When the original BMW X3 was launched, it was an unusual car in the automotive world, as peculiar as that may sound today. Mind you, we’re talking about 2004 here, a year when cars like the BMW E46 3 Series or the E39 5 Series were in production. It seems like ages ago and yet, only 15 years have passed. Since, the automotive landscape has changed completely.
The History Of The X3
The original X3 was definitely a novelty and was greeted with discontent by BMW fans. It was only the second SUV from BMW to be launched, right behind the iconic X5. Yet, despite the criticism, the X3 kept soldiering on. Today, the third-generation of the SUV is in production in Spartanburg and it’s one of the most popular cars of the brand. This latest iteration is a refined recipe, one that is incrementally better than before, aiming at delivering the best bang for the buck in the range.
To some extent, it manages to do so. The X3 is now the best selling car in BMW’s range in the US and understandably so. It is basically similarly priced as the 3 Series and side by side, it’s often hard to make a case for the 3er. The X3 offers more space, more ground clearance and is, in a nutshell, simply more car for the money. Thus, BMW will continue to invest in this platform and next year, the X3 will be the first BMW model to be offered in three variants – internal combustion, plugin-hybrid and all-electric.
Welcome The New BMW X3
The X3 is also quite a good car, from all angles. Built atop the CLAR architecture, it is lighter and stiffer than the old model while also growing slightly in size. As a matter of fact, driving the current G01 X3 makes you feel like you’re in an older generation X5. That’s how big it feels. There’s ample room inside and yet from the outside, the X3 doesn’t feel bulky or too big for comfort. The proportions are just right.
That’s especially true in Europe, where roads are considerably narrower than in the US. Even so, the X3 is good enough for most families, considering its size and segment.
If you’re interested in one, you’ll have to decide what matters most to you: the efficient side of things or the fun side. There are plenty of choices in the range if you live on the old continent. In the US, you’re basically limited to two models: the 30i and M40i models. Of course, there’s the X3 M available now, but we’re not going to take into account the full-on M car for now. On the other side of the Atlantic, you can also spoil yourself with a couple of diesel models.
Just like it’s the case in most of the model ranges these days, if you want a six-cylinder under the hood of your X3 you have to go for the M Performance model. The BMW X3 M40i is that choice and it uses the same mill you get on most 40i-badged cars – the ubiquitous B58 3-liter straight six engine. In this case, it was tuned to deliver 355 HP and 369 lb-ft (500 Nm) of torque, plenty for any car, including the X3. This makes the M40i faster by 1.4 seconds than the xDrive30i to 60 mph from standstill, arriving at the benchmark speed in 4.6 seconds.
So far, you’d think the biggest difference between these models are the extra two cylinders under the hood, and some shorter acceleration times. But wait, there’s more!
What’s Different On the M Performance Model
The X3 M40i comes with a couple more bits included as standard. Every M Performance model comes fitted with the M Sport package giving you a lower riding car, a stiffer suspension, better brakes and the M Sport exterior design. That last bit is a bit different than what you would get on a non-M Performance model though. The xDrive30i M Sport X3 wouldn’t get Cerium Grey inserts in the front air intakes, or the similar shade used for the kidney grilles, or the side mirror covers. Those are dead giveaways helping you spot an X3 M40i from a distance.
You will get M Sport seats, as well as M40i badges. For example, the side sills have M40i badges on them (illuminated too) while the instrument cluster also features an M40i badge right between the speedometer and the rev counter. The center console also has a rather big M badge on it. That said, our tester came with beautiful Tartufo Merino leather with a quilted pattern right down the middle, which created a great contrast with the Phytonic blue paint. Furthermore, our tester came with almost every option possible, from the Harman Kardon sound system down to Apple CarPlay (for an extra charge).
Such a generous configuration allowed me to test the car at its full potential and, to be honest, it didn’t disappoint. That’s especially true for the Adaptive M suspension which kept the car’s heft in check brilliantly. Actually, if I were to highlight something that surprised me the most about this car, it was the way it simply hid its weight and yet didn’t feel too stiff to be comfortable. That’s one of the things that make the X3 such a good car.
The Driving Experience
The X3 M40i is composed on all types of roads. It never feels disconnected from the road surface or unsettled, no matter how rough the surface. Sure, if you drive it on the toughest off-roading courses, it will start acting out but, let’s be honest, even though this is an SUV, it will probably never leave the “comfort” of asphalt. That said, the size of the X3 feels rather perfect, especially around town. You can basically drive this car everywhere, even in busy, old European cities. It will fit in most parking spots and has great visibility in all directions, allowing you to become a master at parallel parking. Even without the 360-degree surround view cameras.
And while the large windscreen and tailgate allow you to check out your surroundings easily and unobstructed, I’m still not sold on the driving position in the new X3. I pointed that out in my previous review of the X3 xDrive20d as well, and even though I drove several other X3 models so far, my impression remains unchanged: the driver’s seat seems a bit too high for my liking. It felt as if the dash is somehow too low and I’m basically sitting atop the steering wheel.
