DRIVEN: G01 BMW X3 M40i – same same but better

While the outgoing BMW X3 wasn’t broke, it needed fixing. The second-generation X3 first appeared in 2010, and seven years is an eternity in today’s fast moving auto scene. When we revisited the F25 in facelift form, we noted that the ageing SUV “is still a more satisfying drive than most of its classmates, although you can’t say the same about its dowdy cabin.” And that was two years ago.

In the following years, long-time sparring partner Audi Q5 received a major overhaul. The second-generation Audi SUV is yet to arrive in Malaysia, and that’s great for BMW, because the new Q5’s interior is on a different plane in both design and quality.

Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz made a belated and proper (oddball GLK wasn’t global) entrance with the GLC. Riding on Merc’s rich vein of form here, the GLC is now a fixture in Bangsar-Damansara Heights, the best sample area in Malaysia for atas cars. It’s a decent SUV, the GLC, but it’s difficult not to score when fresh legs are up against two veteran defenders.

The all-new G01 BMW X3 can’t come soon enough, but when it does so in 2018, will the third-generation have what it takes to reclaim lost ground? Having driven it in Portugal recently, we attempt to answer the question.

DRIVEN: G01 BMW X3 M40i – same same but better

Looks the same? The G01’s resemblance to the X3 that came before it may be strong at a glance, but once new and old are viewed side-by-side, it’s clear that the new car is a bolder, more dynamic version of itself. We asked X3 exterior designer Calvin Luk to sum up the new design in a sentence, and he said: “powerful and sophisticated, like a football player in a suit.”

In our exclusive walk-around video with Luk, which you can view below, the man who penned the car talks us through the X3’s bold new face (larger and higher kidney grille, deletion of the X-car signature ‘third eye’ fog lamp), squarish wheel arches, pronounced shoulder crease, sculpturing on the flanks and strong shoulders. Rear-end highlights include 3D sculpted tail lamps, a downward-sloping spoiler and horizontal lines to emphasise width. The M40i’s square tail pipes mimic the shape of the wheel arches.

Handily, choosing to retain the off-road look for the X3 means that it’s the only rugged looking player in the segment. The latest Q5 – also an evolution of a well-received original – has a more urbane, crossover style; while the GLC is something in between. Meanwhile, the Lexus NX‘s super sharp origami design is an acquired taste. Whatever your preference, there’s something in this class for you.

DRIVEN: G01 BMW X3 M40i – same same but better

Yours truly was debilitated by a nasty gut virus on photography day, and almost could not walk away from our Atlantic-facing photo spot on his own power. But I’m happy with the results, which show the lines Luk talks about without clutter. We’ll come back to the X3’s design vis-à-vis rivals later, but what do you think so far?

The footprint has not changed by much – sitting on the modular CLAR (Cluster Architecture) platform that also underpins the G30 5 Series, the G01 is 60 mm longer and 10 mm wider than before, with 54 mm of the newfound length going into the wheelbase. If it appears larger than before, it’s the bolder design and “optimally balanced body” visually amplifying the upsize.

For urban adventurers, the new X3’s relatively high ground clearance of 204 mm may be good for speed bumps, while its fording depth of 500 mm may prove useful when confronted with light floods. Decent approach and departure angles too, at 25.7° and 22.6° respectively.

DRIVEN: G01 BMW X3 M40i – same same but better

Also of note is the X3’s best in class aerodynamics of Cd 0.29, which is as efficient as the smaller X1. Overall weight, distributed 50:50, is down by up to 55 kg, thanks to the increased use of aluminium in engine and suspension components. That does not sound monumental, but the new X3 is a larger car with more tech onboard.

There’s also more power on tap in the new X3 M40i variant you see here. Under the range-topper’s long hood is a 3.0 litre inline-six engine with 360 hp at 5,500 to 6,500 rpm, and 500 Nm of torque all the way from 1,250 to 4,800 rpm. The single twin-scroll turbo motor is paired to an eight-speed Steptronic Sport torque converter automatic transmission and xDrive, a combo that’s good for 0-100 km/h in just 4.8 seconds with the help of launch control. Top speed is limited to 250 km/h.

