smooth progress, making motorway journeys effortless.

As with many PHEVs, the 30e behaves differently depending on its charge levels. With a full battery, it feels rapid, the electric motor filling in the torque gaps of the petrol engine.

If the battery is empty, the engine feels strained and performance, as well as MPG, plummets.

Even in manual-shift mode, the automatic gearbox shifts up ahead of the redline, suggestive of a dearth of efficiency in the higher reaches of the rev range, despite the use of a variable-geometry turbocharger.

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


BMW X3 dynamic

BMWs of yesteryear were found wanting in ride quality. But the X3 is thoroughly accomplished in this regard.

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.

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

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’.

An 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, 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 is likely to 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.

Porsche Macan feels a markedly more dynamic handling prospect still, in other words, but it doesn't have the roundedness, refinement or maturity of this BMW.

The X3 has fine stability, with its traction and electronic stability 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.


BMW X3 front cornering

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.

It’s competitive but not outstanding, then – and that’s backed up our economy testing.

With an empty battery, the PHEV is capable of much less than 30mpg

We recorded 48.8mpg in a 20d, which is around the same as a similarly equipped Alfa Romeo Stelvio and Volvo XC60, but more economical than an Audi Q5.

The obvious choice for people really concerned by fuel economy is the PHEV. If you keep its battery topped up, you should see figures close to 100mpg. If not, expect a lot less. On a 300-mile mixed road test route, we acheived less than 30mpg with an empty battery.


BMW X3 rear static

BMW’s mid-sized family SUV offers the kind of completeness and class that makes 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.

Audi's 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, the wider public may prefer the Q5 as a result.

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

However, this BMW wins our recommendation for the enthusiast. It is truly expensive-feeling and proves composed and thoroughly well polished on the road, 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.

Murray Scullion

Murray Scullion
Title: Digital editor

Murray has been a journalist for more than a decade. During that time he’s written for magazines, newspapers and websites, but he now finds himself as Autocar’s digital editor.

He leads the output of the website and contributes to all other digital aspects, including the social media channels, podcasts and videos. During his time he has reviewed cars ranging from £50 - £500,000, including Austin Allegros and Ferrari 812 Superfasts. He has also interviewed F1 megastars, knows his PCPs from his HPs and has written, researched and experimented with behavioural surplus and driverless technology.

Murray graduated from the University of Derby with a BA in Journalism in 2014 and has previously written for Classic Car Weekly, Modern Classics Magazine,, and CAR Magazine, as well as

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