BMW X3 VS Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class
- Clever tech now trickling down
- Quiet and spacious cabin
- Dynamic enough to dispose of twisting tarmac
- Smaller diesel engine lacks overtaking punch
- Wince-worthy option list
- Full phone integration will cost you
- Better in every way than the A45
- Terrific front seats
- Relatively restrained looks
- Expensive servicing
- Some interior bits are cheap
- Getting old
If SUVs were a horror movie, they'd have to be the 1958 cult-classic The Blob: a drive-in special that told the story of a shapeless mass that grows and grows, eventually consuming everything in its path. A bit like James Packer, then.
But also a bit like BMW's range of X-stamped SUVs. Take the X3, for example, which has slowly but relentlessly grown over the past 15 years, so much so that this all-new, third-generation model is now bigger in every key dimension than the original BMW X5.
Which means the X5 has also grown, which means the X6 has grown, which means the... well, you get the idea. If current trends continue, we won't be so much driving the next generation of X cars as we will be moving into them.
But unlike that cinematic tale, the X3's new and bigger dimensions have a happy ending, especially for riders lounging about in the really very spacious backseat. And there is more good stuff going on for this major update, too.
It's got a new and more muscular design penned by crayon-wielding Aussie ace Calvin Luk, and it's loaded with clever technology (including BMW's latest autonomous technology) pilfered from the new 5 series.
So how does the new X3 measure up.
|Engine Type||2.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
Buuuuuuuur, parp, buuuuuuuuuuuur, parp. Anyone who knows anything about cars immediately recognises the sound of a 45-engined A-class derivative. It's the sound you hear in a tunnel as old mate blasts past with a giant carbon-fibre wing atop his hatchback. It's the sound you hear at 3:00am on a summer morning (if your suburb has no speed bumps, of course).
Sure, the GLA compact SUV is probably a slightly unexpected source of all that noise. But then, Merc's Ingolstadt rivals stuffed Audi's stupendous five-cylinder engine into a Q3 to make the hugely improbable RSQ3, so why not do the same with their skirts-lifted A-Class?
To be honest, my expectations for this car were low. So do I owe Mercedes a grovelling apology? Or can I still claim the moral high ground after a week of GLA 45 "ownership"?
|Engine Type||2.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
The X3 is a hugely important model for BMW, and one that was starting to be left behind by rival models from Mercedes-Benz and Audi. But this third-gen model levels the playing field once more, and launches the X3 straight back into the fray with the segment's best.
For our money, the xDrive30d is the pick of the bunch, serving up effortless performance in a comfortable, quiet and practical package.
Would you choose the new BMW X3 over a Mercedes-Benz GLC or Audi Q5? Tell us in the comments section below.
My wonderful wife, who is not really into this kind of car, admitted to me in a quiet voice that she really liked the GLA45 as long as it was in Sport + mode. And I have to agree. While I'm very fond of the ridiculous Audi RSQ3 (that turbo five-cylinder sounds amazing), I think I'd stump up the extra for the GLA.
Importantly, it can be comfortable, it can be quiet and it's a better fit for most humans than the A or CLA. It is getting on a bit and could do with a further clean-out of the poor ergonomics, but in what is likely its final year on sale, it's still a belter.
Has Peter finally lost it? Can the GLA45 be the best of the A-side 45 trio? Tell us what you think in the comments below.
The X3's exterior was designed by Australian Calvin Luk, who was tasked with making it "sportier, tougher and bolder" than the outgoing model. And while, to our untrained eyes, the changes don't seem quite as extreme as Calvin insists they are, there's no doubting the X3 cuts a handsome figure on the road.
Viewed front-on, that traditional kidney grille has been raised to give it a more proud look out front, and it flows into a bonnet lined with new and defined creases carved front-to-back toward the windscreen. Muscular arches, roof rails and a razor-sharp body crease add attitude to the side profile, while at the back, a more tapered rear end is framed by a hint of rubber from the rear tyres.
Inside, the materials and layout are taken straight from the BMW playbook, but there's been a technology overhaul, albeit one that's more obvious on the more expensive models, with wireless phone charging, an updated touch screen and, on the 30i and 30d, a new digital driver's binnacle.
So evolution over revolution inside, but the cabin exudes a predictably premium feel no matter the trim.
The GLA45 isn't a looker, but then, none of the GLAs are. There's a certain blobbiness to it. A bit of Teletubby mixed with...um, another Teletubby. It's not ugly, it's just not particularly attractive. The 20-inch wheels do much to lift the appearance and negate the effect of the raised ride height compared to the A45/CLA45.
The body kit stops just short of lairy, which is heartening. So if you want to stand out, venture out into the aftermarket world.
Inside was a mild surprise. The last time I drove a CLA 45 I used the word "gaudy". While the GLA isn't amazingly better, the texture of the Alcantara replacing the brushed metal-look plastic, or the carbon of the option pack, was much more pleasant. The brightwork in the cabin is still a bit odd looking, and it's still overcooked with its red detailing, but it is an otherwise beautifully built and well-detailed interior.
At 4708mm long, 1891mm wide and 1676mm high, this third-generation X3 is bigger than the original X5 (which was 4666mm long, and 1872mm wide), and all those those extra millimetres start making sense once you climb into the cabin.
Up front, every X3 feels spacious, with lots of headroom and, with electric front seats standard on every trim level, plenty of options to get comfortable. There are two cupholders that seperate the front seats (joining the two in the pull-down divider in the backseat), and there's room for a 1L bottle in each of the four doors. Up-front riders also share two USB ports, as well as a wireless charging pad for compatible phones.
