Rarely has BMW gotten a segment as wrong as it did with the X3. For the most part, the original car led an anonymous life, based on a platform that became last-generation the moment it was launched. And it was priced so close to the X5, that the larger one walked away with the cash bags. If the X3 and X5 had different brand managers, their lifestyles would probably tell you who spent more time at the golf course and who at the bar.
But with the new one, there might be a role reversal of sorts. The new X3 is bigger, better equipped, nearly as much fun to drive as the last car and is finally locally assembled. What’s more, the Bavarian has decided to play hard ball and put pretty much everything on the X3 as standard, leaving just exterior colours, wood inserts and seat trim options to play with. Clearly, BMW is leaving no stone unturned with the new X3.
Another road test would have been plain vanilla, so we brought along our current best in the segment, the Volvo XC60 (it bested the Audi Q5 and Land Rover Freelander 2 in a previous encounter) along for some fun-filled jousting, rib tickling and friendly banter. Of course, intent and action turned out to be totally different and eventually, it led to more than just a few punches being traded.
ROLL UP YOUR SLEEVES
SUVs aren’t supposed to look pretty, but the XC60 will probably hold on to the title of being the nicest looking in its category, until the Range Rover Evoque gatecrashes the party. There is a sense of Swedish sensuality in the way things come together in the XC60 that makes it warmer looking on the outside. It’s got curves in the right places (like those slick-looking LED tail-lamps) and muscle too (bonnet bulge, waistline). Our test car came in a rather dull grey colour on a wet and cloudy Thursday morning and we couldn’t help but miss the lime green number we tested last time around.
The BMW had a slightly brighter silver finish to the exteriors, though even that couldn’t save it from the inevitable. The X3 in the company of the XC60 looks too quirky in some places and too Plain Jane in others. I’m no fan of the clamshell nose that lacks character and while the profile won’t hurt your eyes, you can’t help but wonder why the new X3 has to look as anonymous as the last one. The tail-lamps have some character and provide relief to the tailgate.
CHECK YOUR FOOTING
The X3 has the better built and finished interiors of the two. Where the last car felt a bit long in the tooth (it was borrowed from what will become the two generations old E46 3 Series), the new X3 feels just as well built and kitted out as a 5 or 7 Series. The X3 finally gets iDrive, which is, simply put, the most intuitive system out there in the LMTYMS world (He means Let Me Test Your Multimedia Skills – Ed). Like the XC60, you get a panoramic sunroof, bluetooth (systems on both cars work well), airbags, ABS and all other little niceties. You also get the Comfort, Sport and Sport-plus options that alter suspension stiffness, gearbox response and throttle position, among others. Unlike the XC60, you get a Start-Stop function that is designed to make the car more fuel efficient. It can be a tad irritating at first, though if you follow the system and keep a check on the fuel gauge, your bean counters will certainly be overjoyed. You get a 6.5-inch screen for the iDrive instead of a 8.5-inch one you find on the xDrive30d which wasn’t on test. There is even an auto-hold function like other BMWs and like them, you have to engage it every time you turn on the ignition, unlike say, a VW Passat.
The XC60 too has its own version of drive settings which are Comfort, Sport and Advanced. These mostly alter suspension damping and gearbox response times. The interiors are quite interesting too, what with the floating console and the human-shaped climate controls adding some spice to the proceedings. It isn’t however all perfect in there. The panel that houses the knob for the headlamps, among other things, feels a bit cheap and when we tried looking for an ESP-off button, it took us some time till we found the ESTC-off function within the multimedia interface. Nevertheless, there are features on the XC60 that aren’t available on the X3 such as GPS (which honestly could have been better) and City Safety with pedestrian detection, to name a few.
No one seems to do seats like Volvo and the X3 has to concede defeat here. The front seats on the X3 have good width and are generally comfortable, but the ones at the rear lack under-thigh support and aren’t as supportive as one would have liked. What’s improved by a good margin over the previous car is leg room and knee room. The XC60’s seats are wide and beautifully contoured to hug your back in the right places, whether seated in the front or the rear. The XC60 also has marginally more room at the rear and feels more comfy too.
