WHEN BMW launched the X3 SUV in 2004 it got off to something of a slow start. It was available in petrol-only for the first six months until the 2.0d in late 2004, and the 3.0d in 2005.
When diesel got in on the act, unsurprisingly in a sector it dominates, combined fleet and retail sales for the X3 rose from 6,700 to 7,500 over the year.
The diesel share of X3 has continued to rise, powered mainly by fleet: in 2006, there have been 3,000 X3s sold in fleet, with only 200 or so petrol.
So with diesel now driving the majority of X3 registrations, it’s hardly surprising that the go-anywhere range gets the accolade of being first in the brand to offer one of the most remarkable compression-ignition power units around.
Boasting variable twin-turbo (VVT) technology, the latest in a long line of Bavarian straight-six motors adds a dynamic fresh dimension to the compact sector of the SUV market, which continues to buck the trend by expanding with every new arrival.
Pouring out 286bhp and a torrent of torque, the engine transforms the character of the X3 and takes it further upmarket just as revitalised Land Rover is rolling out its new Freelander – another compact SUV range that has been designed for premium positioning.
Described as the most sporting six-cylinder diesel yet in a production car, the VVT unit will soon be going under the bonnet of the 3-series Coupe and will also power other models.
Lighter by 25kg than its predecessor, it gets its oomph from a two-stage boosting system that uses a small turbo in the lower rev range, then brings a bigger unit on stream as the speed rises. The result is a smooth, flow of output that rockets the chunky X3 away from rest and gives the car the verve of a sporting saloon.
Amazingly, it takes only 6.6 seconds for the speedo needle to sweep around to the benchmark 62mph mark and it will keep on going all the way to 149mph, if you dare.
And with average economy on the better side of 32mpg, this level of performance promises to deliver a threat to the market-leading Freelander – as well as the Nissan Murano and Volkswagen’s entry-level Touareg.
Like the rest of the facelifted X3 range, the 3.0sd gets an improved appearance from a wider and bolder grille, revised bumpers and dual circular headlamps under a clear glass cover.
Inside, the makeover action brings particularly significant benefits, with revisions to both design and trim being introduced to counter criticism of the utilitarian look of the original car as well as underlining the premium positioning of the range.
Various storage boxes provide ample space for odds and ends in the instrument panel, extra-large pockets are built into the doors and the optional navigation system screen automatically pops up from the centre of the dashboard.
Slower by only 5mph than its petrol equivalent, the 3.0sd accelerates quicker and is seen as the new flagship model, costing £3,870 more in SE form and likely to account for 5% of sales. Standing on 18-inch alloy wheels, the ‘basic’ car is anything but, with a generous equipment spread that includes BMW’s business radio CD system – but items like adaptive headlights and panoramic sunroof are extras. M Sport trim provides more distinctive alloys, sports seating, firmer suspension, high-gloss trim and anthracite headlining.
Behind the wheel
A RAFT of mid-cycle detail changes have left the 10-strong X3 range looking a lot better and appearing distinctly more upmarket – but there’s no doubt that the gem in the makeover is this new 3.0 VVT twin-turbo diesel model.
The straight-six has been BMW’s favourite engine configuration for decades and this unit demonstrates how the layout can be honed to provide a beautiful balance of diesel power.
So quiet on start-up that it can be mistaken for petrol and refined at all speeds, it pours out its torque in seamless fashion from low revs to make the X3 particularly agile on the road as well as fully competent off it.
A six-speed transmission is well matched to the engine and has a neat manual function built into the central shift lever, but the auto box works so well that it can be left in Drive for most of the time while the driver enjoys the immense grip provided by the latest-generation xDrive all-wheel traction system. Interestingly, the X3’s VVT engine offers greater power than is available in BMW’s ‘senior’ SUV, the X5.
BMW’s new flagship X3 raises the bar in five-seater premium off-roading by providing tremendous performance and blending refined high-speed cruising with credible economy. Diesel is expected to account for 85% of sales and this version is another winner.
Max power (bhp/rpm): 286/4,400
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 427/1,750
Max speed (mph): 149
0-62mph (secs): 6.6
Fuel consumption (mpg): 32.5
CO2 emissions (g/km): 232
On sale: Now
Prices (OTR): £36,415 – £38,175