BMW could not have chosen a better time to introduce an all-new X3. Sales of large SUVs have dropped off a cliff, though more compact off-roaders aren't faring as badly. During the heavy snow in 2010 we made full use of the 2.0-litre diesel X3, but now it's time to try the latest version, the xDrive30d M Sport.
Inside & Out: 8/10
The M Sport add-ons will certainly get you noticed. Body coloured wheelarches, side sills and deeper, more aggressive bumpers set the tone, while 18-inch alloys are standard. The test car pictured features larger 19-inch wheels (€1,329) and the eye-catching Xenon headlights are part of the €2,344 Visibility Package. From most angles the X3 M Sport looks suitably more assertive than the regular car, though it can appear a little ungainly at times.
Inside, the M Sport upgrade includes chrome-plated door sill finishers, a thick-rimmed leather M Sport multi-function steering wheel, sport seats and a dark headlining. It's as spacious as ever all-round and the boot is large. Quality and tactility are impressive too, so much so that the only trump card the X5 holds, in our books, is an extra pair of seats in its boot.
Engine & Transmission: 10/10
We don't give out full ten-point scores lightly, but the combination of the 3.0-litre straight-six diesel engine with BMW's latest eight-speed automatic transmission is a formidable one. Peak power is 258hp, which is impressive enough, but it's the 560Nm of torque that makes the xDrive30d feel so effortlessly ballistic. The 0-100km/h sprint takes a scant 6.2 seconds, which is as quick as many serious hot hatches, though it's the X3's ability to pile on speed at any speed that stuns.
The smooth, quick gearbox is best left to its own devices, though you can choose between Normal, Sport and Sport+ modes, and the X3 feels even keener in the latter two. These are customisable, but essentially they alter the power steering assistance, throttle response and gearchange strategy, along with the level of dynamic stability control desired. It's effective, though most of the time the default settings are just fine.
Ride & Handling: 7/10
If you buy the M Sport car be ready for the fact that it's nowhere near as comfortable as the standard X3. That's especially true on the larger 19-inch wheels. Iron-fisted body control makes high-speed driving a joy in return, but the low-speed ride comfort leaves something to be desired. It still deals well with potholes and bumps, but there's a constant 'jiggle' that we could do without.
Apparently the damping is altered when you choose from Normal, Sport or Sport+, but we didn't really detect much difference. There's plenty of grip on offer at all times, although the wide tyres do make themselves heard at motorway speed. BMW's 'xDrive' four-wheel drive system works well on the road, apportioning power to the wheel best positioned to use it. We didn't bother taking this X3 off-road though: none of its owners will either.
Equipment, Economy & Value for Money: 7/10
On one hand, this car is very well equipped. Even the xDrive30d SE features a decent leather interior, climate control, alloys, etc. However, you'd expect all that for the price and we're shocked at the cost of the Bluetooth add-on (€920). The xDrive30d model starts at €58,560 on-the-road, while you pay another €3,770 for the M Sport package. You can add the latter to the xDrive20d model for €4,090.
And that is what Irish buyers are more likely to do, especially as the xDrive30d sits in tax band D due to CO2 of 159g/km. That's actually very impressive given the performance on offer, but the vast majority of cars sold in Ireland right now are in bands A and B.
The BMW X3 xDrive30d is a great car. We're huge fans of the 3.0-litre turbodiesel engine and it's right at home under the bonnet of the X3. We'd be sorely tempted to go for this over the X5 - so long as we didn't need the extra seats. There are aspects of the M Sport package we like, including the look and the interior, but the compromise to the ride quality may sway us away from it. This of this model as an alternative to the X5 rather than something to consider if you're in the market for the xDrive20d.