Although a new car for me is still a long way off, my love for all things car means that I am always looking at vehicles online or on the road and thinking ‘hmmm’ – by no means have I the intention or the means to start shopping around, but nevertheless it’s still a pleasant way to waste a few moments daydreaming. There are lots of nice cars which should fall into budget next time round, and that’s not considering the fact that (hopefully) I will be able to spend more too, but by far and away the strongest and most logical candidate to replace my current BMW X5 is it’s successor…the BMW X5. Basically a pumped up version of my own car, visually at least, the E70 (07-13) X5 is a long time favourite, which in facelift guise offers great tech, (more) affordable running costs and a muscular stance which is somewhat missing from the recently launched version.
However despite all of these feathers in the X5’s cap, my eyes are increasingly drawn to a possible alternative that appeals to my head (and wallet) a lot more than the big Beemer…the car in question is a slightly less big BMW, the X3. Now the middle child in BMW’s SAV/SUV family has had somewhat of a troubled history that I won’t go too much into, but the second generation car has always garnered impressive reviews from both media and owners who see it as a good compromise between desirability, practicality and on-road performance. It isn’t cheap by any means, but it does seem that for those who can afford it, the X3 could be pretty much the ideal family vehicle.
Let’s start on the outside and look at the X3’s looks and dimensions; the original X3 was the first of it’s ilk and when launched many were surprised that it trod on the toes of it’s X5 sibling at the time size-wise, but awkward looks and plastic body cladding made it clear where the car stood in the grand scheme of things. With the second generation car BMW clearly realised that just because the X3 is not it’s most expensive 4×4 (although admittedly it is no longer the smallest either), it doesn’t have to be lumbered with a substandard appearance. Less overtly muscular than the X5, it still manages to share styling cues with it’s larger brother with a rising belt line, imposing snout and smart looking rear end; the recently released facelift model adds to this with headlamps which meet the kidney grilles in a style similar to other recent BMW’s. M Sport models gain flared wheel-arches, lower front spoilers, side steps and of course larger wheels, but most second generation X3’s I see are SE spec with 17″ wheels…I guess a sign that these cars are bought more by families wanting a practical, high-quality vehicle as opposed to one used to impress at the school gates. That said I do much prefer the look of the X3 with larger wheels, especially because size wise this car is now comparable to the original X5 (the model I have), so smaller wheels can get lost in the wheelarches. However I suspect this larger size is not as much a disadvantage to the X3 as I find in my own car…it’s narrower body is bound to fit more neatly in tight parking spaces, and available modern tech such as rear parking cameras in addition to a smaller turning circle mean that few owners are likely to find the X3 too big for day-to-day life.
Inside was the other area where the original X3 failed to meet buyer’s expectations, and whilst it wasn’t a problem earlier in the car’s life it did become more of an issue as cars such as the Audi Q5 and even the third-gen Honda CR-V debuted with significantly nicer cabins in which to pilot their kids and shopping around. The second-gen X3 was a massive step up in terms of layout and quality – now much more on a par with both rivals and other vehicles in the BMW stable; iDrive became standard fit as did leather seating, meaning that at least to the casual observer the X3 now counted as a proper premium vehicle. Now I have not set foot in any X3 but reviews of the pre-facelifted second gen car were still not quite up to the standards set by rivals; plastics lower down are not as high quality and the lack of BMW’s newer ‘iPad style’ screen does date it slightly even in facelifted models. That said materials on the 2014-on facelift cars are said to have improved somewhat, plus they get the newer iDrive system (with laptop-eqsue controller) and besides it would still be better than my X5, which while excellent for it’s time and still acceptable now, is nevertheless not perfect. Elsewhere the larger dimensions of the second generation come into play with a cabin which is in fact more spacious than my own car; a 550L boot is capable of holding most of the clutter associated with modern family life, and in fact it only 100L shy of the X5’s (although doesn’t have the optional 7 seats of it’s bigger brother).
