Words: Syed Shiraz
Photography: Himanshu Sharma & Syed Shiraz
It used to be all too simple earlier when it came to choosing a premium vehicle. People who wanted the best in rear seat comfort bought a Merc; those lusting after the best driving experience bought a BMW, while the confused lot headed straight to an Audi showroom. And chaps wanting an SUV just bought a Land Cruiser. Or a Patrol. Okay, sometimes a Range Rover too. But, it all changed in the late ‘90s when BMW realised that, unless you were an Arab, the chances of your SUV finding dirt on its Goodyears were as likely as the USA finding nuclear weapons in Iraq.
BMW perhaps also thought that ‘Sport’ and ‘Utility’ do not go well together, unless you are a cowboy, and that Sport, for the rich, is a special Activity they do over the weekend. For recreational purposes. Like going to a five-star’s pool for a swim. So while unleashing the X5 in 1999 they removed the ute from the brute and called it an SAV, which means a Sport Activity Vehicle (you should have got that by now). BMW knew that people love the imposing presence of a full-size SUV; the space it offers; the ground clearance, the fantastic all around visibility (F-Pace and Evoque are the exceptions here), but are indifferent to differentials.
The manufacturer’s thought was bang on the money and the X5 indeed turned out to a revelation. Its handling instantly made every other SUV on sale at that time look agricultural in comparison! In fact, if it was not for the X5, the Cayenne might have never happened… Anyway, so sometime later, in 2003 to be precise, BMW thought it to be a good idea to offer the X5 in one size smaller, and thus the X3 was born. Please note that the word ‘smaller’ has been used as a comparative adjective here, otherwise it would have been a misnomer as the current X3 is anything but small. So much so that when our test unit arrived, I thought, for the first ten or more seconds, that BMW had sent the X5 by mistake!
Thankfully though, it is not intimidating. But it’s not inconsequential either. See, it’s big enough to earn admiration and respect on the road and in your neighbourhood, but not that big as to beget contempt (the Q7s, Fortuners, and Endeavours of the world).
Also, though it does not make much of a difference, but, in our ever increasing traffic snarls, where the car beside yours is close enough for you to correctly identify the exact shade of nail lacquer the driver is wearing, it might be somewhat comforting to know that the X3 is the slimmest SUV (1881 mm) in its segment, followed by the Mercedes GLC (1890 mm) and the Audi Q5 (1898 mm) – its two main competitors. However, that’s with the wing mirrors folded; otherwise, the Merc takes the most space (2095 mm) laterally, whereas the other two Germans measure exactly the same in width (2089 mm) with their ears out.
But, again, these differences of half a centimeter or two will neither compel you to redesign the walls of your garage, nor will they make you conscious of your bulging waistline because the corresponding difference in cabin space, or elbow/shoulder room to be precise, is too insignificant to be mentioned. It won’t matter to you unless you plan to run your vehicle as an Uber carpool or like one of those school-kids-ferrying Maruti Omnis. Still, if you insist, and if you want to know the numbers, the Q5 offers 1494 mm of elbow room at the rear; the Merc comes second at 1475 mm, while the X3’s at 1458 mm. And this is why I normally do not mention such numbers in my reviews. Because they sometimes just do not portray the right picture. I haven’t driven or even sat in the GLC yet, but I have driven the Q5 and have ridden in its rear couch as well. I can tell you that the X3’s seats are a couple of notches better, and I feel the biggest contributing factor must be the fact that its seat squab is set higher off the floor than both the Audi’s and the Merc’s (check the respective spec sheets on the companies’ websites and you’ll know). Taller passengers would really appreciate that because, in the X3, their knees would not be touching their nose.
And they would also welcome the fantastic headroom on offer in the BMW (the Merc is even better, but I am a little sceptical about its low seats…). It’s better than in the Audi, and the X3 just laughs on the face of the much expensive F-PACE. It seems like Jaguar’s SUV has just a wee bit more headroom than the old GT40. Okay, it’s not that bad, but it’s possibly the worst SUV in its class for taller folks. The Evoque understands its pain… Anyway, I should not be talking about the Brit any further because I seriously do not know what the bartender gave the JLR management the night before they froze the pricing of the F-PACE. Absurd is the word. For the price of a comparable (six-cylinder) F-PACE, you can buy this top-of-the-line X3 30d M Sport for the family, a BMW 1 Series for yourself, and a base petrol Honda City for groceries.
