2018 BMW X3 First Drive

An Evolutionary Step for This Capable, Compact Luxury SUV

Since its arrival in 2003, the BMW X3 has become a top choice in the compact luxury SUV. It delivers the driving experience of BMW's legendary 3 Series sedan along with added practicality and visibility. Now at the start of its third generation, the 2018 BMW X3 leaves the assembly line in Spartanburg, South Carolina, larger, more powerful and quieter than before.

It might not look like it, but this X3 is entirely new. Put it next to last year's model and you'll see a big difference on each body panel. You might see the shape of the larger X5 in its profile, but you might not notice the change in size. The new X3 is 2 inches longer and slightly wider, increases that return small improvements to front head-, legroom and shoulder room. All of it designed to make this compact SUV even more competitive in a rapidly expanding segment.

2018 BMW X3

Yes, It Has Launch Control
Two versions of the X3 will be available when it goes on sale in early November, and both come with all-wheel drive. The top-of-the-line M40i is the most powerful and, at $55,295, the most expensive. The "M" in its name implies sporty intentions, and it backs that up with 355 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque from its turbocharged 3.0-liter straight-six. Its eight-speed automatic even has launch control because what self-respecting SUV doesn't?

The volume model will be the less powerful xDrive30i, which starts at $43,445. It sports a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four that makes 248 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. Its eight-speed automatic doesn't have launch control, much to the disappointment of every teenager going for the keys to their parents' car. A diesel-powered variant will follow these two models, and we wouldn't be surprised to see a plug-in hybrid at some point, too.

2018 BMW X3

Made in the USA
It seems strange to fly to Portugal to drive something that's assembled in South Carolina, but we did just that to drive a fully loaded M40i. It's a nicely proportioned SUV with flared nostrils that sits well on its optional 20-inch wheels (19s are standard, but you can go up to 21s). Like the new 7 Series, it has neat little vents sitting behind the front wheels. Just don't look too close or you'll see that they're not functional.

Sit inside and you find a tallish seating position that provides a largely unobstructed view ahead. The optional 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster is clean and easy-to-read. And while you might chuckle at the "M40i" graphic that's always displayed front and center, you'll be surprised to find the overly thick steering wheel only has manual tilt-and-telescoping adjustment. On the other hand, the front seats have power adjustment that includes lumbar and side support.

The interior feels large and roomy for a vehicle of its size. It looks sharp, too, with attractive trims and modern technology such as the optional head-up display. Backseat passengers get comfortable accommodations as well thanks to the standard power-reclining rear seats and three-zone climate control. A 6-foot rear passenger can fit behind a driver of the same height with room to spare.

The cargo area holds a healthy 28.7 cubic feet, which is a little bit more than last year. Use the handles in the back to drop the 40/20/40-split rear seats, and the space opens up to 62.7 cubic feet, a little bit less than last year. One notable detail we noticed: There's a slot for the cargo shade under the floor for when you don't need it.

2018 BMW X3

Look and Feel
The 3.0-liter six-cylinder idles quietly in the standard Comfort setting. Kicked up to Sport or Sport+, it makes pleasing and energetic sounds as we rev it through the powerband. The engine pulls strongly and eagerly, while the automatic shifts quickly with minimal shock through the interior. Lift off the gas pedal and the exhaust pops and burbles, noises that pair well with its high-performance intentions.

The Sport settings both raise the effort needed to turn the steering wheel and stiffen the optional adaptive suspension, but we felt it was a little too stiff. Fortunately, you can save a preset for each setting in a separate Individual drive mode, so you can keep the popping exhaust but skip the overly stiff ride.

The X3s we drove all featured the optional $1,700 navigation system and its large, 10.3-inch display (a 6.5-inch display is standard). BMW's iDrive infotainment system continues to impress us with its power and intuitiveness, the latter resulting from the varied methods of control. There are the physical controls, including the rotary dial next to the shifter. There's voice control that easily comprehends your requests. And then there's a touchscreen that responds to swipes and pinches as you'd expect.

You also have BMW's optional Gesture Control system that comes in the Executive package. It lets you manipulate the stereo and navigation by making hand gestures in front of the touchscreen like someone from Star Trek. It's a neat trick to show off to your friends, but our experiences have shown little practical use.

A backup camera is standard, but you can also add a sophisticated exterior camera system that allows you to pan around the vehicle while parking. Strangely, blind-spot monitoring is optional, grouped into a package that includes lane departure warning, daytime pedestrian protection, forward collision mitigation and rear cross-traffic alert.

2018 BMW X3

In the Dirt
While we didn't get the chance to sample the xDrive30i, we did get some time behind the wheel of the diesel-powered xDrive30d on a dirt trail. The X3 isn't intended for serious off-roading, but it should be fine for the occasional unpaved road on the way to a campground.

Compared to the previous model, its approach and departure angles have increased by small amounts, and the ground clearance remains a respectable 8 inches. We appreciated the absence of creaks and groans from the body as the X3 contorted over larger bumps, a sign of a well-constructed chassis.

Off the trail, the 3.0-liter turbodiesel's smoothness and power were impressive. It still makes the telltale clatter at idle, but you'll only notice if the windows are down. Ignore the low redline on the tachometer, and you might think it was simply a powerful gas engine. The xDrive30d also rides a little softer than the M40i, a difference we'd enjoy on the commute. Its thinner steering wheel provides a greater sense of overall control, too.

2018 BMW X3

Dial In
On the phone connectivity front, a wireless charge pad and Wi-Fi hotspot are optional. Android Auto remains unsupported and Apple CarPlay is a $300 option that itself requires the optional navigation system. On the upside, CarPlay connects wirelessly, so iPhone owners who spring for the wireless charge pad can use both features without needing to plug anything in.

The next option is BMW ConnectedDrive, a phone app and connectivity system that goes a little deeper. When you have the BMW Connected app on your phone, it relays your contacts, calendar and so on into the car over Bluetooth. You can also use it to control some features of the car remotely, going as far as looking through the vehicle's exterior camera system (if equipped) to check your parking job. ConnectedDrive also works with a select few apps and integrates them deeper into the vehicle system. For example, the album art from Spotify appears in the iDrive home screen. It's a neat solution for those who use the specific apps it supports, but we wish BMW would add Android Auto support in conjunction with CarPlay for those outside of that scope.

2018 BMW X3

In a first for BMW, the X3 sports a factory-installed trailer hitch. The $550 option adds a 2-inch receiver along with seven- and four-pole connector sockets. The 4,400-pound towing capacity is among the best in its segment, but the clean integration of a Class III hitch and wiring means you don't have to hunt for a towing solution in the aftermarket. If you've never done it, consider yourself lucky — it's not easy.

It's an array of small, smart updates such as the trailer hitch integration that make the 2018 BMW X3 a compelling vehicle. This isn't a radical redesign and it didn't need to be. The X3 already checked all the boxes that many in this category look for, so the updates made this time around focused on improving what was already there and then adding a few incremental upgrades. The result is yet another generation of the X3 that delivers strong performance, a solid feel on the road, and all the practicality you would expect from a compact luxury SUV.

2018 BMW X3