On the road is probably where the X3 really shines in it’s advantage against the larger car; the lighter weight makes the car a lot nimbler than any generation of X5 and also gives it the opportunity to return some seriously impressive fuel economy (or at least it does in test labs). Built on the same platform as the current generation (F25) 3/4 Series gives the X3 a very strong starting point – handling is pretty much akin to a slightly tall 3 Series estate, and the ride is meant to be pretty decent too even with run-flat tyres (although M Sport versions are stiffer). Models can also be equipped with variable dampeners which changes the way the drivetrain works – varying from Eco Pro through to Sport Plus, although to be honest most buyers won’t bother with this option. Under the bonnet lies one of two engines in the UK, albeit both in two states of tune; the vast majority of buyers will opt for BMW’s excellent 2L diesel 4-cylinder, which as of 2014 comes in either 18d or 20d guise. The 18d has 152bhp and will sprint to 60 in a semi-respectable 9.5 seconds, it is also available with a 2WD option which sees fuel economy climb as high as 60mpg combined. The most popular engine though is the 20d, which ups the power to 193bhp, lowers the 0-60 to 8.1 seconds (quicker than my X5!) and sees economy drop only a little to 54mpg; the sheer usability and cost-effectiveness of these engines means that 80% of buyers opt for them, given that they offer nearly everything that a drive would want. But for those who want to go the extra mile there is BMW’s amazing 3L 6-cylinder diesel, again offered in 2 states of tune in 30d or 35d; the 30d is the same 258bhp unit found in many X5’s, yet in this smaller vehicle it shoves to 60 in 5.9 seconds and still manages to return 49.6mpg (albeit not at the same time). The 35d is even quicker, with 313bhp and a 0-60 time of 5.3 seconds – a time that is only 0.3 seconds off the original Porsche Cayenne Turbo!!! Admittedly these options do oik up the price by quite a bit, but with even the 35d able to return 47mpg it would offer a credible alternative to those looking at something like a M3 estate but without the fuel penalty. All this power is usually channeled through ZF’s amazing 8 speed automatic, the same used on most BMW cars and indeed by many other manufacturers, a 6 speed manual is available on the 4-cylinder cars but isn’t worth having to be honest.
Yes it seems that, apart from a few bits of sub-par plastics, that the only chink in the X3’s armour is it’s price, especially when optioned up with all of those modern conveniences that buyers nowadays don’t think they can do without. The starting point of the X3 range is a very reasonable £30,865, but the top of the range 35d costs a whopping £46,385…I optioned it up a little and (with most of the nicer options ticked) that price was pushed up to just over £54k! That sort of money would get you into a decently specced X5 30d, which while not as economical is meant to return upwards of 40mpg combined. My money though would probably be on the 20d in SE spec; I created one with the following options and managed to keep it to a relatively manageable £39k…not a small chunk of change by anyone’s standards but with a little discounting not bad at all in a world where a similarly specced Golf diesel could set you back £27k.
My chosen car was an X3 xDrive20d SE, with 8 speed automatic and steering wheel paddles;
Jet Black paint: £0 (plain and simple but masks plastic trim of SE models)
18″ double spoke alloys: £800 (makes the car stand out compared to standard 17″s)
Black Nevada leather interior w/satin silver trim: £0 (easy to clean and free!)
Professional Media Package: £900 (included larger nav screen, traffic updates and online services – not bad!)
Interior Comfort Package: £1,450 (included electric fr. seats w/driver memory, tinted windows and posh storage)
Exterior folding/dimming mirrors: £300 (annoyingly not included as standard, but still would love on my current car!)
Lumbar support for front seats: £265 (well worth it for the added support on long journeys)
Sports steering wheel: £90 (chunkier than the standard wheel and nicer to hold)
Xenon lights w/washers: £610 (again surprisingly not standard, but come with the cool LED running lights)
Reversing camera: £330 (the cool around-view is £530 on top, but the standard camera would suffice)
Of course things like heated seats, automatic wipers and Bluetooth are included as standard; yes it would be nice to have a few driver aids like blind spot, radar cruise control or even a head-up display, but those are features I wouldn’t use very much and helps to keep the price reasonable.
Final price: £39,380
Sorry if that’s all been a little long winded but I thought some readers might like to have a little idea of the cost of certain options and why I chose them. The problem is that the X3 is so good that residual values are rock solid and most buyers will tend to go for either a bare bones 20d without a few of the luxuries I’ve added, or will max out an M-Sport 30d, keeping prices sky high. If I have the means/reason to buy a new car I would pretty much be set on an X3 like this though – payments would probably be circa £400/month with a reasonabe £5k deposit…not cheap by any means but again not miles away from similarly sized options from mainstream competitors (a similarly specced Honda CR-V would cost £350/month for example). But in the more likely scenario that I am looking at a second hand model, a 2012 X5 30d M Sport is already the same price as a similarly aged well specced X3 20d, and with that sort of money I would probably go for the larger vehicle unless I really needed to do high mileages (in which case the real world 45pg of the X3 would sway me over the 30mpg of the X5).