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In-depth reviews

BMW X3 SUV - Engines, drive & performance

The BMW X3 has excellent handling and its petrol and diesel engines are powerful

Carbuyer Rating

4.0 out of 5

Owners Rating

4.0 out of 5

Read owner reviews
Engines, drive & performance Rating

4.5 out of 5

BMW freely admits to having used the Jaguar F-Pace as a yardstick when developing the latest X3, and this is readily apparent when you spend time behind the wheel. The X3 truly lives up to the German marque's reputation for rewarding driving manners, rarely feeling like the heavy, bulky car it is. The diesel version isn't quite as sharp as the Jaguar, but it’s an extremely close-run thing. Its only real flaw is steering that feels slightly elastic around town, even if it does feel much more precise when your speed increases.

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This doesn't only come as good news for the driver. The Volvo XC60 is our champion for premium SUV ride quality, but the X3 isn’t far behind here either, making it a great all-rounder. The smallest wheels now on offer are 19 inches, and we’d avoid upgrading if you can – the larger the wheel, the less comfortable the X3 becomes. On the whole though, the X3 feels very smooth and isn't badly unsettled by potholes, so passengers will find it comfortable on long journeys.

Country roads are unlikely to trouble them, either. The X3 remains resolutely level even when cornering quickly and the suspension keeps such tight control over things that you don't feel the body swaying from side to side. From the driver's seat, the sensation is very similar to a BMW saloon, albeit sitting slightly higher up. This means that you have a good view into corners, too, which builds on the confidence that the X3's direct, nicely weighted steering already instils.

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The powerful M40i really demonstrates this handling prowess – its 355bhp shows no sign of overwhelming the X3's chassis. Instead, the responsive controls and steering make it surprisingly easy to harness all that power; the M40i feels more like a hot hatchback than a chunky SUV. We reckon it's more fun to drive than its Audi SQ5 rival, and its six-cylinder engine has more character than the Audi's, too.

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In fact, if you’re after a performance SUV, we’d recommend the M40i (or even the M40d) over the flagship 503bhp X3 M. The latter feels far too stiff for UK roads; its unforgiving ride doesn’t translate to a particularly rewarding driving experience either. Save yourself the best part of £30,000 and stick with the less powerful car.

Another gold star goes on the X3's report card for its off-road capability. For many buyers, the ability to deal with demanding terrain is quite a long way down the priority list when buying a new car, but the X3 is an impressive performer on challenging surfaces. Although we'd stop short of calling it a Range Rover rival in the rough stuff, the X3 feels easily capable of dealing with the wet fields and boat ramps that some SUVs struggle with.

BMW X3 diesel engines

Every diesel X3 is fitted with a mild-hybrid assistance system, consisting of a 48-volt starter-generator and a small battery that stores the energy recovered from braking, deploying it to take the load off the engine when accelerating. As well as improved fuel efficiency, the system can also provide an 11bhp power boost to help overtaking and acceleration from a standing start.

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The 2.0-litre 20d opens the X3 diesel engine line-up. It develops 187bhp, which is enough to take you from 0-62mph in 7.9 seconds. This should prove enough performance for most, and the 20d's fuel economy appeals, too. It’s impressively refined, especially in combination with the standard eight-speed automatic gearbox, and it only really emits a characteristic four-cylinder diesel noise under hard acceleration. At a cruise, it’s quiet enough to completely fade into the background.

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If economy is less of a priority, the 30d offers the extra smoothness that six cylinders bring, as well as increasing power to 282bhp, which brings that 0-62mph acceleration time down to an impressive 5.7 seconds. The ultimate in diesel performance is offered by the M40d, which has 335bhp and can accelerate from 0-62mph in just 4.9 seconds – it’s a rocketship capable of around 40mpg.

Petrol engines

A 2.0-litre 20i is offered as the entry-level X3; its 181bhp is enough to take the car from 0-62mph in 8.4 seconds. You can choose it in xLine and M Sport trim, but those who want a truly sporty petrol X3 need to look at the range-topping M40i. This performance variant uses a turbocharged six-cylinder 3.0-litre engine that produces 355bhp, which makes for a very rapid SUV indeed.

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Acceleration from 0-62mph takes just 4.9 seconds – as fast as a Porsche 718 Cayman – and the twin exhausts make all the right noises, with pops and bangs when you lift sharply off the accelerator in true BMW style. However, while the M40i is obviously geared towards a sporty driving experience, it's very good at gentle, comfortable and quiet high-speed cruising as well – something that can’t be said of the range-topping X3 M.

Hybrid engine

BMW doesn't think any of its customers want to compromise on performance, including those after a plug-in hybrid. So, with a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol and an electric motor working in unison, the green X3 xDrive30e has a healthy 249bhp. It also has a party trick; put this X3 into Sport mode and something called ‘XtraBoost’ is activated, liberating an extra 41bhp from the electric motor for 288bhp - so long as there's enough charge in the battery. 

It feels brisk either way, getting from 0-62mph in 6.1 seconds, which is more than fast enough for most SUV owners. The extra shove of the electric motor provides a diesel-like surge of acceleration and the car is impressively refined on the motorway.

Even in its electric-only mode, the xDrive30e feels fast enough around town, and the X3's already excellent refinement is enhanced to make driving it a very relaxing experience. The eight-speed automatic gearbox does an excellent job and the only fly in the ointment is a slightly dull, droning sound when the 2.0-litre petrol engine needs to be exerted. Despite its extra weight, the ride and handling remain impressive.

BMW also offers the pure-electric iX3, which unlike its siblings is rear rather than all-wheel drive. It’s super-slick powertrain is quick, quiet and refined, and despite the added weight there’s very little compromise to be made when it comes to driving fun. We’ve reviewed the iX3 separately, here.

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Richard is a former editor of Carbuyer, as well as sister site DrivingElectric.com, and he's now Deputy Editor at Auto Express. Having spent a decade working in the automotive industry, he understands exactly what makes new car buyers tick.

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