Goldilocks Dressed As Plain Jane

There was a time when things were much simpler in BMW showrooms. All you had were the 3, 5, and 7 Series in various engine sizes, and that was enough. That status quo received a rude jolt in 1999.

It was the time of BMW’s brief ownership of the Rover Group, during which five-decades of off-roading drivetrain knowhow from Land Rover was plugged into the E39 5 Series platform giving rise to the original X5.

Market conditions were very different at the time and whilst the SUV’s popularity curve was already on the rise, options were much fewer than they are today and the few available are nowhere near as refined or as pleasant to drive as a present-day Honda CR-V or Mazda CX-5.

In BMW’s SAV family, the X3 has always been the quietly competent one. Just about the right size to suit most needs, but at the same time never ostentatious. It’s a safe formula, but is it sufficiently convincing?

Words: KON, Photography: TJ

Back then, SUVs were still built on ladder frames and they were built to take tonnes of abuse; 4WD was a given. The original X5 was among the earliest SUVs to be built on a monocoque chassis and was also one of the earlier models that ushered the SUV genre into the premium vehicle segment.

Whilst it is easy to see what a logical decision it was to produce the X5 in hindsight, BMW was, at the time, marching into the unknown when they rolled the first unit out of its Spartanburg plant.

It is has come a long way too, in just three model generations. The first X3 was not what we’d call a pretty thing and was hardly an appealing vehicle.. The second-gen model was much better, but its design was also so bland that BMW had to full-on botox the front end for the facelift.

Yet, if analyzed objectively, that outgoing F25 X3 had good credentials. Premium badge – check. Powerful and efficient engines – check. Good ride and handling – check. Spacious interior – not too bad. Equipment levels – covers the basics. Fair to say it was a well-conceived and well-engineered package.

Fortune favours the bold, as they say, and the Spartanburg plant has grown to become BMW’s largest manufacturing facility worldwide sustained by nothing other than the company’s portfolio of X models. Today, every number from 1 to 7 has an X prefix, each model playing a specific role within the family catering to different purposes audiences.

And this brings us to the X3. Amidst the current multitude of X models in various shapes and sizes, the X3 has grown to become the right-sized one-size-fits-all member of the line-up, sitting nicely in middle ground being neither small and bare as the X1, nor large and ostentatious as the X5.

The mission for the all-new G01 X3, therefore, is to build on the F25’s balanced strengths, bring it up to speed with the latest segment trends, whilst at the same adding a bit of flair to the equation.

Styled by the fast-rising Calvin Luk, the G01 starts off well with pleasant proportions; its upright stance projecting confident and commanding road presence. It occupies a footprint larger than the original X5, but stands lower in height. The design signs off with a flourish with contoured tail lights carefully sculpted for a 3D look.

Underwhelming, however, are the headlights. Amongst the multitude of headlight designs available globally for the X3, the LED items fitted in our market are the second highest available grade. Not too bad, really… until you look at official pictures from BMW, some of them even used in local promotional materials, showing you how significantly different the top spec items look.

In Malaysia, the X3 comes standard Luxury Line trim only, a refreshing departure from the current overload in the market. The combination of classy multispoke alloy wheels and tasteful application of chrome trimmings give the car an appearance of understated elegance.

Stepping inside, ergonomics, in typical BMW fashion, are laid out with intuitive simplicity. Those coming from earlier-generation BMWs will instantly recognize the familiar arrangement – driver-oriented centre console, horizontally-arranged switchgear, and clear instrumentation. It’s not as attractive-looking as the Mercedes GLC’s cabin, but easy to live with and acclimatize.

Overall material selection is much improved from the previous X3, but there are a few weak links. The centre tray lid, for example, misses a spring-loaded closing mechanism whilst the engine start button between the central air-con vent and instrument cluster is surrounded by an unsightly matte plastic that look hastily slapped in place to cover a gap they had no idea how to close. Rear bench also lacks the thigh support we expect of a vehicle this class. From these surroundings, a Volvo XC60 gives the feel of a significant upgrade.

The chassis too, plays its part in primarily offering a plush and comfortable ride to suit the tastes of mosts, whilst still giving just about enough emphasis to traditional BMW dynamic qualities. Steering feel can’t match up to older BMWs, but the passively sprung suspension is deftly-judged to manage weight transfers well-enough to inspire confidence around the bends.

The X3 still drives well, however, but for a BMW, that’s no surprise. The 30i engine with 252hp on tap remains one of the best 2.0-litre turbo fours in the market. It offers enough in terms of sheer outright grunt and, in conjunction with the excellent ZF 8HP gearbox, usefully flexible – the setup capably mitigates the inevitable turbo lag in most situations, offering waves upon waves of torque to pull you along from any RPM at any gear.

How can the X3 be improved? Plenty. For starters, a greater variety of choice would certainly do no harm. The Luxury Line trim exudes classiness, but we’ll bet there are quite a few buyers who’d appreciate being offered the M Sport option. The higher grade Adaptive LEDs should be available in at least one higher grade variant, and God knows there should be an inline-6 M40i variant here to take on the Merc GLC 43.

It is hard not to see the new X3 as anything less than a competent, well-engineered vehicle that would fit most lifestyles. This is a car that would seamlessly blend itself into your daily life and will get you going about your business without fuss. Throw in the five-year free service programme and BMW Concierge Service, the X3 becomes not just your car, but your daily companion as well. What it now needs, is an added dose of flair and flourish.