The first generation BMW X3 identified and expanded the luxury compact sports utility segment. Capturing the imagination of eco-conscious sports ute lovers (that must have sounded like an oxymoron back then…actually, it still is), the X3 quickly grew in popularity worldwide and triggered off a wave of competition in that category. By now the segment has become so populated that new entrants must feel decidedly ashamed of being late, except of course if they are of the even more high brow variety like Porsche, whose new Cajun compact SUV will hit the market in 2013.

After nearly 7 years since it was first introduced, the X3 was ripe for a generational change. Newer competition is nipping at the heels and BMW's own new, smaller sports activity vehicle, the X1, was uneasily close to the X3 in terms of size, looks and kit. So, the new second generation X3 was introduced for the 2011 model year and it has also attempted to rectify some of the features for which its predecessor was criticised.

Design details

The new X3's design direction has clearly moved away from the previous gen's sedan-like appearance. Based on the 3-Series platform, the low, small frontal looks and the compact headlamps with the kinks on the side, made the first-gen X3 look a little weak, compared to the new X3's bolder, more upright front. The new X3 has also grown in size to better fit the space between the smaller sibling X1 and bigger sibling X5. In fact, it is said to be about the same size as the original X5.

The exterior length of the new X3 has increased by 83mm to 4,648mm, the width too has increased by 28mm to 1,881mm and the height is up 12mm to 1,661mm. The increased proportions outside go on to give the new X3 a more generous interior/cabin area. The new X3 will get a big thumbs-up thanks to the increased space, because the previous generation model was far too cramped for three passengers at the rear. The increase in dimensions outside has led to an increase in shoulder room and leg room within the cabin.

The second-gen X3's design also accentuates the size difference visually. A taller front side with a larger pair of the BMW trademark kidney grilles is what greets you first. In place of the small, puny sedan-like headlamps, are a pair of large, squared-off headlamps with the other BMW trademark - the LED rings of the daytime running lights. Unlike the earlier model, the new X3's kidney grille is now upright and tilted slightly forward giving it the characteristic shark-nose.

A large airdam in the front bumper and fog lamps that are in a trapezoidal formation with the headlamp bulbs are another BMW trait in the new X3. Three pairs of creases running down the bonnet and side panels create surfaces that intermittently catch the sunlight and give the new X3 a more powerful front. Another feature that reflects the X3's Bimmer DNA is the contour line that rises sharply from the front wheel arch, then slopes upwards gradually towards the rear and merges into the chrome strip in the rear combination lamp on either side. Flared arches for all four wheels give the new X3 a stronger side profile too.

The rear of the new X3 also looks proportionately larger and lends more strength to the design. There is a lot of the X family lineage that comes through with the number of strong horizontal lines and surfaces that make up the rear of the new X3. More elegant tail-lamps than the predecessor and a more upright, tighter, but better defined hatch door makes the rear design coherent with the rest of the new X3's looks. Overall, the new X3's exterior design is a little less adventurous than its predecessor's, but has definitely given it more character and has visually made it look bigger than the enhanced proportions would have you believe.

Interior

The cabin of the new X3 should get another big thumbs-up for the dramatic improvement in quality of new trim. Inside, the ex-X3, there were a lot of hard plastic parts and a general lack of luxury feel, somewhat like the current base variant of the X1. But, the new X3 is a pleasant change on that front. Better quality materials, new electricals, soft-feel rubberised plastics and a bump up in equipment level gives the cabin a new appeal.

The dashboard and centre console follow a 3D concept, tapered on the edges and curving forward in the middle. The centre stack is lightly tilted towards the driver and all the controls fall within easy reach. The BMW iDrive control and the on-dash display are also available (with an even larger 8.8-inch screen in the X3 xDrive 30d variant). Real wood trim in the centre console and dashboard, and firm and supportive leather seats add to the luxury quotient in the new X3.

