Back in 2003, before every imaginable automotive niche was staked, and before the phrase “premium compact crossover” was even coined, BMW launched the X3. This stiff-riding, jacked-up hatchback with the big price tag proved a sales success. And crazy as it sounds, BMW had this sandbox to itself until 2008 – that’s when the Mercedes-Benz GLK and Audi Q5 came along. Now, you need a full complement of digits to keep track of all the premium compact crossovers coming at us from the UK, Japan, Sweden, the US, Italy, and of course Germany.
A gem of an engine and a chassis that expertly combines drum-tight body control with decent ride compliance.
The third-generation X3 sticks pretty close to the playbook, looking all upright and practical against the more swoopy and stylized offerings from Alfa Romeo, Porsche, Range Rover, and Lexus. In fact, it takes a keen eye to spot the difference between the outgoing X3 and this 2018. Put them side-by-side though and the changes become more obvious – a super-sized kidney grill, cleaner flanks, and accentuated wheel arches. This 2018 is marginally larger too, getting a 5.5 cm wheelbase stretch that benefits back-seat riders. The new structure, in combination with aluminum suspension bits and hollow anti-roll bars, shaves about 55 kg of mass.
So this third-gen is more about evolution than revolution, but after a few klicks behind the wheel of this 2018 BMW X3 M40i, you might think BMW is steering the corporate ship back to days of yore when BMW’s tagline “The Ultimate Driving Machine” actually meant just that. Yes, we’re talking about a tall, boxy crossover here, but we’re also talking about a gem of an engine and a chassis that expertly combines drum-tight body control with decent ride compliance.
The heart of the matter is the 3.0L turbocharged straight-six that churns out a silken 355 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 369 lb-ft from 1,520, ripping the M40i to 100 km/h in 4.8 seconds, which BMW claims to be best in segment. I don’t doubt that, but perhaps more meaningful is the eager character this six displays, the way it sails to the redline, and the fantastically rude wuffles and pops it make on overrun when in Sport mode. Granted, some of the sound you hear within the cabin is artificially piped through the sound system; but open the windows and the growl, farts, and near-backfires are for real.
The 2018 BMW X3 starts at $48,000 for the xDrive30i with a 248 hp 2.0L turbo four. If you want the six-cylinder, then it’s M Performance status or none at all, and that is reflected in the X3 M40i’s $61,500 sticker. That’s up around $10,000 over last year’s X3 with a six-pot. But we are getting a lot more.
Along with this new-gen 355 hp turbo six that packs 55 extra ponies and 69 more lb-ft, the M40i gets M Sport suspension, M Sport brakes with blue callipers, M body styling, dual-mode sport exhaust, and 21-inch alloys. Both the xDrive30i and M40i run with a ZF-sourced eight-speed auto, paddle shifters, and all-wheel drive.
While the X3 M40i’s standard variable-ratio steering is a bit numb, it’s accurate and well weighted. Hit a serpentine road, select Sport or Sport+ mode, and this ute is eager to play along. The targeted use of aluminum along with hollow anti-roll bars has reduced unsprung mass, and the revised rear multi-link set-up and front double-joint-spring struts dish up an impressive dynamic cocktail. The expertly tuned eight-speed is always in the right gear, but if you want to play F1 with the shift paddles, well, they’ll transmit your bidding with near dual-clutch urgency.
This tester did not have the optional adaptive Dynamic Damper Control which would give the ride and handling even broader bandwidth, but I certainly wasn’t feeling the ute was lacking for it. Although there should be an asterisk with these observations as this tester was riding on 19-inch snow tires, not the standard 21-inchers.
The 2018 X3 gets an all-new interior that is superbly crafted, featuring stitched dash-top, fine brushed metal trim, and a new touchscreen. And, bless them, there’s a full complement of well-marked buttons and knobs that make doing things like selecting heat for your seat, HVAC settings, or radio station presets not a life-threatening proposition. The familiar rotary iDrive controller remains, and in conjunction with the surrounding menu buttons (back, media, menu, map, etc.), it makes for a user-friendly device after a bit of practice.
It’s kind of ironic (and heart-warming) that BMW, who pioneered the human-machine interface with iDrive back in 2001 is thoroughly embracing tactile buttons in this time when the industry is diving headlong into smartphone-aping featureless glass touch panels. Another nice old-fashioned touch here is the fine outward visibility afforded by the X3’s upright greenhouse.
Front passengers are treated to standard heated 10-way sport seats trimmed in faux hide. Other standard features include tri-zone climate control, adaptive LED headlights, park distance control, heated leather steering wheel, 40/20/20-split rear bench, powered liftgate, auto-dimming mirrors, roof rails, and aluminum Rhombic trim. Conspicuous by their absence at this price point are blind-spot detection, Apple CarPlay, navigation, sunroof, and real leather.
Yeah, you know the drill. Pony up for those packages and upgrades. Making things relatively simple with this tester is the comprehensive Ultimate Package that, at $12,500, covers just about everything you could want in a luxury crossover. This begets a panoramic sunroof, side sunshades, proximity key, heat and electric backrest adjustment for the back seats, Vernasca leather, front seat ventilation and lumbar, multi-function instrument display, Wi-Fi hotspot, Apple CarPlay (no Android Auto), navigation, gesture control, head-up display, Harman Kardon audio with CD slot, ambient lighting, parking assist with surround view, and BMW ConnectedDrive Services. Also included is Driver Assist Plus that layers on BMW’s latest safety tech: Evasion Aid, adaptive cruise with stop-and-go, lane-keeping assist with active side collision prevention, front/rear cross-traffic warning, steering assist, speed limit info, rear collision protection, and so on.
With all its sporting acumen and luxury trappings, we can’t forget that the 2018 BMW X3 M40i remains a useful and functional tool. The load space behind the seats measures a class-competitive 500 L, expanding to 1,600 L when the 40/20/40-split rear bench is folded. A nice touch is the dedicated storage compartment under the floor for the retractable cargo cover – an item that usually ends up rattling around in the hatch when loading larger items.
I did put the X3’s hatch to use on a particularly miserable day when I ventured into the apocalyptic landscape of Mike’s Auto Parts to pull a front seat, mirror, and (bonus!) three-spoke leather steering wheel off a wreck for my 2001 VW GTI. I’m sure the grime-smeared dudes that manned this treasure trove were wondering why in the hell a guy driving a brand-new $75,000 BMW would want to crawl through some freezing, teetering V-Dub husks just to save a few bucks on parts. ’Cause it’s fun?
Well, yeah. Almost as much fun as leaning into this wonderfully realized premium compact crossover that, while no beauty queen, sure puts the sport into sport utility. And suggests that maybe BMW hasn’t abandoned its core spirit.
|Peak Horsepower||355 hp|
|Peak Torque||369 lb-ft|
|Fuel Economy||12.9/9.5/11.4 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space||500 / 1,600 L seats down|
|Model Tested||2018 BMW X3 M40i|
|Price as Tested||$77,240|
$13,395 – Ultimate Package $12,500; Metallic paint $895