If orange is the new black, then the medium SUV is unquestionably the new Australian family car. And for our ever more affluent nation, the likes of the BMW X3 and Volvo XC60 almost aggressively step up to win over our affections (and wallets).
Both the German and Swedish five-door wagons are brand new-generation models, and they both land here with among the fiercest price and specification listings that have ever been seen from either premium brand.
Tested here are the X3 xDrive30i priced at $75,990 plus on-road costs, and the XC60 T6 R-Design at $76,990 (plus orc). Both are boosted 2.0-litre petrol, eight-speed automatic-equipped offerings that are each out to convince buyers that they are worth 50 per cent more than a flagship Mazda CX-5 in the ‘non premium’ class.
But can the BMW and Volvo justify their premium-ness? And in any case, which makes for the best nouveau family car?
BMW X3 xDrive30i ($75,990 plus on-road costs)
185kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo 4cyl | eight-speed automatic
Fuel use claimed: 7.6L/100km | tested: 11.5L/100km
Volvo XC60 T6 R-Design ($76,990 plus on-road costs)
235kW/400Nm 2.0-litre turbo/supercharged petrol 4cyl | eight-speed automatic
Fuel use claimed: 8.0L/100km | tested: 12.0L/100km
In a case of dimensional tit-for-tat, the BMW measures 20mm longer than its rival, at 4708mm, but its wheelbase is down 1mm, at 2864mm. The X3 is also 18mm taller, at 1676mm, but it’s 11mm narrower, at 1891mm. They really are just a size facsimile.
The to-and-fro continues under the bonnet, because Volvo adds a supercharger to its rival’s turbo to deliver an extra 50kW of power and 50Nm of torque, at 235kW and 400Nm. Yet the XC60 also weighs an extra 196kg, with a portly kerb mass of 1911kg, so its spritely 5.9-second 0-100km/h claim is just four-tenths ahead.
Standard on both xDrive30i and T6 R-Design are active cruise control with lane-keep assistance, blind-spot and rear cross-traffic alerts, auto-park assistance, 360-degree camera, head-up display and LED auto-adaptive high-beam. It’s an impressive list.
Indeed, only options pricing separates them, with the Volvo including 21-inch wheels (versus 20s) and an R-Design bodykit as standard. BMW’s M Sport kit equivalent adds $3800 and further includes adaptive suspension. But the equivalent air suspension option – both versions were fitted here – adds a lesser $2950 to the T6.
The XC60 also gets four-zone climate control to its rival’s tri-zone, plus Apple CarPlay that needs $623 extra on X3. BMW charges $2800 for a Comfort package with 12-speaker audio, front seat heating, front electric lumbar adjustment and ambient lighting, but Volvo includes the latter two items as standard, plus similar 10-speaker audio. And the Swedes then package front seat heating with a panoramic sunroof for just $2500 extra. The Germans? They ask $2950 for a pano roof alone.
Pile the above options into each medium SUV contender and the X3 becomes an $86,073 (plus orc) proposition, well above the XC60 at $82,440 (plus orc). And the Volvo continues to lead with more than just value.
The Swedish cabin boasts plush plastics and sumptuous seats front and rear, as well as – surprisingly – the more intelligent and intuitive infotainment system here. Even the lower part of the dashboard and doors are covered in soft-touch materials, while the centre console is flanked with carpet trim. The driver’s seat is wide yet snug, and is supported by a superbly shapely rear bench that could be borrowed from a limo.
Then there’s the mammoth, portrait-positioned infotainment screen, which boasts the clearest 360-degree camera this tester has ever used, plus a simple yet hardly simplistic interface – with media, nav, phone and CarPlay on the home screen, it’s a matter of simply swiping left or right for options or active safety features that are then only a further button-press away. And the all-colour driver display is all-class as well.
It’s only in the details, and even then only by comparison, that the German contender seems a step behind its rival here. Its stitched-padded upper dashboard and silver controls look premium-proper, as do the centre widescreen and colour driver display.
But further down the cabin the plastics look shiny, while the iDrive infotainment system – once the benchmark for usability – is left looking ergonomically inferior as well as stingy with its optional CarPlay. Why does BMW bury active safety settings behind three layers of sub-menus – for example, you have to click My Vehicle, then Vehicle Settings, then Intelligent Safety – when Volvo asks for a swipe-and-press?
At least the $2000-optional Harman Kardon audio system sounds brilliant, and it’s cheap when the XC60’s equivalent is a $4500-optional Bowers and Wilkins unit; although a Premium pack can bundle the spiffy audio in with air suspension, heated front seats and a pano roof for a $7500 total, which is seemingly pricey until you note that the other kit adds $5500 to the Volvo without the audio anyway (see Overview).
BMW’s standard gesture control and wireless phone charging can somewhat make up for any shortfall, but it’s one that becomes more pronounced further behind in the cabin.
