First drive LCI 2023 BMW X3 xDrive30d M Sport G01

First drive LCI 2023 BMW X3 xDrive30d M Sport G01

The updated X3 marks a definite improvement in BMW’s mid-size SUV – or SAV if you must...


Words: Neil Briscoe

Photographs: BMW

If there’s a black sheep of the BMW line-up, then surely it’s the X3. When the original E83 version was launched in 2003, it was possibly the first BMW in generations for which the word ‘derisory’ was used, as least in contemporary reviews. We had just got used to the idea of BMW making an SUV in the first place, with the first X5, theE53, but the X3 seemed like a step too far, and certainly a styling misstep. The awkward lines and jarring use of black plastic body addenda on those early ones didn’t help its case much.

First drive LCI 2023 BMW X3 xDrive30d M Sport G01

While those were subsequently cleaned up, and while the later F25 version, launched in 2010, smoothed out the X3’s styling language ever further, I reckon it’s really only with this model – the G01 – that the X3 has become truly what it was supposed to be. And what it has become is, effectively, the X5…

It’s actually almost eerie how closely matched the 1999 X5 and the current X3 are in dimensional terms. In fact, it’s only in height – where there is a 100mm difference overall, with the old X5 being the taller vehicle – that there’s a major divergence. Beyond that, the current X3 actually feels rather like that original X5 to drive.

The current X5 has, thanks to the ineluctable forces of the market, become larger, heavier, more overtly luxurious and less engaging to drive. Meanwhile, the X3 has shrugged off the poor dynamic performance of its Mk1 forebear (honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever driven a car with a ride quality quite that bad) to become a smooth, assured, engaging driving companion. Again, much like that original X5.

Ok, that’s probably enough of me talking about old BMW X models, let’s look at what BMW has done to freshen up the current X3 for the 2022 model year. It’s a mild, mid-life upgrade this, but still an important one. The X3 remains a massive seller for the company – it’s the most popular BMW in the vital US market, and it’s a model that stands at something of a crossroads. Indeed, you could see the X3 as something of a bellwether for the entire global car market, as you can buy one with a traditional petrol or diesel engine – including the mighty 510hp turbocharged M version – or you can buy one with a conscience-salving plug-in hybrid powertrain; or you can go the whole electric hog and buy the fully-electric iX3. To keep the X3 feeling fresh – an important task, given the fact that major rivals such as the Mercedes-Benz GLC, Audi Q5 and Jaguar F-Pace have all just had major updates, and the Lexus NX has just been launched as an all-new second-generation model – BMW has given its SUV (actually, the company still insists on calling it a Sports Activity Vehicle, or SAV) a series of small, but significant upgrades.

Let’s start with the styling. At the front, you’ll notice that the radiator grilles are both larger and more upright and get a single ‘frame’ outline that joins in the middle. Now, BMW hasn’t gone and given the X3 the extreme styling of the iX or the 4 Series, but there is noticeably more aggression to the front end, helped by the fact that the headlights are some 10mm slimmer than before (and can be optionally fitted with BMW Laser Lights with their paint-lifting 650-metre main-beam). Personally, I thought the previous, more blended-in grille was more attractive, but BMW seems intent to over-size the grilles on all models, so at least the damage done here (if damage it is) has been minimal.

At the rear, there are also new LED lights, which get a curved ‘pincer’ shape and a black border that in theory makes the lights stand out better. The bumpers and air intakes, front and rear, are also new and BMW says that the overall look is tidier than before. Basic X-Line versions get dark-grey 19-inch alloys as standard, while M Sport models get the same size wheel with a unique design. You can cram in 21-inch rims as an option, but the ride quality will suffer.

M Sport versions – ever the most popular – get the usual more muscular body kit, with optional blacked-out trim instead of chrome. There are two new paint options – Skyscraper Grey, or Brooklyn Grey for M Sport cars. Inside, BMW says that it has ‘significantly’ revised the interior, but the overall shapes and styling to be honest remain pretty much unchanged. Where you will find a change is in the screens. The driver now gets the same 12.3-inch digital instrument pack as most other BMW models and, while it’s a clear, sharp display, am I the only one who misses the older BMW digital instruments, the ones that kept a little chrome bezel on top of the screen? In the centre of the dash, the infotainment screen keeps the version 7 iDrive software — version 8 is still reserved for the iX, the i4 and the incoming i7 for now — and you can choose from an occasionally bewildering selection of inputs. It’s a touchscreen, but you can also use the traditional iDrive click wheel located down on the centre console (a less distracting system when you’re on the move), or you can try hurling a voice command prefaced with a «Hey, BMW…», or you can press some buttons on the steering wheel, or you can waggle your hand around in front of the screen in a usually vain effort to work out why anyone bothers with ‘gesture control.’

There’s more connectivity on offer too, with Android Auto joining Apple CarPlay (with a neat integration of Google Maps into the optional head-up display if you’ve ticked that box), plus Amazon Alexa integration if you just can’t leave your digital life behind. BMW even speaks of ‘a more intensive bond between the driver and vehicle’ thanks to the upgraded digital voice assistant, which frankly sounds a bit creepy to us. The entire system still works well and, aside from the slicker graphics, you’re not really missing out compared to iDrive 8 in the iX. The menu layouts are reasonably simple, and thanks to the fact that the X3 keeps proper physical heating and air-conditioning controls, you’re unlikely to bump up against digital overload inside.

