It seems fortuitous that BMW chose a snowy Austria for the UK launch of its new 2011 X3, in fact the timing couldn’t have been any more perfect. As I write this, much of the UK is gripped by the most wintry November conditions in recent memory, ideal for the four-wheel-drive SUV customer that BMW has targeted with its X3. But of course four-wheel-drive is only as useful as the traction available to a car’s tyres, so BMW also chose last week’s X3 launch to reveal its new range of winter-tyre packages available on all BMW and MINI models.

Before I tell you about the new X3, I should first declare my interest (although not bias) in BMWs – I’ve owned nearly every X-model since they first appeared in 2001 and currently run an X6 35d with an E83 X3 3.0d elsewhere within our extended household. So you’ll not hear any banal ranting or anti-SUV rhetoric from this corner of the interweb – I ‘get’ them and enjoy their multi-purpose capabilities, so let’s move on.

From E83 to F25, a transformation in more than just size

Forgive my use of BMW nomenclature, E83 refers to the first-generation X3 built between 2003 and 2010, whilst F25 is BMW’s internal code name for the new X3.

Starting with the bleedin’ obvious, yes the new F25 X3 is larger than its predecessor but this is the first time an X-model has actually lost weight in the transition – the new X3 weighs in 25kg lighter than the E83 X3 despite it’s increased size and additional standard equipment.

More for Less. The new BMW X3 is 83mm longer and 28mm wider than its predecessor, yet it's 25kg lighter has a higher standard specification and costs less.

BMW needs this new X3 to succeed. In its busiest year (2005) BMW were shifting more than 18,000 X-models in the UK, but sales have declined steadily since those heady days falling to less than 50% of this volume in 2008. Since the X1 arrived on the scene last year those numbers have taken a swift upturn, but the new X3 will need to pull its weight – traditionally BMW has sold more of the larger X5 here in the UK, but will be expecting the X3 to overtake its sibling now that it’s large enough to fit most people’s needs.

The segment in which the X3 competes is of course dominated by the Land Rover Freelander, which has built up quite a following since its launch in 1997. BMW’s immediate targer however is Audi’s Q5 and will be aiming to sell around 5,000 BMW X3s in its first full year to match it’s Ingolstadt neighbour. That’s still less than a third of the metal Land Rover will shift in this sector, but well ahead of Volvo’s XC60.

Need to Know

If you’re anything like me then before you choose to buy a car you’ll read a stack of reviews, then seek the opinions of other people who’ve driven the car. What you need therefore is a framework, a checklist if you like, to help you gather these insights and make your own mind up. In SkiddMark we call this your Need to Know (NTK), so before I describe what the X3 is like to drive let me tell you what to look out for.

  1. New premium interior and grown-up feel

    When you take a look at the interior of the new X3, the first thing you’ll notice is that it’s no longer a second-class member of the BMW family. The previous E83 X3 was launched around the same time as the original Z4 and featured outdated instruments and controls, however the biggest issue lay with the quality of the X3’s materials – it was closer to the budget priced Freelander than the E53 X3 of 2003. With Audi’s premium effort with the Q5, BMW had to raise the X3’s game and that’s why you’ll find that leather is now standard on the new X3.

    The X3 also comes as standard with the latest generation iDrive with its 6.5-inch screen, which increases to an 8.8-inch high-resolution screen with the Professional Multimedia package, you can specify Head-up Display and the latest version of BMW’s ConnectedDrive, so the X3 is now a match for any BMW in the range.

    Take a closer look: soft-feel dashboard, all-leather trim on doors and seats, the largest on-board monitor in its segment.
  2. Ownership costs are now best in class

    Many people assume that owning a BMW is an expensive proposition, and when you hear that the new X3 has gone further upmarket and gained more of a premium feel then it would be fair to assume that it has also become more costly to run. But it hasn’t. In fact this whole EfficientDynamics philosophy is starting to get out of hand. EfficientDynamics in BMW-speak is all about getting more performance for less consumption and emissions – well they’ve only gone and done the same with the pricing of this new X3.

    Initially the new X3 will only be available in 2.0d guise, with further engines becoming available during 2011 and when comparing new-vs-old we discover that the 20d SE has dropped by £115 over its predecessor – bear in mind that the new X3 now comes as standard with nevada leather upholstery, dual-zone automatic air conditioning, PDC front and rear, iDrivecontroller with multi-media display, auto start-stop and brake energy regeneration. Adding to this lower purchase price the new xDrive20d SE offers a class-leading CO2 figure of 149g/km (down from 172g/km) which contributes to a drop in running costs from 70p/mile down to 61.26p/mile – that’s on a par with a fairly humdrum Ford Mondeo.

    Take a closer look:Fuel consumption is improved by nearly 16% despite more power and torque and better performance. Make sure you look into running costs as well as purchase price when comparing against competitors, the X3 is now the class leader for its cost of ownership.
  3. More space, more tech and even more clever

    We’ve already mentioned that the new X3 is a bigger car than its predecessor, but big doesn’t mean bulky. It doesn’t feel like a big car to drive, even though it’s nearly as large as the first-generation E53 X5. Approximately 40% of X3 buyers are women and BMW have listened to their feedback in order to make it even easier to live with. The front and rear doors have been lowered (70mm and 75mm respectively) to improve access, there’s 70 litres more boot space (now 550 litres) and more room in the rear for passengers, there’s even an optional 40:20:40 rear seat configuration for loading more awkward items.

