2018 BMW X3 Review: the Best Compact Crossover Money Can Buy

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The BMW X3 compact SUV is the standout among a dozen premium compact SUVs: a triumph of sporty handling, technology, driver assists, roominess for all passengers, and comfortable ride. Drive the X3 to work today, take it to the track tomorrow for a lapping day, carry two couples for a long weekend in the country. The X3 does it all. Features that others have, BMW does better.

BMW’s excellence comes at a price: the cost of options. The base X3 starts at $42,000, with rear drive and vinyl seats. The features that make the car so desirable, such as a giant center stack display and adaptive suspension, can push the price into the high fifties. Driver safety assists that come free on most Hondas and Toyotas are extra cost, as is Apple CarPlay.

In a week driving the X3 in early spring weather (which included snow), it was a solid highway cruiser, with a big head-up display and a bigger center stack display that allowed for a split screen with multiple windows. The car was loaded with safety features and driver assists. Upsizing the third-generation X3 to longer than the original X5 makes the X3 a comfortable weekend cruiser for four adults.

Separately, I drove the X3 at BMW’s Performance Center racetrack in Las Vegas. It was exceptionally stable, exhibits little lean in corners, brakes well, and feels much like a 3 Series sedan — except the driver sits six inches higher and there’s 8 inches of ground clearance. Memo to self: Next time, turn off forward collision warning before venturing onto the track; the X3 sensors do not approve of the instructor-recommended following distances when diving into a corner. Driving a third X3 onto a deserted Nevada beach, it was comfortable and sure-footed in loose sand.

Changes with X3 Generation 3

The third-generation X3 looks a lot like the 2011-2017 second-generation model. The G01, BMW’s development code name for the 2018 to probably 2024 X3, is 3 inches longer at 186 inches. The wheelbase is 2 inches longer at 113 inches, width remains roughly the same at 74 inches, and height drops an inch to 66 inches. Weight has been reduced by as much as 120 pounds. Standard features now include a 3D kidney grille with aero shutters, underbody cladding, a roof spoiler with “aero blades” on the sides, and air curtains to channel wind around the car. Also standard now are reclining rear seat backs, sport seats, and three-zone HVAC (front left, front right, rear). The optional HUD is 75 percent larger, while the touch screen is a roomy 10.25 inches. Gesture control is an option.

A factory-installed trailer hitch is now available, a BMW first, and allows the 4,156- to 4,277-pound pound X3 to haul as much as 4,400 pounds, an exceptional amount for a compact SUV.

This is the first X3 with an M Performance variant, the X3 M40i. The base X3 has has a 255-hp turbo-four cylinder that lacks the audible thrill of the 355-hp M40i’s turbo-six.

BMW’s Amazing (Bewildering) Designs, Packages, Options

With the X3, you can add options equal to more than half the base price. They all sound worthwhile, except pretty soon you’re designing a $60,000 compact SUV. The build-your-own process online is challenging, which is a polite way of saying “frustrating.” First, you choose drive options: the rear drive, four-cylinder only X3 sDrive30i, $41,995 with shipping; or more likely all-wheel-drive, the X3 xDrive30i, $42,645; or the X3 M40i, six-cylinder model at $55,495. If you go for the xDrive30i, you then choose one of three design themes: XLine, which means nothing extra added; Luxury, which adds $2,050 worth of features, but you have to hunt to find out what they are; or M Sport Design, which adds “aggressive features inspired by BMW M Cars,” but mentions only parking sonar.

Step three is choosing among nine colors. There are two whites, two grays, two blacks, two browns (olive and terra brown), a dazzling Phytonic Blue, and no reds, greens, or yellows. All but the non-metallic white and black colors are $550. There are also BYO steps for wheels, upholstery and interior trims, but most of those are set by packages.