Between the seats, the centre console is basically copied from the 3 Series and 5 Series, with the engine stop-start and driving mode selector buttons clustered together, just next to the gear-shifter for the standard-fit eight-speed automatic gearbox. Overall quality levels are excellent, as you’d expect, and with standard ‘Sensatec’ synthetic leather, you won’t have to spend a fortune to make the inside of your new X3 look and feel rather plush. Space is good, too, with decent legroom in the back and a decent (if not quite class-leading) 550-litre boot out the back. It’s kind of all starting to sound like all the car you’d ever need, isn’t it? That’s reinforced by the line-up of engines. Having added both the plug-in hybrid X3 xDrive30e to the range and 48-volt mildhybrid assistance to all of the diesel engines in recent years, BMW has now given the petrol line-up of 20i, 30i, and M40i turbo units the same mildhybrid backup, so the X3 now has a fully hybrid (or electric, if you include the iX3) model range. The basic xDrive20i sees its emissions levels improve slightly to between 173- and 177g/km, while its fuel economy improves a little to 37.2mpg.

Of course, if you’re buying an X3, you’re probably not going to be buying a petrol one. While the plug-in hybrid model has its advantages (especially if you’re a company car buyer), diesel is still arguably where it’s at when it comes to X3 ownership. The two mainstream diesel engines on off er, the 190hp 20d and the 286hp 30d, have very separate, distinct characters though.

If you were to test drive – or even buy – a 20d, it’s unlikely that you’d be disappointed. It’s a smooth engine, and you can tell that it’s at the latter end of a long line of development and evolution. A power output of 190hp might not sound like all that much (especially in a car weighing 1,915kg), but with 295lb ft of torque, the X3 20d gets about pretty easily. It’ll accelerate to 62mph in 7.9-seconds from a standstill, but to be honest that seems quicker on paper than it feels in the real world – while you’d never accuse the X3 20d of being slow, neither is it especially lively these days, and performance does taper off quite a bit at higher rpm. However, it is an impressively economical engine – select the Eco Pro mode and you should be able to crack the 50mpg barrier on a long journey, although that will pretty quickly drop to more like 35-40mpg if all your driving is around town (at which point you probably should have bought the xDrive30e plug-in hybrid, or the iX3).

It’s also the case that xLine and M Sport versions actually feel quite different to drive. In xLine form, you could almost accuse the X3 of just being too languid, too laid back. It’s a hugely comfortable and refined thing in which to travel (aside from a little too much suspension jitter around town), but it lacks the kind of incisiveness in corners that you’d expect from a true-blue Munich machine. That does change when you go for M Sport specification, though. The M Sport suspension doesn’t ruin the ride quality, but it does bring with it a noticeable step up in agility and in steering ‘bite’. Now, the X3 turns into a corner with real conviction, and while it’s never quite as much fun as a 3 Series (even BMW’s own engineers have quietly admitted that the mass of an SUV is just in the wrong place for a truly involving drive) it’s at least feeling more like a ‘proper’ BMW now.

To complete that feeling, you really need a six-cylinder engine and, thankfully, the B57 straight-six diesel is an utter peach. Ok, so diesel’s a rude word in 2022, and yes we all need to be looking towards an electric future, but this is one of those engines that reminds you of what we’ll miss when internal combustion has been consigned to the slag-heap. It’s as smooth as butter at all speeds, and all-but silent around town. Accelerate hard, and its combo of 286hp and a whopping 477lb ft of torque shift the X3’s bulk with considerably more conviction than the 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine does. The sprint to 62mph now takes a mere 5.7-seconds, but what really impresses is not so much the initial rush as that constant feeling of power in reserve. You just feel that no matter what the driving situation, the six-pot diesel – and indeed the X3 and its standard all-wheel drive – have got you covered, and with ability to spare. It’s not even that much thirstier than the 20d in day-to-day driving; 40mpg is easy.

Easy just about sums the whole thing up. Even with the lesser engine, the X3 feels like such an easy-going car, one that slots effortlessly into your life what with its space, its comfort, its refinement and its (M Sport spec allowing) dynamism. It’s taken a few years, but the X3 has finally taken its rightful place.

It’s as smooth as butter at all speeds, and all-but silent around town...

TECHNICAL DATA 2023 BMW X3 xDrive30d M Sport G01

  • ENGINE: Turbocharged straight-six diesel, longitudinally mounted
  • CAPACITY: 2993cc
  • MAX POWER: 286hp at 4000pm
  • MAX TORQUE: 477lb ft at 1500-2500rpm
  • 0-62MPH: 5.7-seconds
  • TOP SPEED: 155mph (limited)
  • ECONOMY: 45.5mpg
  • EMISSIONS: 162-183g/km
  • WEIGHT (EU): 2010kg
  • PRICE (OTR): £78,425
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