We drove a $58,000 BMW X3 to see if it's worth the price tag -- here's the verdict

Matthew DeBord/BI
  • The BMW X3 is new for its third-generation.
  • The popular SUV has been selling well in SUV-mad America.
  • We sampled the X3 xDrive 30i, which can get a bit pricey – and might be a little too bimmer for folks who just want a German luxury ute for the family.

BMW sold over 40,000 X3 compact crossover SUVs in the US last year and can look forward to similar numbers in 2018.

This is probably why the X3 is among the bestselling American-made German luxury crossovers: it’s built in South Carolina, to be nice and close to its most important market.

BMWs are BMWs – the ultimate driving machines. But while SUVs can be a joy to drive, that’s not necessarily their core mission. Thanks to its scale and price-tag, the X3 is meant to satisfy a wide range of bimmer buyers, everybody from folks moving away from the legendary 3-Series sedans to people who don’t quite want to jump into the larger X5.

BMW does has the smaller X1 and recently introduced X2 to tempt entry-level customers who wouldn’t look twice at a sedan. But the X3 is where many BMW owners and leasers will begin their journey with the Bavarian brand.

We recently spent some time with a 2018 X3 xDrive 30i, in one of its natural environments: the northern New Jersey suburbs, just across the Hudson River from New York City. Here’s how it went.

An unexpected snowstorm in the area added an early morning dusting of the white stuff to our “Dark Olive Metallic” BMW xDrive 30i.

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The base xDrive 30i tips the cost scales at $US42,450, but our well-optioned tester came it at $US57,650 after several special packages were added.

The xDrive 30i gets an inline, four-cylinder, twin-turbo mill that cranks out 248 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Fuel economy is a respectable 22 mpg city/29 highway/25 combined for the vehicle.

What we have here is the third-generation of the X3. The design is bit more shapely and aggressive that the outgoing model — perhaps to distinguish the bimmer ute in a sea of compact SUVs.

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Believe it or not, the X3 has been around since 2003. An SUV of this size, aimed at luxury buyers, wasn’t really such a big deal back then. The luxury market still craved sedans.

But BMW was somewhat ahead of the curve. Lucky for them, strong sales of the X3 have kept the brand going while sedan sales decline.

OK, so the snowy eyebrows make the whole front fascia look weird. But the fundamentals are sound.

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Streamlined LED headlights? Check. BMW badge? Check. Bold, double-kidney grille? Check. Quietly bold contour lines sweeping back along the hood? Check.

Personally, I think this car is sharp from the front.

The rear is as svelte as BMW could make it, given that it has to play home to a power liftgate.

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Crossover SUVs are an obvious design challenge. While wagons can be conceived as sedans with extra space in the back, SUVs are more boxlike.

The tendency is to divide the car in half, do one’s best with the front, and hang in there on the rear until you throw in the towel, muttering “Hatchback, hatchback …” in German.

BMW has an advantage here in the famous “Hofmeister kink,” a design element named for Wilhelm Hofmeister, who headed up bimmer styling in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Hofmeister kink!

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As you can see, it resolves the window glass in the rear third of the X3 by creating a nice, angular element.

Combined with the sleek tail lights and the sharp beltline crease, it gives the back end a lively dynamic – lots of shapes – that prevents the X3 from becoming tail-heavy, visually.

Cargo capacity is in-line with this compact crossover segment.

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I could easily cram luggage for five people (and avoid cramming for four) in the cargo area.

A week’s worth of groceries would be a snap, and with the rear sets folded down, the X3 is able to swallow up anything from bikes to antiques to I’m pretty sure a drum kit, two amps, a base, a couple of guitars, and some mics. Not sure where the band would sit …

The xDrive 30i badging is modest.

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“xDrive” is BMW’s all-wheel-drive system. The X3 is usually biased toward rear-wheel-drive for performance reasons, but if the systems detects loss of traction, it will vector power to whatever wheel is grabbing the road best.

We did test the X3 in the wintry Northeast, but for the most part the weather was good while we had the vehicle. That said, the AWD system didn’t hamper the driving experience, and on slightly slippery roads, it felt surefooted.

And what have we here? Some M Sport brake calipers!

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There’s no high-performance “M” version of the X3. For now, anyway – there is an X5 M and and X6 M, and while we wait for a rumoured X3 M, we can step up from the xDrive 30i to the M40i, which comes with a beefy, 335-horsepower, twin-turbo inline six.

BMW calls all X3s “Sports Activity Vehicles,” and so some sporty hardware should be on order for our xDrive 30i. The M-spec brakes on our X3 did a capable job of keeping the machine in check – they’re part of a $US1,400 Dynamic Handling Package.

Let’s slip inside. Is this SUV up to snuff?

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Compared with the X1, which I found to be not-up-to-BMW-standards, interior-wise, the X3 does a vastly better job of delivering the goods.

The cockpit is satisfyingly bimmer-y. The leather upholstery was “Canberra Beige Vernasca,” and the quality was high.

For the driver, slipping behind the wheel of the X3 is a familiar experience.

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It isn’t quite as “all about the driver” as, say, an M3, but the leather-wrapped steering wheel and the relatively classic layout of the instruments, as well as the colour scheme, exudes bimmer-ness.

