If you can afford it, then the superb new BMW X3 has incredible road presence
Finding a happy premium
My son and I had big plans around the new BMW X3. We were going to drive it on its launch back from Malaga in southern Spain to the BMW British headquarters near Farnborough.
On the way, we would take a day or two in northern Spain, then a leisurely drive through France until crossing under the British Channel on the Eurotunnel Le Shuttle. We would then visit a couple of places where I had spent some of my childhood before returning the car, and he would go back to his job as an economist in London and I would fly back to Dublin.
Unfortunately, our massive road trip never happened, the best-laid plans of mice and men came to naught, corporate concerns and all that intervened. However, we made up for it a bit by a few days spent discovering Norfolk and Cambridge.
I only caught up with the X3 a couple of weeks ago; between snows, as it were, which was a pity as it has great off-road potential. It was also a shame that we hadn't had it available for a drive across Europe as it also has incredible road presence, safety systems as well as a dignified calm when travelling at speed on motorways. The X3 has come a long way from its rather bad start in 2004 when it was very much looked down as vastly inferior and poorly built compared to the X5. The third-generation model is now as large as the X5 of those days but stays firmly as a five-seater.
Much of the cabin takes its cue from the impressive 5-Series saloon which was launched last year so there is a real quality feel with plenty of technology on offer. But it doesn't come cheap. The basic cost of the X3 xDrive20d M Sport I was testing came in at €64,412 but by the time the very classy Phytonic (yes it's a new one on me, too) Blue metallic was painted on, it came to just under €65.5K.
But the cash register hadn't stopped: Visibility Package, M Sport package, Display key, Acoustic glazing, exterior folding mirrors with anti-dazzle, electronic front seats with memory plus extended storage, instrument panel in Sensatec and Rear seat moveable back rest put the guts of another €10,000 on, making the car a hefty €75,431. Not cheap in any person's book. However, all X3s come with four-wheel drive and automatic boxes.
But this is a premium car and feels it in every aspect, yet BMW hasn't as a brand really got the reputation or performance it probably should have. The Irish organisation is linked to the British company and in the 2017 JD POWER UK Vehicle Dependability Survey, BMW finished last of the 25 manufacturers included. Audi and Jaguar were a bit in front but Volvo and now, at last, Mercedes were well ahead. In fact, the X3's main competitor, in my mind, is the Volvo XC60 which was recently announced as the World Car of the Year, building on the success of the XC40 which won the European Car of the Year last month. As I said recently, I really loved the XC40 but it was woefully expensive when the extras were piled on.
Actually, this comes back to a real problem with a lot of new cars and the Personal Contract Plans (PCP). While the regulators over here can't seem to get their act together I think the situation is already in very dangerous territory. The car market is changing massively and the importing of cars from the North and other parts of the UK is making a mockery of a lot of valuations on PCPs, which is piling up pressure on showrooms and customers. I am also worried that car companies are beginning to have a troubling relationship with people's pockets and how much they are taking out of them a month.
It all looks good to begin with for the initial offering of a PCP for a basic model. The buyer is then encouraged in small steps to increase the customisation by the offering of this or that pack for just another €10 or so a month. In the same way, top spec alloys, metallic paint, panoramic roofs and all get added in. Very soon, the monthly payment might be nearly double what was intended and it isn't in our nature to start knocking off those extras. If they were must-haves at 2pm they are unlikely to be don't cares at 2.10pm. This will all cause problems, massive problems.
But back to the X3, let's just say that if you can afford it, then it is a superb car. You'll get around 40mpg, there's brilliant room for five, a great luggage area and really assured driving. It feels premium, costs premium and is a class act. But be careful out there with your pennies.
It's a pity it is mainly diesel and there is that reliability survey to consider. I would have loved to drive it back from Malaga to Farnborough. A few spins into the Wicklow mountains didn't quite feel the same but I still loved driving it.