Let down by bland ambition
BMW has beefed up its popular X3 with improvements in performance and efficiency, but it's still totally devoid of personality, writes Campbell Spray
Published 13/02/2011 | 05:00
In the seven years since the BMW X3 was first launched, the company has struggled to get the car right.
Every year saw tweaks and updates of the car which Jeremy Clarkson said you would be "clinically insane "to buy. There was considerable criticism of its off-road capacity, build quality and styling. At a time when we were being overloaded by massive SUVs, I was keen to warm to the X3 as it didn't have the grotesqueness of its X5 big sister. But in many ways the X3 fell between two stools and over here it was a bit sneered at. It was very much a "why bother?" car. However, all this criticism didn't stop it selling more than 500,000 units in the first four years. A full second-generation model has been launched which is very well-specced and tries to answer the criticism since 2004. It is a much more able and resourced vehicle.
Unfortunately, it has also grown so that it is roughly the same size as an X5 was eight years ago, when the X3 was shown for the first time at the Detroit Motor Show. But for all its extra bulk, I found it very difficult to carry an armchair in the back last Sunday -- even with all the seats folded down. Yet there is no doubt that overall, the new X3 is a fine vehicle if you like this sort of thing.
Its 2.0 litre diesel engine probably has the lowest emissions and best economy for an all-wheel drive vehicle of its size on the market and it is a much better off-the-road performer than previously. Colleagues who drove the vehicle with winter tyres during the snow thought it was excellent.
It has a much higher specification than the old model but a lower on-the-road price starting at €45,810; although the model I was driving had an automatic box, sports seats, Bluetooth and a few other extras that pushed it to €5,500 or so more. As with most cars in the premium sector you can just keep spending, although it was good to see that the leather upholstery came as standard although I am always amazed that a vehicle which pushed its ability over rugged terrain comes with very light seats that scream city-slick rather than rustic-rough. The X3 is the first BMW model in the country to team Auto Start-Stop technology with the optional automatic transmission. It is a bit off-putting at first to hear the engine cut out at traffic lights but you soon get used to it. In terms of power, economy and emissions the X3 has a significant advantage over Audi and Land Rover competitors. The X3 will now be built in the US at BMW's Spartanburg plant in South Carolina where it is hoped build standards will be higher than the previous model assembled in Austria. It is a comfortable, capable machine but devoid of personality or driving feedback. For many this will be just what they want.