BMW’s new X3 SUV will have to be outstanding to beat the class-leading Audi Q5 and Land Rover’s Discovery Sport. Let’s see if it is
*** Note : £1 = $1.36 (correct at time of post)
Audi Q5 2.0 TDI quattro S line S tronic
- List price £41,085
- Target Price £38,673
The one to beat, with a fine combination of practicality, comfort and quality.
BMW X3 xDrive20d M Sport
- List price £41,380
- Target Price £40,673
Latest incarnation of the X3 is lighter and more efficient than before, with more technology.
Land Rover Discovery Sport 2.0 SD4 HSE
- List price £44,095
- Target Price £41,591
The oldest car here but far from long in the tooth. Now has a punchier diesel engine, too.
There’s a phenomenon on the big and small screen called X-Men. If you haven’t got a clue what we’re on about, it’s a franchise based on Marvel Comics characters. It’s popular, too; the last movie grossed more than half a billion dollars. The protagonists are all mutants with superhero powers – which leads us neatly on to the phenomenon of SUVs and the new BMW X3.
It’s based on the 3 Series. But being longer, taller and wider than BMW’s popular executive saloon makes the X3 a bit of a mutant, too, begging the question: does it have any superpowers? Well, it’s lighter, more efficient and bristling with new technology compared with the previous X3, but is that talent enough to make it a hero?
The latest Audi Q5 is a tough opponent. Introduced earlier this year and based on the A4 (but longer, taller, wider… you know the drill), the Q5’s blend of space, refinement, interior quality and ride comfort makes it the current go-to premium SUV for anyone with around £40,000 to spend.
And don’t forget the manufacturer at the vanguard of this premium SUV caper: Land Rover. The Discovery Sport isn’t based on a saloon, and its firepower is enhanced by a powerful new diesel engine. Being the only one of our trio with a super-practical tally of seven seats, it shouldn’t be ruled out.
Driving – Performance, ride, handling, refinement
With Land Rover’s 178bhp 2.0-litre diesel engine fitted, we’ve often grumbled about the Discovery Sport’s performance; ‘just about adequate but well behind rivals’ sums it up. With 237bhp, this new twin-turbocharged 2.0-litre engine addresses that problem splendidly. Sure, the nine-speed automatic gearbox’s hesitancy when pulling away from traffic lights or onto a roundabout neuters it at times, but the engine delivers plenty of punch once you’re up and running.
In fact, this unit’s extra 50bhp over the 187bhp 2.0-litre diesel engines in both the Q5 and X3 makes the Discovery Sport the quickest car here. The difference isn’t like night and day, though; while the Discovery Sport will sprint from 0-60mph in 7.9sec, the Q5 is just 0.1sec behind and the X3 the same again after that. The disparity in rolling acceleration from 30-70mph is slightly more significant, with the Q5 and X3 trailing the Discovery Sport by 0.3sec and 0.5sec respectively. But in truth, all three cars can whizz you down the motorway in a stress-free manner and are plenty gutsy enough to nip past dawdling Sunday drivers on a B-road.
We’ve already mentioned the Discovery Sport’s dim-witted gearbox, but it isn’t the only car here with foibles in that department. The Q5, which uses a seven-speed dual-clutch ’box (rather than the traditional automatics in the others), is a bit jerky in stop-start traffic and at parking speeds. Like the Discovery Sport’s, it changes smoothly once the car is on the move, though.
By contrast, the eight-speed automatic in the X3 is a gem. Smoother than the Q5’s at slow speeds and more responsive than the Discovery Sport’s when pulling out of junctions, it’s hard to fault. All three give you the flexibility to change gear manually by pulling paddles behind the steering wheel, in which mode the Q5 responds the most snappily.
Overall, the Q5 is the most cultured car here. Its engine is easily the quietest, it has by far the least wind noise – at most, you hear a light flutter at speed from over the door mirrors – and it is typically deathly quiet in terms of road noise. Over coarse surfaces, its tyres peak with more drone than the X3’s, though.
The X3 runs the Q5 closest for serenity inside, but it suffers with a bit more wind bluster from its door mirrors and its engine is definitely grumblier. That’s true at tickover or when accelerating, at which point you hear whistling from its turbocharger as well.
Both the Germans demonstrably outclass the Brit for refinement, though. The Discovery Sport’s engine is the most grumbly and there’s a lot more wind and road noise at cruising speeds.