It’s weird too, because BMWs usually have some of the best driving positions in the business, even on SUVs, with the driver being positioned low and close to the car’s center of gravity. In the X3, therefore, I kind-of felt disconnected from the car, as the position I was in was higher than I would’ve preferred. And before you ask, yes, I had my seat in the lowest position.
The Exhaust Sound
As for the engine, it’s still marvelous but, on the European-spec M40i, it lost its voice. That’s because petrol cars are now fitted with Otto Particulate Filters, so the B58 engine simply wasn’t loud enough to protrude into the cabin. Sure, the interior is well insulated from the outside, and our car also had the special double-glazed front windows and windshield. And yet, I feel like an M Performance model should have a better exhaust note. It’s weird too because not long before taking the X3 for a spin, I had the Z4 M40i for testing purposes. They both have the same engine and both exhausts come with OPF installed, but the Z4 sounded a lot better.
Couple the B58 engine with the brilliant 8-speed ZF gearbox and the good suspension setup of the X3 M40i, and you get a really good package. Put the car in Sport+ mode and you’ll get the rear end stepping out in no time. The standard xDrive system is set up to be sending most of its power to the rear wheels anyway, but in the M40i it seems more eager to do that than on other models. Of course, you can’t drift the X3 like you would a pure rear-wheel drive one, but the rear axle wants to step out at times. Turn the DSC completely off and you can even drift this car. What I love the most is the fact that the X3 M40i feels neutral even when pushed hard.
It will lean a bit while entering a corner with more speed than recommended, but not enough to become a problem. After all, the X3 M40i comes close to 2 tons and it has a higher center of gravity. However, once you hit the apex and floor the gas pedal, you shoot out of the corner with precision and poise, worthy of the BMW and xDrive names. I actually had the chance to take it to the track and I left impressed. Sure, it’s not as poised as the X3 M but, considering it’s mostly a family car, it will perform and deliver quite intense sensations without flinching.
Let’s be honest, for most people, the performance offered by the X3 M40i will be more than enough for most situations. Heck, I’m willing to bet 90 percent of the customers only buy it because they want a six-cylinder under the hood and a fast straight line acceleration. Other than that, few people will actually drive this car like it’s supposed to be driven. And that’s fine because it’s not supposed to be a track car either. The X3 M40i is just a great mid-level choice for those wanting a bit more than the 30i model and not quite interested in a full-on X3 M or X3 M Competition.
It’s a practical car, with plenty of room inside whose biggest rival will, unfortunately, be the BMW M340i xDrive Touring. Sure, there’s plenty of rivals lining up from other manufacturers as well. There’s the Audi SQ5 and the Mercedes-AMG GLC 43, both competent cars, but appealing to different demographics. The differences between them are small though and, in the end, it will come down to brand loyalty most of the time. Having driven both the Audi SQ5 and the GLC43 AMG, I can tell you the usual differences between Munich, Ingolstadt and Stuttgart apply. The V6-powered Audi understeers, unfortunately, but you can only feel it when pushing it hard. The AMG is more luxurious and a bit more comfortable. The Merc is also a bit looser when in Sport mode, understandably so too, as it is the heaviest car of the three.
So where does that leave you? Well, if you’re used to BMWs and how they drive, out of the three, the X3 is the one for you. Get some expensive leather options and you’ll feel just as spoiled in it as you would in the Mercedes. The bigger question though is whether you should spring the extra money for the M40i version or not.
My answer: it depends on what you’re looking for. If you can’t live with a 2-liter 4-cylinder xDrive30i model, go for it. The M40i comes with the best six-cylinder on the market today, the B58. It has smooth power delivery, feels refined and has too good NVH levels for its own good. No pun intended.
The sound is a bit disappointing as far as I’m concerned and that’s something you should definitely test before committing. However, the price difference from a base model, might make you think again. The X3 M40i starts at $54,650 MSRP in the US, that’s a difference of over $13,000 compared to the sDrive30i model. And that’s the one I would go for, not the all-wheel drive version, especially if you live in a warm area.
Even in places where there’s heavy snow during winter, I’d still go for the rear-wheel drive model with a good set of winter tires. And I wouldn’t have an issue getting around. The RWD sDrive30i is also lighter and a bit more lively, with a razor sharp nose, connected to your right foot. That said, there’s also the argument for the M340i Touring, but only if you don’t live in the US, where the 3 Series Touring won’t be coming at all. It’s a shame too, because I know a lot of people wanted this car, preferring it to the X3 as it sits closer to the ground, and handles better while sacrificing only a small amount of room inside.
As I was driving the X3 M40i back to BMW, I thought about whether I’d spend my money on one. Despite being a brilliant car in a lot of aspects, I think I’d spend my money on another BMW model. The biggest disappointment came in the exhaust department and to me, that’s something I couldn’t live without, especially since this is an M Performance model. It should definitely sound better, and I know something could be done about it, since other cars using the same B58 engine have a proper exhaust sound. It’s a shame too, as the M40i X3 should be the best pick of the range, being just fast enough for most people, but not as expensive as the mad X3 M.