This M Performance variant is BMW’s response to the Audi SQ5 (354 hp, 500 Nm, 0-100 km/h in 5.4 seconds) and Mercedes-AMG GLC 43 (362 hp, 520 Nm, 0-100 km/h in 4.9 seconds), and the SUV from Munich is fastest of them all. There is of course the Mercedes-AMG GLC 63 with a 4.0 litre biturbo V8 (510 hp, 700 Nm, 0-100 km/h in 3.8 seconds for S models), but why?

Away from the M40i, BMW offers the X3 in usual 20i, 30i, 20d and 30d forms. The petrols are the latest 2.0 litre turbocharged units with 184 hp/290 Nm (20 Nm more, 0-100 km/h 8.3s) and 252 hp/350 Nm (7 hp more than old 28i, 0-100 km/h 6.3s), while the 20d is powered by a 2.0 litre turbodiesel with an unchanged 190 hp/400 Nm (0-100 km/h 8.0s). xDrive and the eight-speed Steptronic auto ‘box are standard across the range, but the base petrol version that will surface in Q2 2018 can also be had without AWD (sDrive20i).

The 30d is the brawny diesel and the second fastest X3 on sale; its 3.0 litre oil burner churning out 265 hp and a mighty 620 Nm of torque (7 hp/30 Nm more than before). The 0-100 km/h sprint is dispatched in 5.8 seconds and top speed is 240 km/h. With Europe now viewing diesel engines as crude polluters, cars like the X3 xDrive30d are probably the worst and last of its kind.

As is the norm today, the new X3 is being offered in various trim flavours, on top of the engine options. There’s a base model, but most will go for either the xLine (matte and satin aluminium trim, Y-spoke wheels), Luxury Line (chrome trim and multi-spoke wheels) or the M Sport.

Besides more aggressive front/rear bumpers and gloss black trim, M Sport also comes with side skirts, body-coloured wheel arch trim and five double-spoke rims. Behind these are blue-painted brake callipers of the sports braking system, while fixed sports suspension is standard (Dynamic Damper Control is an option for all X3s). The Phytonic Blue shade you see here is an exclusive M Sport hue.

Being both a new variant and a range topper, the M40i was naturally chosen by BMW as the X3 to impress the press, with a side serving of the 30d. We focused on the former, which turns out to be a seriously impressive piece of kit.

Press the M40i’s start button and you’ll be greeted with a surprisingly loud growl from the B58 – the sport exhaust system’s start-up theatrics provide a sense of occasion, reminding you that while the hottest X3 isn’t a full-on M car with a bespoke engine, it’s still a cut above the rest. The rumbling note settled into a regular idle even as we settled into our driving position. From there, the M40i was well-mannered as we eased into the scenic drive route.

The G01 X3’s improved refinement is immediately noticeable; its isolation from the elements and drivetrain is soothing on the motorway and when pottering around town. A recent drive in the latest 5 Series impressed in the same way, by being a sanctuary on wheels. Attributes such as this are often overlooked (or even derided) by enthusiasts seeking maximum vehicle interaction, but let’s not forget that big BMWs are mainly used for business – family or corporate.

But in the X3 M40i, the growly potency of the straight-six is never too far away. Summon the 360 horses (54 more than in the outgoing xDrive35i) and 500 Nm of twist (100 Nm more), and the impressive acceleration is accompanied by the motor’s eagerness to rev past 6,000 rpm. There’s no crescendo, but the best of today’s turbo engines are no longer afraid to get high. We tried the X3 xDrive30d on a short loop, and while the oil burner’s huge torque punch is impressive, we prefer the M40i for its sharper response.

Meet some corners and the good news continues. The X3 is no compact hatch, but it won’t protest if you drive it like one. Turn in is as sharp as you’d like in an SUV, and roll is very well contained in the bends. Just the slightest of squats before the big BMW catapults to the next corner. There’s plenty of grip, much more than we required on narrow Portuguese hill roads. As always, Comfort mode and its light and easy steering became my default mode after experimenting with Sport.

At this point, you’d expect us to report some trade off, usually in the form of ride comfort. But no, our M40i tester, riding on standard 20-inch rims with mixed tyres (max 21-inch) coped well with local tarmac. Of course, Malaysian roads will pose a sterner test; but based on recent form (F30, G30), it’s safe to bet that the X3 will do just fine, even with big wheels. High speed primary ride is smooth and stable.

