All the hype at BMW is on the imminent arrival of two landmark cars – the iX and the i4. These are meant to signal to the world that the Bavarians are back in the electric race, after seemingly sitting out the last few years.
Yet there is another all-electric arrival that may get lost in the hype. And that’s a shame for it’s a bit of a star. The iX3 is the all-electric version of BMW’s popular mid-sized crossover. Leaving the electric element to one side for a moment, it’s surprising how the subtle styling revisions have turned this once oddball crossover into a real looker.
The first two generations were wide of the mark. They lacked the rugged muscularity many customers seek in a crossover. It looked like an SUV had swallowed a 3 Series saloon up to the windscreen, but couldn’t stomach any more.
Powered by an 80kWh battery pack mounted beneath the rear seat and under the boot's floor, the iX3 claims to deliver 460km of range on a single full charge
Finally, at the third attempt, in 2017 BMW created a mid-sized SUV that looks the part. It’s a shrunken X5 and in some ways the proportions look better on it that on its larger sibling. The X3 has come of age.
To keep the momentum rolling, now a fully electric version has been added to the mix. Unfortunately, its introduction in July last year coincided with the Covid pandemic. Attention was elsewhere. After nearly a year of waiting, the car is now landing in Irish showrooms, though customers are unlikely to start taking them on the road until next January on 221 registration plates.
By then it will be competing for attention with the brashest and boldest designed BMW SUV, the big-grilled IX. Even the naming similarity will add to the confusion.
It’s a shame, because this is really a great car, both to drive and to use. Powered by an 80kWh battery pack mounted beneath the rear seat and under the boot’s floor, the iX3 claims to deliver 460km of range on a single full charge. In reality that’s closer to a mid-300km range, but you can live with that.
It sacrifices all-wheel drive in favour of a single electric motor on the rear axle, delivering 286bhp and a 0-100km/h time of 6.8 seconds. That looks nice and nippy on paper, but it feels a lot quicker when you are hurtling down the road. Where the iX3’s pace really appeals is in those 60km/h to 80km/h spurts of acceleration you need when overtaking or changing lanes. This car can scoot out of trouble at the flick of the right ankle. It might not match the pace of Volvo’s all-electric XC40 Recharge, but it’s still very impressive.
In the last five years BMW’s electric strategy went awry. With the innovative i3, the German premium car giant was out in front. This small town car was innovative in so many ways, showcasing BMW’s cutting edge engineering. About the same time came the i8 hybrid sports car. We were told a pipeline of electric cars was in place and we’d see a steady stream of new models in the years to come. Then nothing.
In the interim Tesla rolled out an expanded fleet, Mercedes introduced the EQC all-electric crossover, Audi the e-tron and even Volvo and Lexus have all-electric versions of their smaller crossovers now. All that emerged from the three-cylinder towers in Munich was static.
True, we got several plug-in hybrids during this time and in fairness that was where the sales volumes were growing. Electric cars are barely profitable for the manufacturers, so from an accountancy point of view it made sense to sit tight and sacrifice whatever first mover advantage existed.
Whatever the thinking, BMW is finally rolling out some new all-electric models, with the iX and i4. And, of course, this iX3.
Set against the iX, the electric X3 looks a little underwhelming. Here you have the same styling and interior as the regular crossover, save for a few added touches and badges. Your neighbours will only notice it’s electric by the lack of engine noise or seeing you plug it in.
The greatest feature of the iX3 is that it doesn't try too hard to stand out. It's subtle
The iX, on the other hand, makes a very bold statement. From the massive front grille to the completely revamped interior, no one is going to ignore this car. It also delivers a whopping 523bhp, can get from 0-100km/h in as little as 4.6 seconds, has all-wheel drive, and a claimed range of 630km.
Yet there is certainly room on the market for this iX3. For a start, there is going to be a sizeable proportion of car buyers who find the iX styling is just too bold. Others will weigh up the price difference of at least €10,000 between the two cars. Our test car was priced at €71,327 and a well-equipped iX3 Sport starts at €73,215. On the BMW website, the iX xDrive40 starts at €85,515.
Meanwhile, consider the rivals. The smaller XC40 start at €64,315 and the Audi Q4 at €47,800 but if you want a similarly-sized premium crossover then you are looking at €73,515 for the Audi e-tron 50 or €84,155 for the Mercedes-Benz EQC. If you're not hooked on SUV looks, you could also opt for the Jaguar I-Pace starting at €74,940. In terms of driving dynamics, this BMW has the edge, perhaps only topped by the Volvo because of the Swede's impressive performance.
The greatest feature of the iX3 is that it doesn’t try too hard to stand out. It’s subtle. It has a refinement you expect from premium cars, but don’t always get with their electric versions. The engineers have really delivered in terms of wind noise and the usual tyre rumble or whirring sound you get with others.
This car is a pleasure to drive on any mix of Irish roads. The handling is on a par with combustion-engined rivals, thanks in part to the 47:53 front-to-rear weight distribution.
Use the energy recuperation system in high mode and you even get one-pedal driving, whereby the speed drops quickly when you lift off the throttle. There’s also a lovely weighting to the steering that comes into its own on the twistier back roads. You feel confident in where you point the car on the road.
For family practicality you can have little to complain about in this iX3. There’s ample legroom in the front and rear, and a big boot round the back. It will happily haul two adults and three children around all day and lug a full weekly shop.
There's another little twist to the iX3 tale: while the rest of BMW's X cars are built in the firm's plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, this car is built in China. If you have any qualms about that, you can knock them on the head now. Our test car had a fit and finish on a part – if not better – than anything we've driven from the US plant.
Ultimately you may want to make a big statement about your electric move and the iX3 may be too subtle. But, while it might not be the fastest, the most powerful or the most futuristic, this car manages to find a balance that’s well worth a close look if you have the budget and the urge to electric.
BMW iX3: The lowdown
- Power: A 80kWh battery pack powers a 286bhp electric motor on the rear axle
- Range: 450km (WLTP)
- 0-100km/h: 6.2 secs
- Price: €71,328 as tested (iX3 Sport starts at €73,215)
- Verdict: Subtle electric SUV that's surprisingly good to drive and should not be overlooked by premium buyers ready to make the move to electric