Anyway, the bottom line is: the X3’s rear seat comfort is second to none in its segment. Our 6-foot, 112 kg photographer, Himanshu, approves. And it’s not even a contest when you move to the front. I am not talking about the front seats here because every vehicle in this segment will never give you a chance to complain in this aspect – the front seats of all in this segment are not any less opulent than a king’s throne. I was referring to the experience when you take the reins in your own hands.
But before I talk more about that, let me just quickly tell you that the X3’s cabin is the least cluttered and most well laid out among all its competitors’. It’s clean and classy. The ambient lighting has just the right amount of brightness that, unlike some, doesn’t make you feel that you’re sitting in a cheap bar. Neither is there anything unnecessarily jutting out, nor is there anything that’s complicatedly hidden. Everything is exactly where it is supposed to be. In fact, all BMW cabins are so thoughtfully designed that you begin to wonder whether they talk about them in university classes on ergonomics yet. You begin to appreciate the fine design even more when you witness ergonomic disasters in other vehicles. Like in the F-PACE. The Jag’s power window controls’ position (almost touching the A-pillar) on the driver’s door requires one to have arms like an orangutan to operate them. In the X3, everything falls naturally to hand. Normal, human hand. And BMWs iDrive system still remains the best in segment.
The build quality is bulletproof, and nothing in this car feels flimsy. In fact, the moment you set foot in the X3, or any BMW for that matter, you FEEL a sense of solidity that tells you that these tanks are built to last. Oh, and before I forget, let me also tell you that there are enough cubbyholes and cup/bottle holders in the X3 to accommodate all your energy bars and drinks – should keep even the most American of you satiated.
The windows and windscreens are perhaps the biggest in the segment, and that ensures excellent visibility all around while also making the cabin feel the airiest of the lot. Want more light? A huge panoramic glass roof comes standard. Claustrophobics will love the X3.
In fact, everyone will, including the hardened naysayers, if they happen to sit in the driver’s seat. Because this BMW, still remains, the best handling SUV in its segment. Yes, including the aforementioned Jaguar. The X3’s steering wheel is more direct than Robert Redford in Indecent Proposal, and more energetic than Jim Carrey in The Mask. This precision and liveliness makes the X3 feel so tight and compact that you start driving it like an elevated 5-door hot hatch. That’s saying something for what is nearly a two-tonne vehicle and has better ground clearance than both the GLC and the Q5.
Unlike its competition, in which your worry-meter shows red every time the tacho needle travels near the redline, the X3 has you smiling all the way while going fast (the pictures do not lie!). Its brilliant chassis dynamics make spirited driving a rewarding experience, rather than scaring the hell out of you. Yes, it is an SUV and bodyroll would be imminent, but it would never be so much as to catch you off guard.
It’s always predictable and you would know exactly how the X3 will behave in all situations, unless you are a novice. If you are one, get the 170 hp GLC or the 174 hp Q5, because, forget this, the straight-six 258 hp X3 30d M Sport, even the 190 hp X3 20d might be too much for you. You read that right, even the entry level X3 produces more power than what the other Germans can muster at best.
Audi used to offer a fantastic V6 earlier in their Q5 but they chickened out perhaps upon learning that their clientele comprises posers, and not real drivers. Mercedes do not offer a six-cylinder GLC at all, but they do have a 245 hp four-cylinder petrol as an option.
And I don’t think any manufacturer in this segment will ever be able to match the almost magical engine-gearbox combinations like only the Bavarians can concoct. The X3 30d M Sport gets the 530d M Sport’s inline six 2,993 cc diesel engine that develops 258 horsepower at 4,000 rpm and 560 Nm of torque between 1,500 to 3,000 rpm. The sedan’s eight-speed Steptronic ‘Sport’ transmission too has been made to erotically mate with that motor in the X3. And the result is? Explosive power in abundance everywhere in the rev range, right off idle! This tranny-motor combo is so beautiful that you would never find the need to use the paddle shifters except, maybe, on a trackday (BMW had organised one sometime back, but we weren’t invited). The shifts are quick and smooth, irrespective of the driving mode, so burying your right foot even in Comfort mode yields more than satisfying results. Every time. Then there is Sport and Sport+.
