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BMW X3

BMW X3 xDrive20d SE automatic

Road test and review of BMW X3

The BMW X3, in xDrive20d automatic form, is the most economical 4×4 in its class , with a combined fuel economy figure of 50.4 mpg.This equates to emissions of 147 g/km CO2. Just a few years ago it would have been unheard of for a large, premium four-wheel drive car to be able achieve over 50 mpg, along with sub-150 g/km emissions. The new BMW X3 is a perfect demonstration of the dramatic improvements in the economy of new cars in all categories over recent years, and BMW’s EfficientDynamics technologies certainly help with this.However the new X3 doesn’t just set out to show that it’s efficient, it also has to overcome the criticisms levelled at the previous generation model.

Overview

Model/Engine size: xDrive20d SE automatic

Fuel: Diesel

Fuel economy combined: 50.4 mpg

Beating Spirit rating: 9/10

A BMW X3 on its road test

One of these criticisms related to the looks of the car. The old X3 was seen as tall and narrow, which evidently wasn’t chunky enough for a 4×4. We don’t think it looked too bad, but if you compared the X3 to its bigger brother the X5, then yes, perhaps it wasn’t as pumped-up.The new X3 doesn’t actually look hugely different, but it does succeed in being more elegant than the previous model. However if it is once again to be compared to the X5, then the front of the new X3 could be criticised for not being sufficiently sculptured. In fact the new X3 is approaching the size of the original X5, and there is now the little-brother X1 to fill the gap for a smaller 4×4, with the X1 itself being based on the 3 Series platform.

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Another area where the outgoing model received much flak was in relation to its ride, which was seen as too firm. Again, our view was that the old X3, which after all would have been used virtually exclusively on-road, was preferable to traditional 4x4s that had a tendency to wallow through corners.However the new X3 definitely has a much more comfortable ride, presumably keeping happy the critics who demand more of a luxurious experience in this class of car.

Beating Spirit
is generally highly supportive of BMW’s efforts to give us cars that are great to drive, but that are also class-leading in terms of efficiency. However one area where we have had an issue is with the tyres that the BMW Group fits to its 4x4s. Over the last year our tests of both the BMW X1 and the MINI Countryman in the snow have shown that these cars have both been compromised by having tyres that perform dreadfully in the snow and ice. Whilst we are keen to see cars fitted with tyres that maximise economy, we don’t see any point in fitting 4x4s with tyres that make their performance in snow and other low traction situations worse than a two-wheel drive car fitted with decent tyres.

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Thankfully, BMW fitted our X3 test car with winter tyres. Due to their rubber compound and their tread pattern, winter tyres are designed to perform better in snow and ice, and at low temperature. Unfortunately we weren’t blessed with snow for our test, however as the X3 is supposed to be able to cope with mud, our test did involve an off-road route. The winter tyres mated to the xDrive permanent four-wheel-drive system definitely performed better in these conditions than the standard tyres would have done.

So well done to BMW for fitting winter tyres on a 4×4 in the winter, even though the 17-inch wheel and tyre combination probably doesn’t look as good as the 18 and 19-inch wheel options; the next challenge will be to develop standard summer road tyres that are eco-friendly but also competent off-road.

But of course it’s likely that a BMW X3 will spend at least 99% of its time on tarmac roads. And in this environment it performs excellently. Our test included a drive from Cheshire to Brands Hatch, then to central London and back to Cheshire. This route proved that the X3 is a highly comfortable and refined machine on the motorway, with a good driving position.

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The interior quality has also been improved over the previous model, with soft touch materials and standard leather seats. It has a good size boot and there’s also more space for passengers, although central rear seat occupants need to watch out for the transmission tunnel eating into their legroom.On the crawl through London, the benefit of the start/stop system proved itself constantly. More time was spent stationary than in forward motion, and when at a halt, the engine invariably cut out. Diesels, with their emissions that are so bad for local air quality, are not a sensible option for use in cities such as London, however at least a start/stop system is effective in ensuring emissions are zero when stationary.

This X3 had the automatic gearbox option, which helped to make driving through central London slightly less of a chore, and making the start/stop system work on an automatic is quite an achievement. Both the standard 6-speed manual and the optional 8-speed automatic achieve the same average fuel economy but the automatic has slightly lower CO2 emissions (147 g/km v 149 g/km) due to having more ratios. If you spend more time out of town the manual may be the preferred option, and it’s cheaper.