The instrument panel utilises Black Panel technology which has already been featured in the BMW 7 Series and 5 Series cars. It combines a unique digital display technology with a classic round instrument look. The new X3's wheelbase has been widened by 15 mm to 2,810 mm and the track width has increased by 92 mm compared to the predecessor model. This translates into more space for rear passengers and also a more spacious boot with a capacity of 550 litres. If you want to accommodate more of your lifestyle into the new X3, the rear seat backrest can be split and folded in a 40:20:40 ratio or altogether too expand boot space up to 1,600 litres.

Performance and handling

The new X3 is offered with two engine options, both diesel and sensibly so, given that most of the demand will be for diesel. My test drive vehicle was the X3 xDrive 20d which featured the four-cylinder 1,995cc common rail diesel engine. Crank the engine and this two-litre mill starts off with a bit of the typical diesel clatter during idling. After it warms up a bit and during cruising speeds there is none of the diesel noise that becomes too apparent in the cabin. Even during hard acceleration, the powertrain noise isn't too intrusive.

The 20d's performance statistics are quite the stuff that most buyers will be satisfied with. Peak power of a 184 bhp gets delivered at about 4,000 rpm. In typical diesel engine style however, the peak torque of 380Nm gets delivered from as low as 1,750 rpm and remains available almost all the way to 3,000 rpm. On the road, the strong band of torque available allows the X3 xDrive 20d to accelerate quickly from standstill, allowing it to cross the 100 kmph mark in a decent 8.6 seconds.

For buyers looking for a quicker model, the xDrive 30d with its three-litre, straight-six diesel engine will be more suitable. Surely, it will not be as fuel efficient as the 20d, but with a peak power of 258 bhp and maximum torque of 560Nm at just 2,000 rpm, the 30d will manage to clock the 0-100 kmph run in just 6.2 seconds.

Both the engines are mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission. The transmission is quick when compared to similar vehicles in the SUV class. Manual inputs and gear selection can be done using the famous BMW joystick-style selector on the centre console. Both the engine variant's top speeds are electronically limited to 210 kmph.

Average fuel consumption is claimed to be 16.09 kmpl for the 20d and 13.87 kmpl for the 30d in ARAI certified test cycles. Aiding that improvement in efficiency is the BMW Start / Stop system in the new X3. The system shuts off the engine when you stop at traffic lights or when waiting with your foot firmly on the brake pedal. It can be bit weird initially, but you soon get used to the engine shutting off and coming alive in an instant.

The other criticism of the previous-gen X3 was the ride quality and this has been ironed out in the new X3. The previous X3's ride was over stiff and bouncy, the new model manages to offer a more pliable ride on most surfaces. While I didn't get a chance to take the new X3 off-road in the true sense of the term, it managed to retain its composure on some managed off-road tracks that I tested it on.

Pushed on the road, the new X3 feels a lot like a sedan. I took my test mule up the windy roads of Lonavala and attacked every corner and hairpin. The X3 managed to cling on to the road and the xDrive system (BMW's four-wheel drive tech) with the host of other technologies manages to keep the vehicle under excellent control. In fact, the level traction available and almost sedan-like steering response really boosted my confidence levels.

Enabling the new level of handling is the 50:50 weight distribution between the front and rear of the new X3, and the Dynamic Stability Control, which together with the xDrive system ensures that understeer or oversteer tendencies are countered. The other technologies at work are dynamic traction control, cornering brake control, hill descent control and dynamic brake control.

Bottomline

The new X3 is an obvious step forward for this key model in BMW's India portfolio. Better looking outside and inside, with a more luxurious cabin and loaded with more safety technologies, the new X3 will have its task cut out – take on the competition new and old with renewed gusto.

And to amply demonstrate that it is serious about the fight, BMW has chosen to assemble the new model at its Chennai plant rather than import it fully built from its US operations.

Thanks to that move, the X3 xDrive 20d is priced at Rs 41.2 lakh and the xDrive 30d sports a tag of Rs 47.9 lakh.

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Keywords: BMW X3

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