Choose the latter only on Sundays, as dealing with razor sharp responses on a daily basis is not everyone’s forte… Or use it on a drag strip; the M Sport has launch control so you should be able to wipe the smile off a few faces who might have smirked at you for showing up in a mini ship. You may also use it occasionally if you want to mess around with a Cayenne on traffic lights. For everyday driving, I would recommend the Eco Pro mode as it will extract the best fuel economy from that lovely six-pot while still not making the X3 a slouch.
Talking about fuel consumption, BMW claim this one to run 16.55 km per liter of diesel, under standard test conditions of course. I am guilty of not driving much in the Eco Pro mode and it still gave me 11.3 km/l. Owners would be able to extract at least 12 km/l which translates to a range of around 800 km considering it has a 67-liter tank.
And you would be able to do a lot more than 800 km at a stretch in this BMW because the ride quality is surprisingly good! It’s because of the adaptive suspension package, Dynamic Damper Control in BMW speak, that comes standard in the X3 M Sport in India (the 20d xLine also gets it). Which also reminds me to tell you that the M Sport is their fully loaded top-end X3 with almost every feature coming in as standard fitment, most of which are on the options list in most global markets.
It also has more than enough safety features to counter your suicidal missions. And I was pleasantly surprised to learn that while getting a five-star rating from Euro NCAP it scored more than the Q5 and the Volvo XC60 for child occupant safety and pedestrian protection as well! A pat on BMW’s back then? Not quite.
I say that because on one hand they have read the Indian market correctly and have loaded the vehicle with almost every conceivable comfort/luxury (and safety) feature in the segment, while on the other they seem to be oblivious to the kind of road conditions their vehicles, especially the SAVs, would be driven on here. Otherwise, what else would explain the lack of a spare tyre in a 4×4?
They do provide it in the X5 so I really don’t understand why the X3 doesn’t get it. It comes with a puncture repair kit which works great for sealing minor punctures, but it is of no use if there is a bigger cut or hole in the tyre. Yes, unfortunately I got to test that as well, in the middle of our photoshoot. But what left us really baffled was the unperturbed behaviour of the tyre pressure monitoring system, which, despite a completely flat and flaccid tyre, showed that all was well! See the real time image below:
I wrote about it to BMW but I am yet to receive a reply. I shall update as and when, and if, I get an answer from them. That said, it is NOT a deal breaker. I know of three people who keep a spare wheel in their BMWs – two of them are 5 Series owners, and the other, coincidentally, drives an X3 30d M Sport. Still, it would really help BMW if they at least start providing a space saver (a wheel with the same diameter but a much narrower tyre that occupies less space in the boot) like in the GLC. The boot capacity of all three Germans is exactly the same at 550 liters, and though the GLC’s spare tyre eats up some of that space, it is a small price to pay for ensuring peace of mind. Audi and BMW should both follow suit.
Other than this (the lack of a spare tyre), there is no real negative in the X3’s candidature that I can think of. And even this is something that can be worked around even if it is not rectified by BMW in the near future.
So, what else? You might have noticed that I didn’t talk at all about its exterior design and style. Regular readers would already be aware that I usually try to refrain from talking about it because you, the reader / prospective buyer, are the best judge of this parameter. Beauty and lust lie in the eyes of the beholder, and a beauty for one might be a beast to some. And vice versa. But, as a reviewer I’ll still have to tell you what I feel about it.
The X3 is the very definition of understated class. Neither does it scream for attention like the F-PACE, nor does it carry a please-everyone demeanour of the Q5. It is for people with substance; people who have got their priorities right, and being the center of attraction isn’t one of them. Yes, there exists a kind of people who do not want to be noticed while having fun. They have arrived in life but do not want to prove it to anyone. They won’t buy the X3 for its snob value (which comes with the badge anyway); they’ll buy it because nothing less would do for them. The X3
would not appeal to the nouveau riche, then. So, if you just got compensated heavily by the government for your land (and cattle), just buy a couple of white Tata Safaris for you and your now-khadi-clad henchmen. This BMW isn’t for you.
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