It’s funny how meanings change. In the early 1990s, diesel was a dirty word. But then diesel got clean, went green, became the low-CO2 champion to save the planet – and the Congestion Charge. Then scientists started noticing how London’s nitrogen oxide levels were spiking. Indeed, Oxford Street is one of the dirtiest roads on the planet. The cause? Um, diesel cars. Oops.
Not all diesels are implicated, though, only older ones. Newer diesels, meeting so-called “Euro 6” legislation are OK – in fact, every showroom-fresh car sold from September this year needs to be up to scratch. So diesel will be green again. Keeping up?
So this is the perfect time for us to test the fastest diesel SUV on the planet, which comes complete with multi-spoke wheels and a vivid red paint-job. This is the Alpina XD3, an exclusive version of the regular BMW X3 created by a 50-year-old German tuning house of very high repute.
Only 150 XD3s a year will find their way to the UK. You can only buy it from one Alpina specialist, up in Nottingham (although the friendly people there will get the car to you). It costs £56,455, or around £12,000 more than the almost-as-fast Audi SQ5 SUV.
The Alpina, though, is the fastest and it produces 355hp, which is more than a Porsche 911 Carrera. It can do nearly 160mph. It accelerates from 0-62mph in 4.9 seconds; you’d be level-pegging with the Carrera away from the lights and, thanks to the Alpina’s fiendishly high-tech four-wheel-drive system and perfect eight-speed automatic, probably ahead if it was wet. And not only will it do nearly 43mpg (assuming you don’t drive it like a boy-racer all the time), it’s also Euro 6 emissions-compliant, so Boris won’t tax you for being a dirty diesel.
Given all this excitement, you might find it surprising to find the XD3 is really just a regular BMW X3 with big wheels, stickers and a bit of bodykit. Same upright stance, same boxy lines. It’s a bit... utilitarian, a bit “school-run”. A Porsche Macan S Diesel is slower but a lot more urbane.
Inside, the blocky dash is pure X3. Alpina has used green and blue stitching on the steering wheel, and stuck an ugly great numbered plaque on the dash, but it still doesn’t feel like a £56,000 SUV. It’s almost cruel to compare it with the Porsche, even if the XD3 does ace almost anything else this fast for space and practicality.
But then you get it on the road and discover the beautifully smooth and responsive engine, which serves up monumental drive to all four tyres. The steering is crisper than any SUV I’ve driven, with the front end responding with alacrity, hurling the XD3 through corners like a tall hot hatch.
Even the ride quality doesn’t suffer for having those steamroller wheels, which is extraordinary (it won’t make the kids sick on London roads). It achieves all this while still doing all the other sensible-shoes stuff the family-friendly X3 line suggests it should.
The true purpose of the XD3 will be lost on most. It’s a purist’s car, strictly for those in the know. It will get respect from only a select band of like-minded enthusiasts. But we get it; only in appearance is it straight-laced and sensible. And even if driving a diesel will no longer earn you as many green brownie points as it once did, owning the fastest 4x4 ever made is reward enough.
By Richard Aucock, who works for motoringresearch.com