    The new X3 is packed with the latest technology and gadgets, electromechanical power steering which uses less energy and yet provides ample feel and confidence, an 8-speed automatic transmission to make more efficient use of the engine’s torque, plus BMW’s ConnectedDrive including head-up display, the Google maps assisted nav system and the auto start-stop function which is available for the first time with an automatic transmission.

    Take a closer look:Rear access into the old X3 was compromised but is much improved on this new model, you can now download your music into the professional multimedia package’s hard-disk storage.

Satin aluminium roof rails, iDrive controller, 8.5

What’s it like to drive?

The route of our test took us from Innsbruck in Austria south-west to the ski resort in Sölden, covering around 200km in total. We followed a mix of twisty alpine roads and autoroutes, venturing through a few villages along the way. First thing that struck me was how much quieter the new X3 has become, all of the cars we drove were fitted with 17″ Pirelli W210 Scottozero 2 winter run-flat tyres and despite this the new X3 cruised along like a 5-series. It retains its predecessor’s lower driving position and you’d be hard pressed to initially notice the increase in size.

The first car we jumped into was the xDrive20d SE Auto and it wasn’t until later in the evening that I realised it was fitted with BMW’s new 8-speed transmission – to be honest you’ll hardly notice those extra gear ratios, there’s no hunting between gears or overly-frequent changes. Unlike some of BMW’s other X-models the xDrive20d SE Auto is denied any steering-wheel paddles, so you’ll have to resort to the selector stick, but it’s a very intuitive process and we were soon making swift manual selections when the need arose.

[blockquote type=”blockquote_quotes” align=”right”]…there’s no danger of brand dilution or any reason to question the evolution of BMW’s DNA.[/blockquote]

We spent an equal amount of time in cars fitted with the six-speed manual transmission and most of the time preferred its more driver-oriented feel on the twisties, the only downside was the familiar glut of torque when pulling away from a junction in 1st gear. If you spend more time commuting through towns and motorways then go for the 8-speed auto, otherwise we’d opt for the manual and save ourselves £1,500 – the shift quality is clean and direct and suits the 2.0d engine well.

Our test cars were fitted with Variable Damper Control (VDC) – a £910 optional extra, Variable sport steering (£370) and Performance Control (£120). VDC incorporates electronically controlled dampers which adapt to road surface conditions and the style of driving, you can either leave it in Normal to sort things out itself or manually influence the damper settings via Drive Dynamic Control, choosing between Sport and Sport+ modes.

Even on the Sport+ setting the ride was still perfectly comfortable, the only discernable difference being the tighter body control. As well as damping behaviour, VDC can also adjust the character of the accelerator, engine response, power steering weight, DSC response thresholds and even the shifting dynamics of the automatic transmission, so it’s a clever bit of tech and much more than just a ride control system.

BMW's Variable Damper Control (VDC) system can alter engine response, steering weight, DSC thresholds and of course damping behaviour - it's a £910 option on the X3.

Variable sports steering reduces the degree of steering movement necessary to turn the front wheels in various conditions including parking, cornering and swerving and unlike those early systems BMW first fitted to the E60 5-series, we really couldn’t tell it was fitted. Performance Control is a new feature for the X3 and sees power distributed electronically between the rear wheels depending on loading to effectively act like an electronic differential. It’s a poor-man’s version of the mechanical torque-vectoring system fitted to the X6, but unlike in the X6 it does little to quell understeer when pushing on. For £120, we’d choose it, but we can’t honestly say that we noticed its contribution to the X3’s driving dynamics.

When pressing on through the twisty Tirol roads the X3 was supremely balanced, demonstrating that wonderfully neutral feel that BMWs are so good at delivering. Left-right-left turns could be taken quickly with the only limiting factor being the grip from those winter tyres, the X3 never lost composure and the front-end remained planted and extremely predictable despite the many downhill hairpins that we encountered.

[blockquote type=”blockquote_quotes” align=”left”]…the F25 X3 offers better value, greater efficiency all in a more attractive package.[/blockquote]

Was it enjoyable to drive? Yes, in so far as any 2.0d SUV can be – we reached our destination earlier than planned so perhaps it’s not the best car for sightseeing, but its 181 bhp 2.0-litre turbo diesel engine never struggled on the steeper climbs and always punched confidently out of the corners – it’s a car you can drive just like any other sporting BMW, so there’s no danger of brand dilution or any reason to question the evolution of BMW’s DNA.

The E83 X3 always looked a little awkward on the road, felt cheap and plasticky for a BMW and made you seek out smoother roads – the new F25 X3 reverses all of those traits, adding better value, greater efficiency all in a more attractive package.

The order books have now opened and at £30,490 OTR we’d expect it to swiftly become one of the most popular models in its sector. If you currently own an E53 X5 and have been considering a change, then we suggest you take a look – the X3 is now the X-model of choice for most people with easily the broadest appeal of any SUV/SAV produced by BMW to date.

At a glance

Vehicle tested: BMW X3 xDrive20d SE
Price: £30,490
Top Speed: 130 mph
0-62 mph: 8.5 secs
Consumption: 50.4 mpg (combined)
Emissions (CO2): 149g/km
Weight: 1790 kg (EC1: incl 75kg)
Engine in-line four-cyl, 1995cc, turbo diesel
  Power: 181 bhp @4000rpm
  Torque: 280lb-ft @1750-2750rpm
  Gearbox: 6-speed manual
On sale: Now.

Picture gallery