The BMW X3 is a mid-size premium SUV that sells well but doesn’t really excite. It’s not like the X5, which is a bruiser, objectified by petrolheads in BMW dealerships. No, the X3 is the quiet one in the corner, the utilitarian choice. The Volkswagen Golf of posh compact SUVs.
BMW wants to change that with this all-new third-generation version. And to do this, it’s going posh. Benefitting from the jewel-like upgrades already seen on the 7 Series and 5 Series, BMW has upped its game both outside and in. Visually, it’s less like a jacked-up people carrier, and much more of a rich, stylish, premium SUV. The sort of machine people will notice, maybe turn their heads at like they do when they see a Jaguar F-Pace, but not when an Audi Q5 drives past.
And at the top of the range, there’s more – a sporty new BMW M Performance variant, the M40i. This is the first time the ‘warm M’ division has given an X3 a makeover, and it’s done a good job. Wearing bumpers with massive air intakes and outlets, chunky alloy wheels, cool Anthracite black detailing and the requisite silver door mirror caps, it has attitude, but not too much of it. No risk of looking like a former Max Power reader here.
The 40i gets a pumped up interior compete with sports seats and chunky steering wheel, although all new X3 benefit from an interior far nicer than the outgoing one. It’s sleek and tactile, not spongy and plasticky, and the stand-proud infotainment system is a real highlight. This is a machine that feels like it’s worth its price tag at last – with plentiful rear seat space and a humongous boot to tick the weekend practicality boxes.
But while most sold in the UK will be xDrive20d and xDrive30d, it’s the M40i that’s most interesting, and thus, the one I spent plenty of time in during the Portuguese launch event at an unseasonably hot Sintra. I went from scraping the ice off our windscreen to digging out the factor 30.
In flash BMW M blue, it sure looked the part. The standout bits are the wheels and bumpers, but the detailing is lovely too; I loved the whopping great new grille and even found myself occasionally polishing the M badge on the centre console. And it has the performance to back this up.
This 3.0-litre TwinPower Turbo petrol engine is magic. In the terrific BMW M140i, it’s a star, and although the extra weight of the X3 M40i dulls its 360hp performance a little, it still packs a punch. Zero-62mph in 4.8 seconds is evidence of that. A tuneful engine and exhaust note is another selling point. There’s something wonderful about a good straight-six engine, and BMW makes the best in the world. Passengers won’t think that M badge misplaced.
You get a switch on the centre console that lets you go from Comfort to Sport, although this is only fully effective if you go for the optional adaptive dampers. These duly turn the ride quality into perpetual jiggly concrete (with silly exhaust pops to boot), but work much better if you leave it to its own devices. The 40i is just sporty enough away from full Sport, with a grippy front end, agile responses and impressive ability to accurately thread across tight, twisting Portuguese roads with just the right amount of involvement.
The ride is decent, you can power on through corners with confidence the xDrive system will sort out the surge of the engine and, for an SUV, it’s all rather good fun. Perhaps it lacks the purity of a Jaguar F-Pace, and it’s certainly no grown-up M140i, but alongside rivals such as the Audi SQ5 and Mercedes-AMG GLC 43, it’s pretty good fun. A family-friendly SUV with just the right amount of one-up verve.
At the third time of asking, BMW has given us an X3 that is a complete package at last. One with no obvious failings, and a welcome dose of showroom appeal. This range-topper stirs the soul more than any before it, and is the one to choose if you want to stand out, but even the lesser ones carry newfound spice. Choosing your family’s next premium SUV just got that bit harder still.