The new BMW X3 and Volvo XC60 are jewels of the booming premium mid-sized crossover sector. How to chose when they're both keepers?
Photos: Lewis Gardner
DON’T bother asking me to go camping: Tents, sleeping on the ground, cooking food in pans balanced upon rickety burners … done all that during a big OE through North America and Europe.
Great trip. Loved what we saw. Slowly but surely grew to hate how we did it. The days were a dream, the nights a mare. Never, ever, EVER again.
Glamping? That I CAN do. Camping without discomfort. Camping as a luxury experience, admittedly comes at a luxury cost. But consider the payoff. Everything’s clean. A proper bed with proper bedding (I HATE sleeping bags). Proper ablutions. Someone else cooks, cleans up, serves drinks. Yup, I’ll handle that, no sweat.
If I went glamping, I’d want to take a vehicle that worked for the moment. So, obviously, not a serious off-road vehicle. No need. From my experience, glamping grounds are rarely hard to reach. For example, from the brochures, the one I went to in New South Wales looked to be incredibly remote. In reality, it was in a gum tree glade, about 600 metres from a main road. We drove there along a gravel track. In Minis. Ok, the Countryman. But still. It wasn’t exactly Bear Grylls.
A better glamp-mobile would surely have to be a medium-sized premium crossover. This is is the fastest-growing corner of the market. Carmakers are responding with more and more offerings every year. To be noticed you need to stand out from the crowd.
The Volvo XC60 and BMW X3 certainly do that. Both are as smart as you can get, in every sense: Tech-stacked and wholly upmarket inside and out, they also reach out to appeal as decent driver’s cars for the family-minded.
They’re not the cheapest choices; the X3 xDrive30i on test is nominally a $99,850 buy-in, but with $16,290 worth of options (the biggest single addition being dynamic damper control and an electric folding tow bar, the most modest being either prep for Apple CarPlay – yes, they REALLY do charge extra for that or lumbar support) this 185kW/350Nm 2.0-litre petrol valued at $116,140.
The D5 R-Design, pictured with the X3 in our photos also had an $8000 Premium Pack, which pushed the price of this 177kW/500Nm Twinpower 2.0-litre diesel edition to $102,900. Whereas the T5 Momentum also trialled subsequently – but considered important for this story because its 2.0-litre petrol powerplant is more likely to be considered against the BMW’s, for the very simple reason that it has identical outputs – came straight from the box, so represented a $84,900 hit.
IMPROVEMENT has certainly come to the X3 since the original launched in 2003, but it’s debatable whether any of the 1.5 million purchasers of that car have at any time during those 15 years ever been able to provide a truly convincing reason why theirs should be considered a superior machine to the X5. So well-sorted has that big brother been.
With this third gen X3, they can. The only thing is, this golden period has an end date. It’s when the next gen X5 turns up. Arrival is expected at year-end. So, if you’ve invested in the latest X3 and are keen to gloat, do so now. The clock is ticking.
With BMW having amped up virtually every aspect, there’s lots to talk up: The new styling atop a larger and more spacious platform, fresh drivetrains, and, not least, a cabin that is not just redesigned but also considerably smartened in respect to its tech. A lot of what now features in the X3 has come by way of the Five Series passenger car and, assuredly, the next stop will be the SAV arriving at Christmas or thereabout. Possibly with a bit more polish and perhaps even more enhancements because, you know, that’s just how progress goes.
In the here and now, though, if it came to picking out which was the best car in the X family, then surely even an ardent X5-er would have to concede they’ve been trumped by the second-best-selling X model.
Even if it doesn’t overtake on sales (and it won’t, because X5 historically outsells its confreres by at least two to one) the X3 is assuredly at least set to achieve greater success than the two preceding generations have enjoyed.
