First Drive: 2018 BMW X3

Is it possible that fairy tales really can come true?

...has BMW crafted a golden egg?

If there’s anyone who could pull it off, it’s the Germans. After all, fairy tales are more ingrained in German culture than any other.

And where the luxury compact SUV market is concerned, BMW is looking for a big one with the launch of its third-generation X3.

The importance of this segment is increasing constantly in Canada – we’re buying up smaller crossovers in huge quantities, and a growing number of families have the income and wherewithal to park status symbols on their driveways, so long as they’re useful and practical.

The X3, though, has traditionally been outsold here by its closest competitors, the Audi Q5 and Mercedes-Benz GLC. With this all-new 2018 model, has BMW crafted a golden egg? You might think so, depending on where your priorities lie.

STYLING

Where design updates are concerned, the X3 could be considered a sleeping beauty.

On first glance, it seems not to have changed a whole lot – and nor did it need to necessarily since the second generation’s design was one that aged quite gracefully. Apart from a 5 cm extension in wheelbase, the exterior dimensions are mostly unchanged – it’s 6 cm longer, just 2 mm shorter, and has the same ground clearance of 20.4 cm.

On closer inspection, though, there are a few subtle tweaks that serve to toughen up the X3’s look.

The kidney grille is larger and more dominant, and it now includes active air intakes that shutter when the engine needs less cooling to improve aerodynamic performance and fuel economy. The new LED headlights have a rounded top line that gives the entire front end a sleeker and more unified shape. Further down, the area encompassing the new LED fog lights and side air intakes has been given a more modern design.

A more impactful update, though still a subtle one, sees the shoulder line pulled out to add heft – it looks like it’s gone to the gym, as X3 exterior designer Calvin Luk put it, particularly in the face-on rear view where the area around the taillights is more sculpted.

Inside, the new model’s differences are more front and centre. From the standard heated front sport seats with power-adjustable side bolsters and updated heated steering wheel to the available raised 10.25-inch touchscreen and fully digital instrument panel, the entire space feels significantly more modern and pleasant. The available panoramic sunroof, which is 25 cm longer than the outgoing version, brightens things up nicely. Cargo space is almost exactly on par with its German competitors at 550L with the rear seats up and 1,600L with them down. The second row is comfortable and spacious enough for adults, and the outboard rear seats can be equipped heated and power adjustable as well. Plus, it’s whisper-quiet, even on the highway. The storage space in the centre console isn’t especially spacious, but otherwise, for the X3’s price, the interior feel certainly meets its luxury expectations.

DRIVING

In Canada, we’ll be getting two X3 models at launch, both gasoline propelled and both all-wheel drive: the xDrive 30i and the M40i. A fully electric version has been announced for 2020. There are diesel models available in other markets, but whether we’ll see them in North America hasn’t yet been determined.

The xDrive 30i – which will house a 2.0L twin-turbocharged inline-four-cylinder engine that makes 248 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque from 1,450 to 4,800 rpm and is paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission – wasn’t available for testing at the X3’s international launch event.

What I did test is the M40i, the first M Performance model ever in the X3 line. It’s fitted with a 3.0-litre twin-turbo inline-six that produces 355 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque between 1,520 and 4,800 rpm. Together with its eight-speed sport automatic transmission, the M40i gets from 0 to 100 km/h in a segment-best 4.8 seconds.

On our test drive route around Lisbon, Portugal, I felt this car turning me into a Goldilocks.

The M40i has four drive modes: comfort, eco pro, sport, and sport+ (the xDrive 30i drops the latter).

In comfort mode, the M40i’s optional adaptive suspension is quite compliant and throttle response is relatively relaxed. It’s a little soft for my taste, but it works well in traffic and for everyday trips to the grocery store.

In sport+ mode, on the other hand, the gearing and suspension stiffness are aggressive, the steering bites hard, and the exhaust froths angrily. It’s delightful if you’re pushing really hard, but it’s probably going to be a bit much for North American drivers 95% of the time.

But sport mode? Man, if you find yourself on a twisty bit of road on a beautiful day, is it ever just right. The steering is inspiringly on point and throttle response is pin-point sharp. The engine growls happily and the exhaust makes all kinds of wonderful sputtering noises, but not so much that you worry about waking Rip Van Winkle. Any hint there may be of body roll is nigh on imperceptible. There are paddle shifters on the steering wheel, but I didn’t even feel the need to use them; every downshift landed exactly where I would have wanted to put it. It’s some of the best sheer driving joy I’ve experienced in a crossover.

TECHNOLOGY AND CONNECTIVITY

If you’re an Android user, enjoying the X3 might leaving you feeling like you’ve bitten a little from Snow White’s poisoned apple.

