Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) are a bridge to the future. Offering enough electric-only driving range to tackle a typical commute combined with a gasoline-fueled engine that takes over when the battery reaches a minimum state of charge, PHEVs allow consumers to sample life with an electric vehicle without any of the perceived compromises associated with them.
For 2020, BMW has a new PHEV for your consideration. It’s the BMW X3 xDrive30e, a compact SUV providing an estimated 18 to 20 miles of electric driving range. After applying the federal income tax credit for this model (up to $5,836) the X3 plug-in is actually the least expensive version of the X3 in the lineup, though you can certainly option one well toward the $70,000 mark.
Other changes for the X3 lineup include new standard LED headlights with cornering lights, Connected Drive services, and navigation with Live Cockpit instrumentation. Ambient cabin lighting and Comfort Access keyless entry and engine starting are offered as stand-alone options this year, and several option packages are modified for 2020.
Photo: Christian Wardlaw
For this review, J.D. Power evaluated a BMW X3 xDrive30e with the M Sport Package, the Executive Package, the Driving Assistance Package, the Driving Assistance Plus Package, the Dynamic Handling Package, metallic paint, 20-inch aluminum wheels with performance run-flat tires, leather seats, acoustic glass, and a Harman Kardon premium sound system. The price came to $65,170, including the $995 destination charge.
What Owners Say…
Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2020 X3, it is helpful to understand who buys this compact premium SUV, and what they like most and least about their vehicles.
According to J.D. Power data, in comparison to owners of all compact premium SUVs, the people who own the BMW X3 are more often male (59% vs. 55%) and in terms of median annual household income they earn substantially more ($181,855 vs. $156,990). Their median age of 58 years, however, is identical to all owners in the segment.
BMW X3 owners are more interested in performance than owners across the segment. J.D. Power data shows that 52% of X3 owners identify as Performance Owners compared to 40% of all compact premium SUV owners. In alignment with this, 69% of BMW X3 owners strongly agree that they like a vehicle that offers responsive handling and powerful acceleration (vs. 56%).
With regard to issues the X3 xDrive30e addresses, the reason for this PHEVs existence is less clear. For example, X3 owners are less likely to agree that a first consideration when choosing a new vehicle is miles per gallon (40% vs. 49%), they’re less likely to agree that they will pay extra for a vehicle that is environmentally friendly (50% vs. 57%), and they’re less likely to agree that they avoid vehicles they think will have high maintenance costs (73% vs. 81%).
Owners say their favorite things about the X3 are (in descending order) the engine/transmission, driving dynamics, exterior styling and interior design (in a tie), and seats. Owners indicate their least favorite things about the X3 are (in descending order) the visibility and safety, infotainment system, storage and space, climate control system, and fuel economy.
In the J.D Power 2019 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, the X3 ranked fifth out of 14 compact premium SUVs.
What Our Expert Says…
In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own perceptions about how the 2020 BMW X3 measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the APEAL Study.
If you like the way modern BMWs look, then you’ll like the way the 2020 BMW X3 looks. Details are in keeping with current company design themes, but the X3’s overall appearance draws a clear line to previous versions of the SUV, which is a good thing.
Photo: Christian Wardlaw
Wisely, aside from a charging port door on the front left fender, BMW doesn’t make the X3 xDrive30e look any different from other examples of the SUV. Frippery like aerodynamic wheel designs, blue or green-tinted emblems, and “hybrid” badges are nowhere to be found.
The same is true on the inside of the X3, which exudes quality and smells delightful with the optional leather. Angular detailing adds a modern, technical sensibility to the dashboard, which, in the BMW idiom, is more businesslike than luxurious.
Photo: Christian Wardlaw
BMW’s delicate balance between form and function is on full display here, the company attempting to make the cabin as useful and practical as possible without overwhelming owners with too many buttons, knobs, and switches. Aside from the lack of a stereo tuning knob, I find the control layout intuitive, but for people new to BMW, there is a steep learning curve.
Roomy for four people, or two adults and three kids, the X3’s seating is comfortable. The test vehicle’s thick, leather-wrapped M Sport steering wheel feels good in a driver’s hands, manually adjustable thigh support extensions make longer trips more comfortable, and the available leather feels both soft and durable.