Driving the new model in its xDrive30i format is a good introduction to what’s on offer. A derivative that bristles with cutting-edge safety and convenience features and brings a perky 185kW/350Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-petrol engine with the sole transmission choice of an eight-speed automatic is not the flagship – that’s the M-flavoured xDrive40i - but it is expected to lead the sale push and therefore best demonstrate to the widest audience the type’s potential to rattle rivals.
This is a category in which smart styling is in no short supply. It’s to BMW’s credit that, after two stints with shapes that weren’t quite there in respect to their proportion, they finally dropped the origami-like approach and gone to a smoother, less confrontational approach.
That doesn’t mean it stands any less chance of being fawned over or causing dissent: To some, it’s a car that’s just too bold. But even those who do not find it wholly attractive will surely agree that now that it’s more about surfaces than lines, the exterior body shaping, this time the work of a young Australian, Calvin Luk, is certainly better configured and considered.
The usual brand cues stand front and centre. That double kidney grille is larger and bolder, mainly to enable the 'Active Air Stream' technology that keeps them shut during cold starts to get the engine up to operating temperature more quickly (hence why the angled bars behind the grille). A bigger mouth might seem overbearing, but in this instance a contoured bonnet and neatly-shaped adaptive LEDs in hexagonal format help keep it all in proportion. Odd-looking tail-lights are in the past; the new units have a more flowing, finished look. When you check the profile it seems sleeker yet less raked. The vent behind the front wheel is to aid airflow, one of a number of discreet features aiming to make this the most aerodynamic car in its class.
Even easier to like is the interior; BMW’s determination this time to accentuate the comfort and convenience is obvious. What also makes the X3’s cabin really stand out is the level of thought and attention to detail that has gone into it.
That there's a lot lifted from the Five inside is no bad thing. The previous two generations of X3 had a certain design starkness that was supposed to enhance their air of toughness, but it just didn’t work. The new environment presents just as strongly – in fact, even better – for functionality, but it just looks so much more inviting. Being more luxury-prioritised does no harm; you can get away, for instance, with soft leather trim throughout every cabin, even on the dash, and plush carpets in this kind of SUV. Because it’s the kind least likely to get itself dirty.
The tech uplift is huge, with this being the second product to update to the sixth iteration of iDrive, but fortunately not daunting; anyone who can understand basic smartphone operability will be comfortable. The 10-inch centre screen is your main portal and, as before, there are various route options to reach any given destination; it’s your choice of whether the rotary makes more sense than, gesture control (the volume up/down finger swirl is a bit of a giggle but that’s it), voice control (ditto, potentially redundant once you have CarPlay) or touching the screen (dead cinch, though it leaves fingermarks).
BMW’s smartphone integration is better than most. It’s the first to relay CarPlay (and presumably Android Auto) via Bluetooth, with the neat support feature of a wireless charging pad to keep your device’s battery pepped up. I really like, too, how it will facilitate simultaneous usage of CarPlay and the in-built hardware; best example being that you can play your device-stored audio while also operating the in-built sat nav, the car self-splitting the display into two equal-sized panels to display each.
Those with a desire to burn data can dial up online info via the BMW Connected app. You can even lock or unlock the car remotely via the app or set the climate control prior to a scheduled departure time. This is all highly impressive.
The centre screen is abetted by a smart 12-inch digital instrument panel and a massive (70 percent bigger) head-up display that also coherently presents a ton of details and data.
Also new to the X3 is BMW's Driving Assistant tech which incorporates the fundamental elements of BMW’s march toward semi-autonomy, a camera and radar, to run an adaptive cruise control with Stop and Go, cross-traffic warning front and rear, various lane assist tech and blind-spot monitoring.
The 50mm growth in wheelbase is good for interior space. It’s still a cosy car for four adults, but every position offers more leg, shoulder and, even with a panoramic glass roof, head room. The driving position is also more car-like, now.
The back bench reclines, via levers near the bases or in the cargo area, and also fold 40-20-40 – though doesn't slide – and passengers enjoy rear vents with temperature control, a rear 12V (but no USB) and LED reading lights. You also get a kick-operated electric tailgate that reveals an unchanged boot space over the old car, so 550 litres seats up and 1600 litres in van mode. Not a vastness, but probably enough for the buyer set.