While the Q5 will tow the most (2400kg, versus 2200kg and 2000kg for the Discovery Sport and X3 respectively), the Land Rover can handle off-road terrain with the greatest aplomb. To help you in the rough stuff, all three cars have four-wheel drive and hill descent control, but Land Rover’s system is more advanced, while its Terrain Response feature lets you optimise the four-wheel drive system for different surfaces, such as grass, gravel or snow. The Discovery Sport has the most ground clearance, too.
What about on-road handling? Well, the Discovery Sport’s fluid, accurate and nicely weighted steering is its highlight – the best here, actually. There’s less finesse elsewhere, though. It’s certainly surefooted, but it leans the most acutely through corners and runs out of grip soonest, being the tallest and heaviest car here.
The X3 is the opposite; by SUV standards, it’s quite fun to drive. Initially, the steering’s weight feels slightly inconsistent (our car had the £190 optional variable sport steering), but you quickly overlook this when you discover how balanced and relatively playful the X3 is along a country road.
And the Q5? Try threading it along a back road and it’s arguably less enjoyable than the X3, but that’s really because it’s so well sorted. It has the largest reserves of grip and composure, so even when scything through an S-bend at speed, it remains the most stable. Its steering is the slowest, so you need to apply quite a lot of lock to get around tight corners, but once you do, the front end bites hardest.
Despite riding on big, optional 20in alloy wheels (£900), our Q5 was also supremely comfortable – easily the best-riding of the three. Its pillowy ride can be put down to the optional adaptive dampers fitted (the no-cost optional sport suspension is noticeably firmer). When switched to Comfort mode, the adaptive set-up soothes you across rippled motorways and general road scars. True, in town it thuds a bit over cavernous potholes, but it never jars.
Here’s the snag: Audi has now deleted this suspension option. So, if you value ride comfort highly, we’d steer you towards the pricier (£2000) air suspension instead. This rewards you by ramping up the cosseting another notch, making the Q5 one of the most comfortable cars in any class.
Also upgraded with adaptive dampers (£460) but on smaller, 19in wheels, the X3 rides pretty well most of the time, too, although not nearly as consistently as the Q5. It copes with most lumps and bumps ably but bobs up and down over dimpled surfaces at times.
Still, it’s better than the Discovery Sport. Despite also being on optional (£840) adaptive suspension, it displays the same fidget as the X3 but with more fl ex in its chassis, spawning a disruptive shimmy through the body as well. It’s also bounciest over undulations and will crash and bang over speed bumps unless you slow right down, whereas the other two waft. However, its ride, despite being the least well resolved, is rarely uncomfortable.
Behind the wheel – Driving position, visibility, build quality
It’s wonderful to find positives in life, so it’s our pleasure to report on three restful, easily adjustable driving positions. Each of our contenders gets a wide array of seat adjustments; you have to make most of the adjustments manually on the Q5, but its seat has an extendable squab that you can angle to provide added thigh support, as well as four-way electric lumbar support.
In the X3, a manually adjustable driver’s seat with an extendable squab is also standard, but adjustable lumbar support costs £210 extra. However, our X3 had optional (£830) electric seat adjustment. In the Discovery Sport, a 10-way electrically adjustable driver’s seat and lumbar support are standard. When looking to split hairs, this earns it the nod from us.
All have good relationships between their seats, pedals and height and reach-adjustable steering wheels, so you’re aligned naturally when you’re at their helms. Their wide central and door armrests also let you rest contentedly as the hours at the wheel fly by.
The Discovery Sport has the fattest windscreen pillars, slightly hindering visibility through tight corners, but it also has the loftiest seating position of the three. All come with sizeable door mirrors to let you see what’s drawing up alongside, plus standard front and rear parking sensors. A rear-view camera is standard on the Discovery Sport and X3 and a £450 option on the Q5 – handy when backing into snug spaces.
What about quality? After all, these are premium SUVs, so you expect higher standards than in cheaper cars with less sought-after badges. Certainly, you get the plushness you deserve in the Q5. It has the classiest interior, and not just because the materials look and feel great, with squishy plastics on key touch points and aluminium trim to add some extra zest. It’s the details that set it apart, such as the way the switches function; they click so satisfyingly that you’d be forgiven for thinking they’ve been made by Rolex.
Again, you get real aluminium trim in the X3 and the rich-looking plastics on all the key surfaces are bang on the money. It’s just behind the Q5 for fit and finish, but not by enough to drop it a star.