Standard equipment includes 10-way power adjustable front seats and the test vehicle had both heated front seats and a heated steering wheel. It did not have the available ventilated front seats or heated rear seats.
Rear seat comfort is good, with just enough legroom to allow taller passengers to agree to a longer ride. Separate climate controls with air vents were a hit with my children, and charging ports ensure mobile devices never die.
Climate Control System
Ranking at the bottom of the list of favorite features according to BMW X3 owners, the climate control system is a source of frustration. During testing, Southern California was in the grip of a heat wave with temperatures in the 90s and more humidity in the air than is usual. The X3’s triple-zone automatic climate control system did struggle to properly moderate cabin temperatures.
Used in Auto mode, it simply could not cool the forward part of the cabin effectively, even with the temperature dialed down to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. This forced a switch to Max AC, which, after a bit, transformed the X3 into a freezer. It was hard to find a middle ground, especially when driving into direct afternoon sunlight.
BMW has made big strides with its iDrive infotainment system, in recent years reworking and simplifying the menu structures and center console controller operation. Highlights include a touchscreen with smartphone-style tiles and controls, improvements to the voice recognition technology, and addition of available gesture controls for adjusting volume and changing radio stations.
Though people who are new to BMW might still struggle as they get up to speed with all of the bells and whistles, modern iDrive systems are, ultimately, fairly intuitive to use, which could never be said of the earlier versions of the technology.
As for the test vehicle’s technology, the gesture control function for adjusting volume works fine, but lacks the ability to fine-tune inputs. I doubt it can replace the volume knob anytime soon. Meanwhile, gesture control for changing radio stations is maddening, failing more often than succeeding and simply underscoring the need for the company to add a tuning knob to the dashboard.
The voice recognition system works well, but often had trouble with radio station changes. Also, in the X3, it does not work for the climate control system, as the voice assistant will remind you when you attempt to use it for that purpose. As a special test specific to the xDrive30e, I requested directions to the closest charging station and it quickly complied.
Harman Kardon provides the premium audio experience in the X3, through 16 speakers located throughout the cabin. As you might expect, it sounds impressive but does lack the soaring sonic clarity of components available in more expensive luxury models.
Storage and Space
According to X3 owners, storage and space is among their least favorite things about this BMW. In spite of a good-size glove compartment, a decent-size center console storage bin underneath the armrest, and accommodating door panel bins, the X3 does lack easily accessible storage for things like a smartphone and keys. What little does exist is blocked by the cupholders when they’re in use.
Cargo room measurements are on the generous side of the ledger for the compact SUV segment, measuring 28.7 cubic-feet behind the rear seats and 62.7 cu.-ft. with the rear seats folded down. The X3 xDrive30e’s battery pack does chew into this space a bit, raising the cargo load floor a couple of inches and reducing measurements to 27.2 cu.-ft. and 59.4 cu.-ft., respectively.
Visibility and Safety
With the BMW X3, there is no shortage of standard and available technology designed to improve visibility and safety, and the test vehicle had them all thanks to its Driving Assistance and Driving Assistance Plus option packages.
Starting with visibility, the surround-view camera system with 3D view capability is terrific and the head-up display is useful unless you drive while wearing polarized sunglasses. They render the information shown invisible. If you want to use the Parking Assistant Plus technology to help slide the X3 into an open space, it works only for parallel parking situations.
The X3’s advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) worked beautifully, operating with precision and subtlety. The active lane keeping assistance system does not have much patience for drivers who let go of the steering wheel, though, quickly requesting resolution of the situation. I also know from past experience that this technology will take sudden and definitive action to correct course when necessary.
When the X3 arrived, I turned on all of its safety systems. However, the first time I backed out of my angled driveway it was clear that the reverse automatic braking function would need to be turned off. The parking sensors are extremely sensitive, and on my first attempt to leave home in the X3 the SUV slammed on the brakes not just once but twice as I attempted to reverse onto the street.
To create the new X3 xDrive30e, BMW pairs a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine with an integrated electric motor, a 12 kWh lithium-ion battery pack, and an 8-speed sport automatic transmission with paddle shifters. All-wheel drive is standard equipment, and the battery easily recharges in about six hours using a standard household outlet. A special charging station is not required.