Step four is adding one of four tiers, or specific features items, such as a panoramic moonroof, heated front seats, or LCD instrument panel that BMW calls: no tier, meaning no extra cost; Convenience, $2,850 extra; Premium, $6,150 over no tier (and includes Convenience); or Executive, $9,650 (includes Convenience and Premium). There is, however, no I’m-Cross-Shopping-Volvo-So-Mama-Wants-All-The-Safety-Options tier. If you’re considering a well-equipped X3, choose Premium; some of the packages require it, so you’ll wind up there anyhow.

Step five is choosing packages. Assuming you picked none of the tiers, here’s what you can get (prices are for the X3 xDrive30i):

  • Driving Assistance, $900, is blind spot detection and lane departure warning, plus it requires the standalone park distance control option, $750.
  • Driving Assistance Plus, $1,700 (plus required Driving Assistance) comprises adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go, front collision warning, collision mitigation braking, and pedestrian protection. These two would make for an excellent Extended Safety tier, in our opinion.
  • Dynamic Handling Package, $1,400, with dynamic damper control, i.e. adjustable shocks that can be made softer for crappy roads when you carry cranky passengers, or firmer for back country roads when you’re alone; plus variable ratio steering with fewer turns lock-to-lock when you’re parking, and more at highway speed for greater stability.
  • Parking Assistance Package, $1,300, including front-rear parking sonar, automated parallel and head-in parking, a fabulous 3D view around the car, and a remote smartphone 360-degree view of your car while you’re away from it. Without this, you get a rear camera standard.

Step six (it’s almost over) covers individual options. Many options are also in the designs or tiers. Key standalone options are Apple CarPlay, $300, and Qi wireless charging plus a Wi-Fi hotspot, $500. There’s no upcharge for Android Auto, because there is no Android Auto available. The Harmon Kardon upgrade audio is $875 and reasonably priced. Full-range adaptive cruise control if not in a package is $1,200. Rear side window shades are $250 and well worth the money if you carry people in back. The trailer hitch is $550. The moonroof is $1,350. Heated front seats are $500, power-ventilated front sets are $350, and heated front and rear seats are $6,150 (this is a trick answer: $6,150 is the cost of the Premium tier, the only way you can get heated rears).

The xDrive 30i comes standard with LED low beams and halogen high beams, LED fog lamps, heated power-folding side mirrors, 10-way power seats (but not lumbar support, an extra) with SensaTec vinyl upholstery that is a decent leather imitation, rear cargo cover (this key item for city-dwellers can be $200 on mainstream crossovers), AM/FM/HD radio-CD player with pre-wiring for satellite radio and 12 speakers, a USB audio jack, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, Bluetooth, iDrive 6.0, an analog instrument panel, a universal garage door opener, telematics with 10 years of mayday calling, and three years of minor maintenance (oil, oil/engine/cabin filters). Standard wheels are 18×7 inches with 225/60 run-flat all-season tires.

The BMW X3 is fourth in sales among compact luxury SUVs in the first three months of 2018. Some of its 21 percent sales drop may be due to a model changeover a year ago. The new Mercedes GLC shot past Lexus NX to be the top seller.

Should You Buy the X3?

Among the dozen or so premium compact SUVs, the BMW X3 is the best vehicle overall if you value performance and don’t want to give up on comfort, if you want to carry four adults, and appreciate the options BMW offers. Features such as navigation, the head-up display, adaptive suspension, and surround-view cameras seem costly (they are) but they work well. This is the cost of buying quality. (The same goes for Audi and Mercedes.)

The four-cylinder X3 is enough car for most people and gets reasonable fuel economy: 22 mpg city, 29 mpg highway, 25 mpg overall (premium fuel). If you start to load on the performance-oriented options, consider the X3 M40. Standard equipment includes the M Sport and Dynamic Handling package and amazing acceleration: 4.6 seconds to 60 mph versus 6.0 seconds. The iDrive system — scroll wheel, finger-writing on the wheel, touch screen, voice, and (optionally) gesture recognition — is the best way to control infotainment once you take a couple hours to learn its workings.