Finally, the Discovery Sport. Now, it’s the oldest car here and feels the most utilitarian, but that’s in keeping with the brand’s rugged image. Does that make it less plush inside? Yes, especially when you notice a few more brittle-looking plastics around the infotainment screen, but it’s still robustly screwed together.
The standard 7.0in screen is operated by a rotary controller by the gear selector. It’s dead easy, with slick, intuitive menus and dynamic route guidance, which takes traffic into account. The optional £1395 Technology Pack adds an 8.3in screen (pictured) and a touchpad for entering addresses with your finger. You also get wireless smartphone charging and high-speed internet access. The standard subwoofer-equipped hi-fi sounds decent, too.
BMW’s latest iDrive software in top-spec Professional guise is standard with M Sport trim. Operated via a rotary controller (which incorporates handwriting recognition as well) or the high-definition, wide-aspect touchscreen, it’s a breeze to get to grips with. You can even add gesture control (£190), to operate it using midair hand movements, and a concierge service (£240), while online services are standard. The punchy-sounding stereo should please most listeners.
Land Rover Discovery Sport
The Discovery Sport’s standard infotainment is easily the worst here. Its 8.0in screen offers the least clarity, it’s slow to respond to inputs and, being touch-operated only with small icons, it’s the most distracting to use. The upgraded system (pictured) is more responsive and has a 10.0in screen, but it’s still not as good as the others and costs £2245. That does include an 825W, 16-speaker sound system, although the standard 380W system is pretty good already.
Space and practicality – Front space, rear space, seating flexibility, boot
Unless you’re nudging past six and a half feet tall, you’ll fit easily in the front of any of these cars. Being the only car here with a standard panoramic roof, the Discovery Sport has the least head room, and its front seats don’t slide back as far as the others’. But even so, it’s still generously proportioned. Storage is good across the board, with each car offering decent-sized gloveboxes and door bins, plus cupholders and oddment cubbies.
Move to the rear seats and some variance creeps in. The Q5 is a fraction better for leg room and the X3 for head room, but both are more than spacious enough for two six-footers. Meanwhile, the Discovery Sport has noticeably more rear leg room than the others and, along with the Q5, has the joint-widest rear seat area. A tall central tunnel in the Q5 limits foot space for the middle passenger, though, so the mere pimple-like hump in the Discovery Sport’s floor makes it the best for carrying three in the back.
The rear seats in the Q5 are fixed as standard, but for the palatable price of £350 you can swap them for sliding and reclining rear seats – a real boon for rear passenger comfort or augmenting boot space. You can’t have a sliding rear bench in the X3, but you can add reclining seatbacks for £110. Both of these useful features are standard in the Discovery Sport.
It’s the only one with seven seats, too. They’re really suitable only for carrying children, or average-sized adults on short hops, but there’s no denying that they’re extremely useful to have.
The Q5 has the biggest boot, but not by much. True, it took nine carry-on suitcases to the others’ eight, but only after a diligent game of Tetris. And with their eight cases on board, the others still had a bit of room to spare.
Both the Q5 and X3 come with 40/20/40 split-folding rear seats. The Discovery Sport has a less flexible 60/40 split, but all three have handy rear seat release points just inside their electric tailgates. These are in the form of manual levers in the X3 and Q5 and electric buttons in the Discovery Sport. With their rear seatbacks lowered, three fl at load floors greet you, making it a cinch to slide long, heavy items into all our of cars.
Q5 has the most front head room and more than enough leg room. Rear leg and head room are fine too, but the high central tunnel is most limiting for the middle passenger. It’s worth adding the £350 sliding/reclining rear seat option.
There’s a small lip to lift items over, but Q5’s boot is marginally the biggest here, taking one more case than the others. As with its rivals, a powered tailgate is standard.
- Boot 550-1550 litres
- Suitcases 9
X3 has the most leg room up front, plus plenty of head room. Rear space is similar to that in the Q5, but you can’t add sliding rear seats – only reclining seatbacks. The shape of the rear seats make the X3 the least comfy for three, too.
The X3 is the only car here with decent under floor storage. The 40/20/40 split-folding seats can be released by handy levers in the boot (as with the others).
- Boot 550-1600 litres
- Suitcases 8
Land Rover Discovery Sport
Front seats don’t go quite as far back as the others’ and panoramic roof reduces head room, yet tall people still t easily. Small floor hump and wide rear seat area make it the best for three abreast; sliding/reclining rear seats are standard.