BMW makes Apple CarPlay available in the X3 via a number of different packages. However, the company still hasn’t embraced Android Auto at all. If you’re not willing to make the switch, you’ll have to compromise and live with less connectivity. (And it can’t be ignored that both of the X3’s biggest direct German competitors have Android Auto available for the 2018 model year.)

As for the on-board infotainment system, it works well. Users can interact with it by voice, BMW’s traditional large dial on the centre console, or the optional gesture control system, which lets certain functions be manipulated with hand motions (twirling a finger clockwise turns up the volume, for example). With the Ultimate Package, a wireless charging port and the SIM card driven in-car WiFi hotspot are also equipped.

The available all-digital instrument cluster doesn’t do the fanciest things that some of its competitors do such as integrating maps or allowing high levels of customization, but it is very clear and easy to read, even for those who need a closer seating position, and the graphic style changes depending on the drive mode.

One very nice improvement is in the optional head-up display, which is 75% larger and packs a lot of useful information into a format that’s at eye level and is easy to process quickly. This is a worthwhile add-on if your budget allows for it.

OTHER NOTABLE FEATURES

A factory-installed trailer hitch is available for the first time in Canada on the new X3 with a peak towing capacity of 4,400 lb when trailer brakes are installed.

The standard wheels are 19-inch alloys with run-flat tires installed and can be optionally bumped up to 20 or 21 inches.

One key safety feature is intelligent emergency calling with automatic locating and accident severity detection, which is driven off the standard built-in SIM card. Another is the pre-crash accident detection, which triggers some occupant protection measures if an imminent incident is detected such as tightening the driver and front passenger safety belts and closing the windows and sunroof. After a collision, the car is automatically brought to a stop.

TRIMS AND PRICING

When ordering the new X3, there’s a wide variety of packages and standalone options to consider.

The xDrive 30i enters Canada at a base price of $48,000, which includes leatherette upholstery, a basic infotainment system, and 19-inch wheels along with other standard equipment.

The first step of package upgrading is the Premium Package Essential ($4,900), which adds keyless entry, the panoramic sunroof, ambient lighting, on-board navigation with real-time traffic information (and therefore the 10.25-inch touchscreen), an in-dash CD player, and Apple CarPlay preparation. The M Sport Line add-on to this package ($2,900) includes 19-inch M wheels that can be upgraded to 21-inch wheels for another $1,500.

More options are available in the Premium Package Enhanced ($6,500), which includes everything in the Essential package plus satin aluminum roof rails, manual side sunshades, lumbar support in the front seats, rear heated seats, the head-up display, SiriusXM satellite radio, the digital instrument display, and BMW ConnectedDrive Services Professional.

The Advanced Driver Assistance Package ($2,900), which can only be equipped with one of the two previous packages, tacks on active cruise control with stop and go, active lane keeping assistant with side collision avoidance, traffic jam assistant, evasion aid and cross traffic alert front and rear, and parking assistant plus with surround view.

The Executive Interior Package ($2,200) adds on a leatherette dashboard and Vernasca leather upholstery with ventilation in the front seats.

The M Sport Plus Package ($1,500) adds dynamic damper control, M Sport brakes with blue M-logoed calipers, and variable sport steering.

The Ultimate Package ($13,900) includes everything from the Premium, Advanced Driver Assistance, and Executive Interior Packages plus the BMW display key, electric rear seats, the ambient air package, adaptive LED headlights, high-beam assist, a Harman/Kardon sound system, wireless charging with extended BlueTooth and USB, BMW gesture control, and the in-car WiFi hotspot.

In the M40i, pricing starts at $61,500, which includes the upgraded powertrain and the M Sport features that are priced separately on the xDrive 30i model. Package pricing is otherwise the same apart from the Ultimate Package, which is identically equipped but priced at $12,500.

Separately priced options include metallic interior accents ($895), Vernasca leather ($1,500 or included with Executive Interior or Ultimate), and Extended Merino Leather ($2,900, or $700 extra with the Ultimate Package). Many of the options listed in the packages above can also be ordered individually.

THE VERDICT

The best thing about the BMW 2018 X3 M40i is the way it delivers performance in a way that’s accessible to everyday drivers. I’d happily dance with this Cinderella all night long. The lack of Android Auto might feel like her missing glass slipper to some drivers, and whether the more affordable xDrive 30i format will be as enjoyable is yet to be seen. But on first blush, the X3 comes across like a princess.

The 2018 BMW X3 is due to arrive in Canadian dealerships in November 2017.

A real-life fairy tale. 10/15/2017 6:01:00 PM