Speaking of the boot, the one thing about the cockpit layout that I reckon is daft, almost dangerously so, is the location of the boot release switch.
Rather being sited as most are - on the floor or on the lower dash between the steering wheel and drivers door - is instead located atop the door cap, in the same cluster as the window switches. You can guess what happened.
Driving a busy city street, and concentrating intensely - because the traffic flow was fluctuating - on not hitting the vehicle ahead, when going to close the driver side window and feeling rather looking for the switch ... well, yeah, not sure who was more surprised. Me when there was a sudden whoosh of air and sharp increase in the volume of outside noise when the tailgate swung up or the lady in the car directly behind, whose expression of astonishment was fully apparent clocked when I glanced in the rear vision mirror to see wtf was going on.
Anyway, I managed to stop and shut the thing, having first ascertained another pull on the button wouldn’t activate a self-close. But as the owner of dogs (which, by the way, do not ride in test cars) I think I’m in a good position of authority to suggest this is a dumb setup.
The xDRive30i is no tarmac tearer but its 2.0-litre turbo petrol is a strong performer nonetheless. As you’d expect, it feels all the more spirited when Sport mode is enabled – the engine gets more edge and so does the eight-speed auto. The greatest dose of fury develops between 4000rpm and the 7000rpm redline, which makes it an engine of two characters. It can be relaxed highway operator, pulling a fraction above 1500rpm in eighth gear at 100kmh, or more of a rebel, with a rousing (yet tending on raucous) edge. The latter, of course, means that the quoted optimum combined fuel figure of 7.6L/100km falls beyond reach.
More impressive is how the car now conforms to the engine’s performance0-minded behaviours. Previous X3s certainly captured your attention when pushed hard; they certainly demonstrated decent agility, but so much damper firmness that they could be quite jiggly and something of a handful.
This time around, BMW has taken a slightly different approach, in that by using a more complex kind of adaptive damping they’ve meted the car a broader sweep of ride and dynamic attributes. The distinctions between the Sports/Comfort/Eco and Adaptive modes are appreciably more noticeable, now, yet the changes to the car’s agility are not so marked between Comfort and Sport. Meaning you can still achieve an agile dynamic experience while retaining a degree of ride compliance. So it’s sportier and more adept, also more involving, than past efforts.
Of course, that’s just within category parameters. It’s still a tall car, so don’t think it is about to threaten any current M road cars in respect to dynamic finesse. But the body control is good enough for it to rarely feel precarious and it has a very good ride-handling balance. Tyre noise over coarse chip remains a bit of an issue, and you might find some brittleness on those occasions too: Just an inevitability of using low-profile (and run-flat) rubber on big rims. Hook onto smooth motorway-level tarmac and it quietens right down.
All in all, this X3 is of a much better calibre than any preceding it, mainly because it clearly relates less to those forebears and more to the bigger model that has always cast a shadow over it.
In transforming the X3 into a mini-me X5, BMW has created a crossover car that stands good chance of becoming the barometer model within the premium soft sector. Is the bar now set too high for any rival to stand a chance of meeting, let alone beating, Munich?
Actually, no. The diesel XC60 on test certainly didn’t seem frazzled being parked up with, and driven against, the X30i. And, though they did not meet face-to-face, the petrol 2.0-litre version that subsequently followed would also have been found to be a worthy competitor, at least on mechanical grounds, if not so much on specification.
Being meted quality time in two editions cemented thought that the first XC60 developed wholly since Volvo became an asset of Geely is an incredible achievement, one that makes as walloping an impact as stepping out of a cosy room and straight into a sub-zero environment tends to.
Not only does it also immediately focus your attention but reinforces that there is nothing to fear from the Swedish marque being under a Chinese company’s control. If anything, what we get now are Volvos as modern Volvo has always dreamed of creating, but could not, mainly due to the financial and developmental constraints imposed by previous brand stewardships.