If you want the safest X3, here’s our recommendation: Get the all-wheel-drive X3 xDrive30i with the Driving Assistance, Driving Assistance Plus, and Parking Assistance packages. You’ll probably want Apple CarPlay, which would let you avoid the cost of BMW’s well-done $1,700 navigation system if you trust in the tender mercies of Apple Maps — except CarPlay requires the nav system and its 10.25-inch display. Gotcha. Total: $52,395. (The X3 I tested came to $57,000.)

For a well-rounded X3, start with the safety configuration above, then add leather seats (get Mocha or Cognac if you’ve had enough black, beige, or parchment), heated front seats,  premium audio, and dynamic dampers so you can soften or stiffen the ride. That configuration also gives you, through the required Premier Tier, lumbar support, satellite radio, keyless entry, and sunroof. Total: $56,575.

For long-distance touring, vacationing, or kid-chauffeuring, add the Wi-Fi hotspot and wireless Qi charging ($500), rear side sunshades, and the trailer hitch. Total: $57,875.

For the sporting driver who got a nice year-end bonus, go to the X3 M40i, add leather, matte wood trim (to reduce glare off of the shiny cockpit trim), the Driving Assistance, Driving Assistance Plus, Premium and Executive packages (Executive includes gesture  control, surround view, and a digital instrument panel), Adaptive M Suspension, premium audio, CarPlay, wireless charging, and Wi-Fi. The only options omitted are the trailer hitch and extended maintenance programs. Total: $66,125.

Because of BMW’s high residual values, some buyers may find leasing will be a better deal.

The 2018 Audi Q5.

As for the competition, the Audi Q5, on the market since 2009, is excellent, especially the tasteful cockpit. The Q5 includes more features standard than the X3: all-wheel drive, CarPlay and Android Auto, leather seats, and lumbar adjustment. The optional virtual cockpit digital instrument panel is superb. BMW’s biggest advantage over Audi is the sporting performance of the six-cylinder engine. Both cars can be equipped to pass $65,000.

The Mercedes-Benz GLC, out since 2009 as the GLK and since 2016 as the GLC, rides well and is luxurious inside. But the back seat isn’t as spacious as BMW’s and users may find infotainment hard to use. Mercedes also bests BMW in the chutzpah department, charging $350 for CarPlay to BMW’s $300.

The Lexus NX, out since 2015, is comfortable and has a very nice hybrid version. The NX is not as costly and not as sporty; there is no NX F-Sport. Drivers may find the dash and console intrude on the driver’s space. Adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning are standard (part of Lexus Safety System), but blind spot detection requires a package costing at least $980. People like the NX: It outsold every other premium compact crossover last year.

The Volvo XC60 matches and raises the competition on safety, the cockpit is upscale, and is a favorite of millennials whose parents raved about the safety of 1980s-1990s Volvos, as well as of boomers downsizing cars. Pilot Assist is a very good semi-autonomous self-drive assistant.

The Acura RDX gets a third-generation version in a couple months and is likely to be a serious BMW competitor at a lower price, with less pricey options. The V6 gives way for a turbo-four.

Outside the top five in sales, the 2019 Infiniti QX50 is also sporty and has an innovative variable compression engine that promises good fuel economy. Cadillac is now run by a former Audi exec, Johan De Nysschen, and the pending 2019 XT4 could challenge the X3, although the XT4’s stylish lines may affect back seat and cargo capacity. The Lincoln MKC, the other American premium competitor, is not yet competitive. The near-premium GMC Terrain lacks the sporty nature, and fit and finish, of BMW, Audi, and Mercedes.

If your budget tops out in the thirties, look to a two- to three-year-old X3 knowing it won’t be quite as advanced. Also look to the most sporting of the mainstream compact crossovers, the Mazda CX-5, about $35,000 with all options. It has a turbo-less four-cylinder engine and a dated infotainment system; otherwise it pushes all the right buttons for sporty drivers. Lots of mid-price vehicles claim they have “class-above” features and the CX-5 actually delivers. Example: The Mazda head-up display has useful blind spot warning indicators that BMW’s HUD lacks.

The bottom line is this: The 2018 BMW X3 is the class of the field, especially if sportiness matters, and if you have the means to afford the premium features that set BMW apart.