The X3 M40i is dynamically very well-rounded, serving up a big portion of driving pleasure without any obvious penalty in comfort. We may have tested the sporting flagship with active dampers here, but from experience, the base model should offer the same well-judged blend of ride and handling, with performance dialled down a few notches. BMW’s powertrain superiority over its arch-rival, combined with the X3’s improved refinement, should translate to a best-in-class driving experience for cooking variants.

For most, perhaps more important than its dynamic competence is the fact that the new X3 is a better SUV than before. The interior features much improved design and materials, transforming what was a weak point into a strength. Our tester’s dashboard was covered in soft-touch Sensatec artificial leather, matched with the textured Aluminium Rhombical trim as found in our local G30 530i, and metallic “galvanic embellishers” for the controls – all pleasing to the eyes and touch.

DRIVEN: G01 BMW X3 M40i – same same but better

More nice touches come in the form of ‘X’ logos on the top right end of each door card, and ‘X3’ stamped on the B pillars. Except for those on the rear doors, these hidden tattoos are only visible when the doors are opened.

This writer has always preferred cabins in tones other than all-black (local distributors insist that Malaysians are a conservative lot), and the fine-grain Merino leather seats in Ivory White really do the job here. BMW has made available a small selection of BMW Individual trimmings for the X3, and this supple hide is in the catalogue. The chief ingredient in making the cabin extra airy though is natural light let in by the large panoramic glass roof.

The G01’s cockpit design is a variation of what we saw in the 5 Series, with a three-stack centre console angled towards the driver in typical BMW fashion. That driver focus is repeated in the instrument panel. The screen is fully digital, but BMW chose to retain the classical twin-dial layout, even going as far as drawing physical outlines for the instruments, which faces change along with drive modes.

They could have easily loaded up the dash with customisable screens and called it a day, but I appreciate this nod to tradition, and to the idea of driving as we know it. That however does not mean that the new X3 is old school – far from it, in fact. There’s a 10.25-inch central touchscreen, voice and gesture controls, a full colour head-up display and wireless charging, among other assistants.

Speaking of assistance, the G01 gets all of the carmaker’s latest driver assist and semi-autonomous driving tech. The optional BMW Personal CoPilot includes Active Cruise Control (ACC, which can brake the car to a full halt and pull away again) and BMW Driving Assistant Plus.

The latter packages Steering and Lane Control Assistant, Lane Change Assistant, Lane Keeping Assistant with side collision protection, priority warning, wrong-way warning and crossing traffic warning systems.

Of the above, this tech-averse driver particularly appreciated the HUD for its navigation display. The combination of left-hand-drive, long highway stretches, and plenty of catching up to do with my drive partner meant that the Steering and Lane Control Assistant had a chance to show its worth. Of course, nothing beats 100% focus on the road, but hey, life happens.

Also new to the X3 are optional features such as three-zone climate control, perforated leather climate front seats (heating and ventilation), adjustable rear seat backrests (five degrees forward, six degrees backward), remote rear seat backrest folding, ambient lighting with light carpet and acoustic front side windows (acoustic windscreen is standard), among other things.

The cargo area holds 550 litres, expandable to 1,600 litres with the 40:20:40 rear seats folded. There are some neat compartments under the boot floor, including one specifically for the tonneau cover. The floor is neatly held up by a strut when it’s lifted.

Human cargo is well catered for, too – the longer wheelbase has freed up more legroom and the large windows provide a good view out, even before taking into account the optional glass roof. And if the three-zone air con option is ticked, backbenchers get their own AC controls.

If the G01 X3 sounds like a great SUV in M40i form, it is. But much of what’s good belongs to the car beneath the M tuning – couple the improved refinement and massively upgraded cabin with tricks the X3 already had in its locker (slick powertrain, good ride-handling balance) and my money is on the 20i/30i shooting straight to the top. Thing is, will people notice?

This writer likes the X3’s rugged yet suave image, but it follows a familiar design template, and my worry is that punters in this side of the world might dismiss it as “more of the same” in the face of fresh faces and/or a more urban image. But BMW has sold over 5.4 million X cars since 1999, and surely it knows a thing or two about market trends. And that my worries are unfounded.


GALLERY: BMW X3 xDrive30d xLine

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