Test Drive: 2018 BMW X3 breaks the mold

Regular readers may be aware our reviews of compact and subcompact sport-utility vehicles seldom are favorable. Most of these models seem to provide insufficient legroom for tall drivers, and little or none for rear-seat passengers. BMW’s compact X3, beefed up a bit for 2018, is a notable exception.

The X3 departs from the norm in more ways than one. Our 2018 X3 M40i, equipped with a 355-horsepower inline 6-cylinder engine, accelerated and handled like a sport sedan. It was one of the few SUVs (actually, “sports activity vehicle,” as BMW labels the X3) we’ve ever driven that is actually fun to drive.

The 2018 BMW X3 M40i is equipped with a 355-horsepower inline 6-cylinder engine. — Courtesy of BMW Press Club Global

Of course, such a combination of slick handling, luxury and foul-weather capability comes at a price. The base X3 sDrive 30i, with rear-wheel drive, starts at $41,000. Our top-of-the-line, all-wheel-drive X3 had a base price of $54,300, which rose to $65,045 with options. Some of the costly extras come standard in lesser vehicles; among them are heated front and rear seats, rear-view camera, Apple CarPlay capability, blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert and lane-departure warning.

There’s plenty of competition in the luxury compact-SUV segment, beginning with the Jaguar E-Pace we drove just before the X3. (Our Jaguar’s list price was about $11,000 lower than the BMW’s, and several of the optional features listed above were standard.) Also in the running are the Mercedes-Benz GLC, Porsche Macan, Lexus NX, Cadillac XT4, Audi Q5, Lincoln MKC, Volvo XC40, Infiniti QX50, Acura RDX … you get the idea. There’s plenty of demand for compact luxury SUVs, notwithstanding our preference for midsize models.

BMW dived into the SUV pool in 2003 and proved almost immediately that SUVs could be … well, they could be BMWs. Aficionados of the brand expect BMWs to be drivers’ cars, not “utility vehicles.” The X3 never fell short of that standard and consistently sells well in the United States, exceeding 40,000 for the past two years and cracking the 50,000 barrier this year. It’s assembled in a U.S. plant located in Spartanburg, S.C.

After taking note of our test car’s impressive horsepower rating, we wondered whether it would throw the German makes legendary balance out of kilter. It didn’t. We drove it with the usual confidence on highways, suburban roads and urban streets in western Connecticut. We also subjected it to the often discomfiting curves and narrow lanes of the Saw Mill Parkway in New York; it never gave us a moment’s uncertainty. BMW also proved it’s possible for a vehicle to handle this well without riding harshly. BMW’s sound engineers also did well to give the exhaust a deep, pleasing tone.

The BMW X3 was named a Top Safety Pick Plus by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. — Courtesy of BMW Press Club Global

The X3 comes in three versions: the rear-drive sDrive30; the all-wheel-drive xDrive 30; and the high-powered, all-wheel drive M40i. The base engine is more typical of the brand, sporting 248 horsepower.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 2018 X3 its highest rating of Top Safety Pick Plus.

2018 BMW X3 M40i

Price: $65,045

Engine: 3.0-liter turbocharged inline Six, 355 horsepower, 369 lb.-ft. torque

Transmission: 8-speed shiftable automatic

Drive: all-wheel

Weight: 4,277 lb.

Suspension: adaptive 4-wheel independent

Ground clearance: 8 in.

Wheels: 20-in. M light alloy

Tires: 245/45R20 103W front; 275/40R20 106W rear, run-flat

Seating capacity: 5

Luggage capacity: 28.7 cu. ft.

Maximum cargo capacity: 62.7 cu. ft.

Maximum towing capacity: 4,400 lb.

Fuel capacity: 17.2 gal.

Fuel economy: 20 mpg city, 27 mpg highway

Fuel type: premium unleaded gasoline (recommended)

Steven Macoy ([email protected]) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.