Like the X3, there’s no load lip and space for eight suitcases, as long as the third-row seats are folded at. The second-row seats split only 60/40, though.
- Boot 154-479-1698 litres
- Suitcases 8
Buying and owning – Costs, equipment, reliability, safety and security
If you’re buying outright, the Q5 is cheapest, both on list price and after discounts, followed closely by the X3, with the Discovery Sport being about £3000 more. Factor in depreciation and the Q5 pulls out a bigger advantage, holding on to significantly more of its value than its rivals after three years.
If you are a PCP finance buyer, the X3 and Discovery Sport achieve parity at £608 per month each (see our table for terms), while the Q5 is way cheaper at £530.
Company car drivers will find the Q5 costs the least in benefit-in-kind (BIK) tax, but not by a lot compared with the X3 over three years. In contrast, the relatively high CO2 output of the Discovery Sport means a big BIK penalty. It will use the most fuel, too.
The Discovery Sport helps to justify its higher price by being the most well equipped (see panel below for details), but the other two aren’t exactly spartan.
All three cars have a five-star safety rating from Euro NCAP, with little to distinguish them in the test’s individual categories. Each comes with automatic emergency braking and an SOS emergency call function. Only the Discovery Sport has lane departure warning, while additional aids, such as lane-keeping assist, blindspot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert and traffic sign recognition, are options to consider on all.
At the start, we said the Q5 is this class’s current hero, and that remains the case. Its individual star ratings tell the story: it’s either good or outstanding in every area, with no real weaknesses. Looking at the highlights, it’s roomy, beautifully made, refined and, if you tick the air suspension option, super-comfortable. On top of that, it’s the most affordable to buy and run.
Despite playing a good hand, the new X3 doesn’t quite bring home the spoils, then. It’s very good in many areas, has a top-notch infotainment system and is the most enjoyable to drive. If only it were a little cheaper, particularly on PCP finance, it would be painfully close.
And far from a distant third, this punchy twin-turbo version of the Discovery Sportis the best yet; it’s just a shame its extra poke comes at such a high price. It’s a great SUV, too, with seven-seat practicality and genuine off-road ability, but it isn’t quite as tidy on the road as these rivals.
1st – Audi Q5
- For Smoothest engine; classiest interior; tidy handling; comfiest ride; biggest boot
- Against Gearbox jerky in traffic; many options part of pricey packs
- Recommended options Air suspension (£2000), Technology Pack (£1395)
Specifications: Audi Q5 2.0 TDI S line S tronic
- Engine size 4cyl, 1968cc, diesel
- List price £41,085
- Target Price £38,673
- Power 187bhp @ 3800-4200rpm
- Torque 295Ib ft @ 1750-3000rpm
- Gearbox 7-spd dual-clutch automatic
- 0-60mph 8.0sec
- Top speed 135mph
- Gov’t fuel economy 56.4mpg
- True MPG 41.0mpg
- CO2 emissions 133g/km
2nd – BMW X3
- For Smart interior; rewarding handling; superb infotainment; cheapest to lease; smooth gearbox
- Against Pricey PCP finance; slightly grumbly engine
- Recommended options Adaptive dampers (£460), Technology Pack (£1295)
Specifications: BMW X3 xDrive20d M Sport
- Engine size 4cyl, 1995cc, diesel
- List price £41,380
- Target Price £40,673
- Power 187bhp @ 4000rpm
- Torque 295Ib ft @ 1750-2500rpm
- Gearbox 8-spd automatic
- 0-60mph 8.1sec
- Top speed 132mph
- Gov’t fuel economy 54.3mpg
- True MPG n/a
- CO2 emissions 138g/km
3rd – Land Rover Discovery Sport
- For Seven seats; most rear leg room; well equipped; strong performance; sweet steering
- Against Least composed ride; gruff engine; hesitant gearbox; high running costs
- Recommended options Adaptive cruise control (£1245)
Specifications: Land Rover Discovery Sport 2.0 SD4 HSE
- Engine size 4cyl, 1999cc, diesel
- List price £44,095
- Target Price £41,591
- Power 237bhp @ 4000rpm
- Torque 369Ib ft @ 1500rpm
- Gearbox 9-spd automatic
- 0-60mph 7.9sec
- Top speed 127mph
- Gov’t fuel economy 44.1mpg
- True MPG n/a
- CO2 emissions 169g/km