With no shackles to constrain it, Volvo has let its imagination and expertise run wild, with astounding and quite exciting result. The XC60, like the XC90 before it (and undoubtedly like the XC40 about to come) take a breathtakingly bold approach to design and technology philosophies.
So, yes, it’s easily capable of withstanding any punishment from Munich, albeit with some finessing. Though it’s hard not to like the Swede’s diesel – in addition to delivering the anticipated torque richness that is an oiler trademark, the D5 unit is also extremely refined - Volvo’s point that the 2.0-litre petrol is a more reasonable competitor for the BMW unit on test is fair: They are not only of like capacity but also profess to provide identical outputs, after all. Notwithstanding, to achieve anything like a fair fight on specification and trim, you would want that petrol to be kitted to R-Design level, rather than in the cheaper Momentum pack. It’s less to do with what you get so much how as how it presents: R-Design and the Premium equip together seem a good investment. They together add a more upmarket ambience that the car wears very comfortably.
At the same token, don’t think to XC60 without upgrades is an exercise in travelling economy. The Momentum’s an entry trim, but is still quite affluent with leather upholstery, two-zone climate control, that large touch screen and more besides. You don't need anything else, really. But you should go R-Design anyway, cos it looks sportier and sharper and, as result, more comfortably a match for any affluent German offer.
Volvo’s new design elements of a long bonnet, slim headlights and neat detail lines all transfer particularly well to a compact SUV and have the added benefit of reducing the overall shape’s bulk to the point where it looks more like a high-standing station wagon than a conventional offer.
The cabin is a work of art; every bit as glam as the XC90’s but, again, with an air of affluent functionality. By which I mean, everything looks premium, yet also evinces as hard-wearing and utilitarian, everything flavoured by a neatness and to-the-point minimalism that seems so typical of the Swedish design ethos, one that's clearly focused on visual simplicity.
The upright nine-inch, iPad-esque touchscreen in the centre of the dash is now a trademark feature that I enjoy. For sure, mastering the many layered menus of that touchscreen control does require a bit of patience, but the operability of the fundamentals – setting a radio station, a destination or cabin temp and air flow – is beyond reproach.
Volvo has yet to match BMW for wireless charging and connectivity, so you need to tether, and perhaps the phone mirroring pathway is also a little bit glitchy, given that the phone-to-car marriage that worked seamlessly in the D5 simply could not be replicated in the petrol Momentum. Was it something my iPhone said during the weeks between?
If BMW has anything to learn from Volvo, it’s in some of the small touches – if you’ve got a starter switch, why make it a mere button when it could be a bezelled work of art (though, yeah, it does seem weird that it swivels the same way for engine ‘off’ and for engine ‘start’) – and seat design.
As good as the X3’s pews are – and, yup, they’re the best I experienced in that line - the XC60’s are better still, one potential strength (ironically) being that there are fewer controls to fine-tune their shaping. I had people of varying heights and shapes try them out and all remarked on how form-fitting the chairs were, usually with minimal fine-tuning. But then, Volvo (and Saab) were always experts in this.
But, then, the entire interior is pretty inviting in its feel-and-look-great hues (much better than BMW’s rather ‘adventurous’ brown leather) and finish, to the point where you might feel so relaxed as you might imagine it a great pity that you can’t just sit back and let the car do its own thing.
As things stand, the XC60 is not quite that adept, though like the X3 is does have quite a count of autonomous driving aids that aim to keep you right side up and steering clear of trouble, mainly by keeping you in your lane and also warning when something like a collision is possible.
I’m sure this is assistance some will appreciate, yet as the BMW I did find myself becoming a bit annoyed with Drive Pilot’s over-zealousness in the open road scenario. If you agree they’re a turn off, then be assured they can also be turned off. In saying that, best don’t mess with the City Safety system, which helps avoid - or at least significantly lessen the impact of - those distracted town knocks. There's an evasive steering aid now, too, which adds torque to the steering to help you steer more effectively if you're surprised by a pedestrian or suchlike in your path.
