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Review: 2018 BMW X3

What is it?
One in every three cars that leaves a BMW showroom these days is an X. So because these crossovers sell in such big numbers, it’s worth the engineers and designers throwing their best efforts into them. A contrast from the first X3, which was half-arsed in all sorts of ways, and the second which was a heap better but still merely OK by BMW’s high standards.

The new one has to go up against some great opposition – the Audi Q5 is the benchmark for refinement, the Mercedes GLC for comfort, the Jaguar F-Pace for handling and space, the Porsche Macan for all-round chassis excellence. Add some options to the X3 and you can shove it into Range Rover Velar territory.The early signs are strong for the X3. It’s grown. That might make it more cumbersome in cities, but it’s a size we know sells well – slightly bigger than the first-gen X5.

It’s also done away with some of the slightly oddball design flourishes of previous X3s. It uses BMW’s latest surface ideas – lines that seem to be emerging from a viscous skin – and wears them very comfortably.

The new X3 rests on an adapted version of BMW’s latest longitudinal-engine components set. That makes it leapfrog the 3-Series for modernity. The new mechanicals and construction techniques shave away the mass – 55kg or so less, despite the extra size – and give the X3 buyer access to some very advanced electronics systems. Beware though, those mostly reside on the options list.

It starts as expected with a 20d, and a 30d. For the first time in ages there will be a mainstream petrol engine too, which must say something about the way the world is going. It’s a 20i. Last but absolutely not least is the first M Performance model, the M40i, which uses a straight-six turbo petrol of a healthy 360bhp.

What is it like on the road?
The 20d and 20i will sell strongly of course, but BMW doesn’t normally put up its base-spec cars for early testing, and actually the 20i doesn’t launch until some weeks later. So we were in the six-cylinder versions. Those engines will give the chassis a proper work-out.

The 30d makes 265bhp and you’ll seldom dip your toe into the accelerator’s deep waters. That’s because it can shove you along on 621Nm of torque, and the eight-speed auto is beautifully calibrated to take advantage.

Although it’s by no means silent, masses of relaxed and elastic urge is always there for the taking, even as the rev-counter stays in the subdued region of the dial. Mash it and the revs climb high for a diesel, the straight-six sound percolates and you’re looking at 0-100kph in 5.8 seconds.

The 360bhp petrol six is surprisingly boomy on a motorway on-ramp or climbing a hill. That’s because the transmission tends to let it labour at low revs in an attempt to keep a lid on its appetite for unleaded. So you might want to keep the transmission in sport mode or take to the downshift paddle.For more serious acceleration, it puts on a mighty show in the mid-to-upper register and sounds terrific as it goes.

The M40i comes with specially tuned suspension, but both the 30d and M40i that we tested had adaptive dampers. The character of the M40i doesn’t differ much from the diesel – it’s just that it’s better tied down and offers extra feel though a full-effort bend.

There’s a fluency that was absent in the old X3/X4. The old cars felt wooden as they strained their weight. The new ones have progressive reactions and a sense of rear-bias in Sport mode – a button that tautens the damper programme and changes centre diff emphasis among other things. Their steering isn’t as transparent as you’d hope, but it’s gearing and response is well-measured.

The ride, both on the diesel and the M40i, is surprisingly supple at all speeds. The M40i is smoother than a big-wheeled F-Pace. The diesel more so again.I also did some mild off-roading in the diesel. It managed fairly well. There’s not much articulation, but ground clearance and ramp angles are OK and the electronic traction and hill-descent control systems capable. It’s supposed to wade to 500mm but I didn’t try: the track was a dustbowl. The xLine trim level includes some underbody protection.

On the inside
You sit reasonably high in here, with a commanding view out. It’s a boxy and upright cabin compared with BMW’s saloons and estates, and doesn’t pretend to be an SUV coupe. Good.

It’s not utilitarian though. Since the last X3 the linear, layered design of BMW’s dashboards has given way to a flowing design with more diagonals, and the different sections are better integrated. Materials are now first class, while the clarity of the instruments and switches remains top-rate. Seats are plenty supportive enough. There’s a slightly sportier chair on offer but no race-style seat option. Mind you, if you miss that you’re missing the point of a family SUV.

The standard sat nav-comms system is traffic aware, and easily operated. The optional system adds more apps than you probably want or can fathom (their capabilities are far beyond BMW’s ability to explain them). You can also add gesture control. Huh? The iDrive is good enough that you don’t need to act like a conductor at the proms just to turn up the orchestra.

But the optional head-up display is absolutely first-rate in its clarity, and in the way information pops up when you need it and goes away when you don’t. In the back, the high seats mean your legs and head won’t be constrained. Three sets of ISOFIX points show the width of that bench. Adjustable rear vents, cupholders and lighting mean people back there should feel decently looked after. The seat backrest folds 40:20:40, and behind it there’s a deep boxy boot with stout tie-downs. There’s another storage box under the floor, and special places to store the roller blind and dog net.

The X3 suddenly has real class. But then it needs to be good because the opposition has launched some great cars against it in the past couple of years. The argument is now close enough that we’ll need a group test to sort out the winner.

The X3’s chassis is both decent fun through corners and supple over bumps. That’s with the one proviso that the ones we’ve driven have the adaptive dampers. The engines and transmissions are mostly superb to use, and deliver decent economy.And indoors, it’s roomy and civilised, with a good-sized boot. Mind you it should be, as it’s no longer by any reckoning compact on the outside.

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