Together, these components produce 288 horsepower and 310 lb.-ft. of torque, 40 more horses and 52 extra lb.-ft. over the X3 xDrive30i. Acceleration to 60 mph takes 5.9 seconds, according to BMW, which is a tick faster than a standard X3.
Operating solely on electricity, the electric motor provides 107 hp and 265 lb.-ft., the torque available the moment the driver presses on the accelerator right up to 3,170 rpm. This means the X3 won’t win any drag races against a Tesla, much less a Hyundai Kona Electric, but plug-in hybrids typically trade outright power and acceleration for the convenience of both gas and electric propulsion.
EcoPro, Comfort, Sport, Sport Plus, and Individual driving modes are available. Additionally, drivers choose between Max eDrive (defaults to electric driving as much as is possible), Auto eDrive (varies use of electricity and gas to maximize overall efficiency), and Battery Control (reserves battery power for driving situations that require electricity, such as the urban congestion zones common in Europe).
During testing, I found Auto eDrive to be the most satisfying. In this setting, the X3 retains maximum performance capability while effortlessly returning good fuel economy. Sport mode sharpens powertrain response and is appropriate for more enthusiastic driving situations or to tighten up the X3’s ride and handling qualities.
To test the X3 xDrive30e’s efficiency, I assessed the SUV in three different driving scenarios.
To see how far the X3 travels just on electricity, I left home in Max eDrive mode with 19 miles of indicated range and drove a suburban loop with little in the way of elevation change. While driving normally but with an eye toward maximizing range, the X3 xDrive30e traveled 18.9 miles on a single charge before the gas engine turned on.
To measure fuel economy while driving with an uncharged battery, I left home without any indicated battery charge but with the X3 in Max eDrive mode. That way, as brake energy regeneration added battery charge along the route, the X3 would automatically use it when possible. Switching between Comfort, Sport, and Sport Plus driving modes, the X3 plug-in averaged 21.2 mpg, coming up short of the EPA estimate of 24 mpg.
Finally, using Auto eDrive and leaving home with a full battery charge, the X3 xDrive30e averaged 34.3 mpg over a short 13.4-mile loop of mixed driving conditions. On this route, 6.7 of the miles traveled were on electricity.
Adding 545 pounds of weight to the X3, the xDrive30e’s battery pack and integrated electric motor have the potential to destroy this BMW’s ride and handling qualities, but that’s not the case here.
Weight distribution shifts to the rear, with 52.4% of the xDrive30e’s 4,586 pounds sitting over the rear axle (vs. 50.9% of 4,041 lbs. for a standard X3). Also, because the added weight sits low in the SUV’s chassis, the center of gravity is also reduced to a small degree.
From the driver’s seat, you can feel the extra weight. In Comfort mode, and with the test vehicle’s optional 20-inch wheels and run-flat tires, hints of wobble and float combine with subtle impact harshness in a slightly unsettling way. In most driving situations, however, the X3 xDrive30e is agreeable to drive, demonstrating the communicative feel and athletic response for which BMW is known.
This is especially true when you switch into the Sport or Sport Plus modes. And the test vehicle’s optional Driving Dynamics package gave the X3 plug-in serious capabilities on the twisty roads laced across the Santa Monica Mountains. This upgrade includes Performance Control (torque vectoring), M Sport brakes with larger discs and performance brake pads and blue-painted calipers, and variable sport steering.
In fact, over one big whoop on the testing loop the suspension expertly managed the xDrive30e’s weight, unlike many electrified models I’ve run on the same route.
If you decide to buy a BMW X3 xDrive30e, the base price is $49,545 including a destination charge of $995. That’s $4,600 more than the X3 xDrive30i. However, assuming you have a tax liability exceeding it, this vehicle qualifies for a federal income tax credit of up to $5,836, potentially making the X3 plug-in the least expensive X3 xDrive model you can buy.
Given that only half of X3 owners agree that they’re willing to pay extra for a vehicle that is environmentally friendly, this strategy is smart. And when you live with the X3 xDrive30e, aside from negligible impact of the added weight on the ride and handling, as well as the slight reduction in cargo capacity, there are no compromises to be made over a standard X3.
In fact, making fewer stops at gas stations might just be well worth any trade-offs.
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