The Volvo cabin is not hugely different in pure dimension to the X3’s, but it simply feels airier and more practical and durable; that it’s more immediately prepared to accept dogs (not that mine got the opportunity), says much about this brand’s pragmatic approach.
In driving style, these models are competitive, but hardly wholly alike. Volvo’s chassis department says that, though based on the same platform as the XC90, the next-size-down model been tuned for a bit more driver appeal. The truth of that statement will be more apparent when matching those particular models than in comparison with actual rivals. Against the X3, for instance, it was soon apparent the Volvo had a more chilled approach to Munich’s.
This impression of there being a greater kind of ‘go with the flow’ air about it is to some point quite deceptive. Time over, for instance, when taking the cars across to photographer Lewis Gardner’s shoot location, I and a co-opt for helping with the driving, James Craddock (who authors a blog, James Austin Reviews), couldn’t get over how immediate and punchy the D5’s engine was when asked to accelerate through overtaking. Even though it’s the slowest of the three on the 0-100kmh charge, the diesel is simply stronger where it matters most.
I know diesels are falling out of vogue in Europe, and perhaps this might be Volvo’s last to present without some degree of electric assist, but it’s hard to not enjoy the immense, yet quiet mid-rpm oomph that this twin-turbo delivers. That’s thanks to PowerPulse, which uses pressurised air to pre-charge the turbos to prevent lag. You can’t hjelp, too, to feel smug about the obvious benefits it delivers in respect to fuel burn (they cite 5.5L/100km, against 7.1 for the BMW and 7.3 for the T5).
Volvo’s petrol alternate is a decent engine, too, in respect to response and timbre, but it doesn’t have the same delight factor as the diesel or, for that matter, BMW’s rival 2.0-litre, which from get go seemed smoother, more refined and more involving.
Still, even it a R-Design format that presents 21-inch rims and tyres of an equally low profile to those on the 20-inch shod BMW, the Volvo demonstrated no real pretence towards delivering a 'sporting' drive. That’s not to say it doesn’t do away with agility. Yet it simply major on comfort and, again even with those extra-big hoops, delivers it: The suppleness of the ride from the R-Design impressed all.
As with the X3, there’s all the mechanical grip and traction from the standard all-wheel-drive system. Volvo’s electronically controlled air suspension allows for a dedicated off-road programme that elevates the car, alters the gearing to emulate a low range and, for all I know, sends up a distress flare when you get stuck. Who would know and, frankly, who will find out?
The BMW and Jaguar deliver sweet handling, but the Volvo feels much more set up for comfort, although. The adaptive dampers on our car meant it was able to soak up bumps on rough roads fairly well. The steering is lighter than the X3’s but has enough weight to give confidence in placing the car.
It would be a cop out to say that there are no losers here ... but, well, there are no losers.
The R-Design edition is the better-looking of the two XC60s I sampled, but if you had to stop the spend at the Momentum you wouldn’t be buying into anonymity. The X3 is also improved; by diminishing the all-angles awkwardness of the earlier designs, BMW has allowed a real beauty to be revealed. The interiors and equipment levels are also impressive, their technology, too. Volvo majors more on safety, BMW on driver comforts and conveniences.
At the wheel? The X3 is more the driver’s car, no argument, more athletic than most of its kind. It’s the go for sweet-handling fun.
But being more laidback by comparison does not necessarily penalise the Volvo; an XC60 would be the more comfortable choice for a long distance run. And there’s just something about how it acquits in everyday life that also gets under your skin.
Another point to ponder. The BMW is a progression, the Volvo a giant leap. This brand, before Geely, was ‘almost there’ marque; it ticked a lot of boxes, but you always felt the top players gave a more complete, more desirable product.
That’s no longer the case. So, for me, it’s the Volvo by a whisker.