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You can override the automatic changes and change gear manually, but there are no steering wheel-mounted paddles, and in our view pulling the lever down to go up a gear doesn’t feel that intuitive.With the X3 you effectively get two cars, as the Drive Dynamic Control system enables you to choose between Normal, Sport and Sport+ modes. These settings have a noticeable effect on the car, and especially the gearbox. Normal mode results in the gears changing automatically at very low revs and results in a relaxing drive. The Sport and Sport+ settings hold the car in gear for much longer, resulting in the car being much more responsive, as well as tightening the suspension and steering, so becoming much more of a driver’s car. Sport+ disengages an element of traction control.

On the way back up the M6, an accident caused huge tailbacks. A cross-country route was consequently selected and weaving through bends on A and B roads reinforced that the X3 is a relatively big, heavy car, and the suspension has a lot of work to do in order to control the mass of the car through corners. Handling is helped by the option of Dynamic Damper Control, which automatically adjusts the firmness of the suspension according to your driving.

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And although the 184 bhp 2.0-litre turbodiesel engine offers sufficient performance in most circumstances, it ultimately doesn’t have the power of the forthcoming 255 bhp xDrive 30d engine – which will have only slightly worse fuel economy, at 47.1 mpg. In the UK it is just these two engine options that will be available – there’s no petrol due to lack of demand.The official economy figure for the X3 in 20d automatic guise is 50.4 mpg. We achieved 38 mpg during a combination of motorway and urban driving over 1000 miles, although 47 mpg was possible when driving very carefully on A and B roads. It is expected that the winter tyres had some negative impact on the fuel consumption. Nevertheless the car did manage to get from Cheshire to Brands Hatch and back, via central London on the return leg, on one tank of diesel.

Most driving was done in Normal mode, and the X3 achieves its 50.4 mpg in the official NEDC fuel test in this mode. Fuel consumption is likely to worsen considerably when driving in Sport mode. It’s the normal ‘trick’ that is shared with an increasing number of cars such as the Toyota Prius – the X3 achieves its official test mpg in Normal mode, yet the car allows you to drive it in Sport mode, when the economy and emissions are likely to be nowhere near those recorded officially.

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The basic price of our test car was £31,135. This is actually slightly cheaper than the outgoing X3 model, yet it has more equipment, including leather upholstery, two-zone air-conditioning, iDrive controller and colour display. Our car also had £9,355 worth of options, including automatic transmission at £1,525, Business Advanced Media package at £2,210 (mainly comprised of sat nav and Bluetooth), Variable Damper Control at £930, variable sport steering at £380, and the winter tyre package at £1,400. A sportier M Sport trim is available soon.

Dashboard and steering wheel of BMW X3

Summary and Review

The BMW X3 is class-leading in terms of its efficiency, at least according to the official tests, and it does everything else with a sense of refinement that won’t disappoint many prospective owners. The fact that a 4×4 vehicle of this size and class can achieve 50 mpg is an impressive testament to BMW’s engineering.If we had to find some fault with the X3 it would relate to the challenge that all car manufacturers face when bringing out a new model; in the face of continuing expectations for higher and higher levels of refinement, the direct connection and feedback with the road disappears. And the new X3 is a large car; although it makes a valiant effort, responsiveness and agility are difficult traits to achieve in an efficient and refined 4×4 of this size.

So the X3 gets a Beating Spirit rating of 9 out of 10. It scores highly for efficiency and refinement, whilst also being practical and offering the added security of four-wheel drive; it drops marks for losing some of its responsiveness in the process. We’d also like to see a bit more character in the styling of the front of the car.At the end of the day the X3 is still a relatively big, tall car with a large frontal area. If you want a BMW 4×4 and also want some agility, and you don’t actually need something the size of the X3, then consider the smaller X1 – although, bizarrely, the larger X3 is actually marginally more economical.

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Car details and fuel economy data

Fuel economy extra urban: 53.3 mpg
Fuel economy urban: 46.3 mpg
CO2 emissions: 147 g/km
Green rating: VED band F – £125
Weight: 1790 Kg
Company car tax liability (2010/11): 21%
Price: £31,135 (From £31,135 – £39,615)
Insurance group: 28
Power: 184 bhp
Max speed: 130 mph
0-62mph: 8.5 seconds
DPF: Yes

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