While the xDrive30i’s front seats are similarly snug and generously padded, the rear bench is seemingly modelled off a park bench in terms of its absolutely flat shape. Just look at the pictures – the T6 R-Design boasts far greater legroom, toeroom, as well as a bench that is deeper, plusher, and just plainly better.
In the Volvo, there are also centre console- and B-pillar-mounted air vents, or four vents in total for the quad-zone climate control. It’s difficult to think of sweeter rear accommodation for the price than what this Swede provides.
With a 550-litre boot volume, however, the X3 does offer 45L of extra cargo carrying capacity than the XC60, which is purely down to surplus and handy underfloor storage – with a lid that impressively opens via a gas strut.
It’s a handy practical advantage for what are otherwise two identically square boots with the extra practicality of a 40:20:40 split-fold backrest.
ON THE ROAD
Both the XC60 and X3 are miles ahead of their predecessor models to drive, at least when both are optioned with adaptive suspension, as is the case here.
Even on 21-inch wheels the Volvo is superbly lush yet controlled in its default Comfort mode, although perhaps the greater surprise is that Dynamic mode does an even better job of keeping this bluff SUV body level while being almost as supple.
Thudding from the BMW’s 20-inch wheels is always slightly more noticeable, and there’s more sway and wobble in its Comfort mode than would be ideal. But it’s still really quite good, and it doesn’t turn harsh in its Sport and Sport+ modes either.
Each steering system is also quick enough to ensure hands can be kept at 9-and-3 while weaving through 90-degree turns around town, helping give the impression that these SUVs are more like hatches. The XC60 does, however, again – as with ride quality – find an edge with its resistance-free super-light weighting that proves no barrier to enjoyment. The X3’s steering is a tad muddier, or slightly less natural.
The drivetrains are tough to separate as well, at least initially. Both possess quite a thrusty leap off the line, thanks to a short first gear inside each eight-speed auto, and they sound crisp and free-revving as well. Indeed, only when full acceleration is regularly required does the first major difference between them become obvious.
Irrespective of the performance claims, the T6 R-Design feels much feistier in all situations, particularly through the mid-range and when travelling up a tight mountain pass. Some supercharger whine will delight the ear of enthusiasts, but the four-cylinder 2.0-litre petrol Volvo isn’t quite as subtly refined as the X3 when pressed.
The xDrive30i can sometimes feel breathless – when asking for a quick burst of acceleration or attempting to keep it on the ball up a mountain pass, for example – and that’s a feeling that never occurs in its rival.
On the flipside, the calibration of the auto in Sport+ mode isn’t just flawless for spirited driving – it’s the best non-M calibration of a BMW auto probably ever, with decisive downshifts under brakes and an uncanny intuition to hold then drop revs.
The XC60’s auto in Dynamic is no match for its rival, and nor, frankly, is its dynamics. Even in the firmest air suspension mode it displays significantly more bodyroll and lurching than its rival, while the engine can outrun the limitations of the chassis and test the patience of the Pirelli P Zero tyres. However, back off and don’t treat it like the sports car it isn’t, and there’s fluent fun to be had here, particularly around town.
Yet when allied with brilliant new Bridgestone Alenza tyres, the X3 ultimately grips harder, sits flatter, and feels far more agile and nimble. With the auto being up for spirited driving, it regularly leaves the engine spinning furiously with not a jot more to give (although it slurped 11.5L/100km on-test, a half-litre less than its rival).
To be sure, though, the xDrive30i also lacks the poise and panache of its rear-wheel drive 3 Series wagon equivalent, the 330i Touring, which uses the same engine but is a couple of hundred kilograms lighter. If you don’t need all-wheel drive, it’s the smarter choice because this latest X3 certainly is good … but only for an SUV.
For under $80,000 and loaded with every bit of active safety technology, it’s easy to see why the X3 xDrive30i and XC60 T6 R-Design should be enormously popular. That both can provide a high driving position and all-wheel drive for about the price of a premium wagon should also make a medium SUV a no-brainer.
Except in the BMW’s case it doesn’t. With that park-bench back seat and ultimate lack of a rear room, plus a less convincing value equation than its rival, the X3 is left to hold onto its dynamic advantage as the greatest reason to pick it over an XC60.
But then, frankly, an older but lighter, sweeter, faster and even more fuel efficient 330i Touring still does a much better job of being family car, unless forking out extra for the one-day-we-might-need-it traction benefits of all-wheel drive is your thing.
In the case of the T6 R-Design, it gives clear reasons why a premium medium SUV is worth paying for. The utterly superb seats front and rear, the huge back-seat legroom, the excellent ergonomics, the fun steering and urban handling, plus – on air suspension – that plush ride quality all combine to make for a clear victory here.
Other German rivals are also on notice, because it seems the Australian family car status quo is now not the only thing to have shifted – but rather who leads it has, too.
Volvo XC60 T6 R-Design – 4.0 stars
BMW X3 xDrive30i – 3.5 stars