GET YOUR FISTS ROLLING
The X3, like we mentioned earlier, comes with two motor options – a 2.0-litre diesel with 184 bhp and a 3.0-litre diesel with 258 bhp. The 2.0-litre diesel is the same block as the one found on the 520d and is offered with an eight-speed automatic. Performance from the smaller lump isn’t going to leave your hair standing, but it’s brisk nevertheless. The acceleration to 100 kph comes up in just 8.9 seconds on a damp track. Care to overtake? The passing speeds will leave you pleased. The motor sounds a bit gravelly at certain speeds and there’s some wind roar over those large mirrors. Apart from that, the X3 has pretty decent NVH levels.
The XC60 is a trifle slower (by about 0.5 of a second to 100 kph) and while passing speeds are more or less in the same range, the extra 21 horsepower is overcome by the higher kerb weight. As far as driveability goes, the higher torque comes in at a lower point in the rev range and the XC60’s six-speed auto’s well-selected ratios do a pretty good job of it. The other bit is the overall NVH levels are superior in the XC60, even when the engine is wound up, it doesn’t exhibit alarming levels of noise. However, the gearbox is a little slower to respond in comparison to the lightning-quick reflexes of the eight-speeder on the BMW. Fuel efficiency is not much different, the X3 returning a slightly better 10.8 kpl versus the XC60’s 10.2 kpl, overall.
BOOM, BANG, CRASH
Neither car is a pure off-roader. One has a ground clearance of 212 mm, the other 227 mm, and while they may sound quite good on paper, the fact of the matter is you can’t go searching for a new off-roading path in either one. The XC60 does enjoy better ground clearance, but the shorter overhangs of the X3 gives you more confidence to push the nose around a beaten path. The all-wheel drive systems on both cars are good enough for a bit of slush or grassy sections or even a broken road, and while you do get hill descent control on both, they are about as good as any other crossover while at it.
It’s on the road that these vehicles have a somewhat different approach to things. The XC60 is sportier than its larger brother, the XC90, in the way it handles and goes about hunting down corners, but it still isn’t perfect. The fourth-gen Haldex unit of the XC60 aids grip, but it can’t particularly kill understeer. The steering too feels artificially responsive and that takes away some of the fun from the XC60’s dynamic abilities, though it still feels reasonably tight when viewed in isolation. The X3 has a marginally longer wheelbase, but it instantly feels more chuckable, more planted and more responsive to lightning-quick inputs. The steering too has a more ‘natural’ feel, but one can’t help but miss the sensational hydraulic setup on the older car that just took the whole experience to another plane. Nevertheless, it feels even more natural than quite a few other BMWs currently in production and just for that reason, the X3 scores quite a few points.
However, the XC60’s focus on comfort is also highlighted in the way it rides. Whether it’s the well-paved surfaces of an expressway or the potholed roads of urban Mumbai, the XC60 has a level of pliancy that isn’t matched by either the X3 or any of its competition.
The X3 runs close, mind you, and only loses because the suspension retains a certain degree of stiffness when the road surfaces start to deteriorate.
There is no doubt in my mind that the new X3 with its fine price tag, good kit levels and fun-to-drive factor, coupled with practicality make it the four-seat BMW to own in India. It makes even more sense now than the X5, where the extra million bucks or two don’t seem to be justified anymore.
The XC60 still rules the roost as far as design, comfort and appeal go. What’s more, it’s quite a decent performer too, and unless you will be driving it at full tilt most of the time, you will find the XC60 ideal for your needs. In what has been one of the closest fights we’ve seen in a long time, the current champ just about retains its title, simply because it offers a trifle more kit and is priced lower despite being a CBU. But, if for any reason, you consider yourself to be more of a driver than a back seat hogger, the X3 will win you over.