I found the steering feel to be pretty sharp, for the most part – responsive to quick inputs, yet not overly heavy.

The analogue instruments are actually digital.

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It certainly isn’t Audi’s all-digital Virtual Cockpit, but it is up-to-date with the trend of retaining an analogue appearance without physical dials.

Some owners might crave more info, but the crucial stuff is present, and the X3 also has a head-up display.

A little X3 branding inside.

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Interior fit and finish is excellent. There’s none of the econobox vibe that I thought the X1 suffered from. “Dark Wood Oak” trim and ambient lighting add to the luxury effect.

Of course, we are talking about a sub-$US60,000 SUV here, and even though our X3 had plenty of goodies, it doesn’t come off inside as a ride that couldn’t take some daily abuse.

The eight-speed automatic was dandy, shifting crisply.

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Neither my colleague Ben Zhang nor I detected any notable turbo lag. We aren’t fans of the overly complicated joystick shifter, but obviously, it does free up space in the center stack.

Drive modes are Eco, Comfort, and Sport. To be honest, I favoured Comfort. Sport doesn’t intensify the driving experience that much. Paddle shifters behind the steering wheel mean that you can snick the gears yourself if you’re in the mood.

The oomphier six banger in the M40i version of the X3 serves up a BMW-claimed 4.6-second 0-60 mph time. Our tester was definitely not that quick, but our 0-60 highway mergers felt like they were coming in around 5 seconds. That’s plenty of speed for the ‘burbs.

Once up a time, BMWs forced you to deal with a lot of buttons and knobs on the center stack. Not so much anymore.

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Everything here is logical and easy to use. The seats in our X3 were heated, as was the steering wheel. I’m not sure why, but the interior if the X3 seemed to take a while to warm up.

And yes, that is a CD player slot. Wireless charging is available, if your device is compatible.

The rear seats are a bench design, and there’s a surprising amount of legroom.

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There’s also a set of climate controls – and the rear seats are heated, a nice extra.

That’s what I’m talking about!

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Charging options are kind of skimpy back there. But charging isn’t great throughout the X3. USB ports are limited.

But about those seats.

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Both Ben Zhang and I found them to be, well, a little too firm. Yes, a firm seat can be useful in spirited driving, and the X3 is supposed to have the potential for that in its DNA.

But there’s firm for sportiness and then there’s too firm for proper daily driving. The X3’s thrones border on the uncomfortable, if you spend over an hour parked in them.

No complaints about the panoramic moon roof, though.

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It lets in an astonishing amount of light and makes the back seats feel much roomier than they are. This is becoming one those features that every luxury brand is adding as a matter of course. I’m surprised when we have to make do with an old-fangled sunroof.

The iDrive infotainment system is controlled with this puck-dial and button interface.

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I’ve said this a bunch of times, but iDrive was hated when it came out. The butt of jokes for years, it’s now actually pretty good.

And with a proliferation of touchscreen-only interfaces, I appreciate being able to develop some muscle memory for the dial-button positions so that I can keep my eyes on the road.

That said, iDrive is still organised in the way that only a German engineer can appreciate, with numerous submenus and decision trees. You get used to it. But this time around, I used the voice system a lot and it worked well.

The rectangular infotainment screen sticks out of the dash — some folks really don’t like this, but I’m OK with it.

Matthew DeBord/BI

The interface and screen are responsive and easy to view. You have all the usual features, raging from reliable navigation to Bluetooth pairing, USB and AUX ports, and Apple CarPlay (a $US300 option, by the way).

The $US875 Harman/Kardon audio system sounded great, whether it was pumping out jazz, blues, rock, or my new favourite SiriusXM station, Outlaw Country.

So what’s the verdict?

Matthew DeBord/BI

Ben and I each drove the X3, and we agreed that the ride is too harsh regardless of which drive mode is selected, and that the seats could be more comfortable. We also agreed that the X3 is fun to drive.

That encapsulates BMW’s dilemma. All of its vehicles are supposed to be fun to drive. But in the SUV segments in particular, consumers aren’t necessarily invested in thrills. To be sure, the BMW brand overcomes that issue – sitting in a BMW is still sitting in a BMW, and thanks to those three letters and their reputation, owners will put up with a lot.

But I ultimately thought that maybe there was too much of a driving machine in the X3 30i’s DNA. Enthusiasts will probably want to step up to the X3 M40i, so why not soften the four-cylinder version?

Heresy! Yes, heresy. If you don’t want a BMW to drive like a BMW, get a Cadillac XT5 or an Audi Q5. Questioning the whole BMW premise is silly.

Agreed. But the X3 30i was still noticeably uncomfy at times. That was counterbalanced by the peppy acceleration and snappy handling, as well as the better-than-expected rear seat room and the cargo capacity.

This is also the best-looking X3 ever. The overall design really drew me in and made me want to drive the car, even if I knew my back would complain later.

In the end, I think BMW could tweak the seats and change my mind. And when I was blasting through the Lincoln Tunnel and preparing to zip in and out of Manhattan traffic, I warmed to the X3 BMW-y charms.

It’s a good SUV. It might not be worth almost $US58,000. But there is a BMW premium, and it’s supposed to come through when you step on that gas. And in that respect, although the xDrive 30i isn’t easy to live with, it’s a blast to drive.

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