Climb into the backseat and you'll find plenty more space on offer. There was more than enough clear-air between my knees and the seat in front when sitting behind my own (5ft10inch) driving position, and impressive headroom, even with the optional sunroof fitted.
Elsewhere in the back, three-zone climate is standard across the X3 range, so backseat riders get both vents and temperature controls, and there's a 12-volt power source, too - no USBs, though. There's also two ISOFIX attachment points in the back, and a third top-tether point in the middle seat, so you can squeeze three child seats across the back.
The boot serves up 550 litres with the 40:20:40 split-fold rear seat in place, but should you drop them via the boot-mounted levers, that number grows to 1600 litres. There are some cool touches in the boot, too, like a hidden storage area under a partition in the boot, the lid for which is held open by a gas strut that makes loading easier. That extra space is also big enough to store the boot cover.
The front seats are utterly brilliant and feel as good as they look. On first acquaintance they may feel under-padded, but once you've adjusted them to your liking, you never want to leave. The AMG cars also feature one vast improvement over a normal GLA - the ergonomic disaster of a column-mounted shifter is removed, with a console-mounted shifter added where a small cubby once lived. It's so much better, although the Park button is oddly difficult to press.
When luxuriating in those snug front seats, you'll have access to two cupholders and door-mounted bottle holders, as well as a console bin (where the USB ports are) and a tray under the climate controls. Rear seat passengers will find legroom tight but headroom good, even with the huge sunroof.
The GLA's boot holds an entirely reasonable 421 litres, rising to 1235 when you drop both rear seats.
Price and features
The BMW X3 range arrives in three flavours, the diesel-powered xDrive20d ($68,900), the petrol-pumping BMW xDrive30i ($75,900), and the biggest - and best - diesel option, the xDrive30d ($83,900). They'll be joined by the smallest petrol model, the xDrive20i, and the go-fast and enticing-sounding M40i version, both of which will touch down next year.
For now, though, the cheapest way into the X3 range wears the xDrive20d badging, and your investment will earn you 19-inch alloys, roof rails and LED headlights outside, while in the cabin you'll find part-leather-trimmed seats, a leather-lined steering wheel, a colour head-up display, navigation and a wireless charge pad for compatible phones. You'll also get three-zone climate control and a 6.5-inch touchscreen that pairs with a six-speaker stereo.
Step up to either the 30i or 30d (both are identically equipped), and you'll add 20-inch alloys, full leather seats, a bigger 10.25-inch touchscreen running the latest iDrive system, and another 12-inch digital display that replaces the traditional gauges in the driver's binnacle.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto remain a cost option, with the clever wireless version of the system yours for $623, and you might want to spring for the 16-speaker harman/kardon stereo (another $2000), too. Both of which should really be standard on the more expensive models.
The GLA 45 lightens your wallet by no less than $89,211 - more than double the GLA 180 front-wheel drive, and about $5000 more than the bonkers (and ancient) RS Q3.
Packed into the GLA's kit bag are 20-inch alloy wheels, a 12-speaker stereo, dual-zone climate control, comprehensive safety gear, reversing camera, keyless entry and start, front and rear parking sensors, electric and heated front seats, sat nav, auto LED headlights, auto wipers, leather trim (some real, some not), auto parking, powered and heated folding mirrors, a massive sunroof and dynamic dampers. There's no spare tyre, just a tyre-repair kit.
The multimedia system is Mercedes' COMAND unit and it is as user-unfriendly as ever. It does, however, power a very decent stereo, and also offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Thankfully our car was bereft of both the carbon-fibre package ($990) and the aerodynamics package ($1990).
Engine & trans
The xDrive20d kicks off proceedings with its 2.0-litre, four-cylinder diesel engine good for 140kW and 400Nm. It pairs with an eight-speed automatic that shuffles its power to all four wheels. The combination will serve up a 8.0sec sprint to 100km/h (though it doesn't feel that fast).
Step up to the petrol-powered xDrive30i, and you'll find a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder unit nestled under the bonnet, producing 185kW and 350Nm, which is paired with an eight-speed "sport" automatic. It too sends its power to all four wheels, and will trim the sprint to 100km/h down to 6.3sec.
But our pick of the current-engine bunch is the xDrive30d, which makes use of a six-cylinder diesel engine good for 195kW and 620Nm. It pairs with the same eight-speed "sport" automatic as the 30i, but produces a sharper sprint to 100km/h of 5.8sec.
AMG's fabled 2.0-litre turbo four lurks under that higher bonnet, still kicking out an improbable 280kW and 475Nm. Drive reaches the road via Merc's own seven-speed twin-clutch transmission and all four of its wheels.
All that power and grip translates to a 4.4-second dash to 100km/h for the slightly tubby (over 1600kg) GLA, but just between you and me, anything under five seconds feels scorchingly quick.
The petrol variant - the xDrive30i - sees fuel use climb to a claimed/combined 7.6L/100km, with emissions a claimed 174g/km. Finally, the biggest diesel should return 6.0L/100km (claimed/combined) and 159g/km of C02.
Fuel tank size is 60, 65 and 68 litres respectively.
The official combined-cycle figure suggests the GLA45 will consume 7.5L/100km. Obviously that figure is largely irrelevant, and not just for the usual reasons, but because you don't buy a GLA45 to potter about in. I got, uh, 12.5L/100km, so you can imagine how much I was enjoying it.
As you might expect, you'll need to feed it 98RON.
It's actually pretty hard to go too far wrong in the premium mid-size SUV market at the moment, with the other Germans especially kicking all sorts of goals. And happily for BMW, this new X3 is packing the right skillset to launch right into the thick of that field.
We spent the bulk of our time in the biggest diesel, the xDrive30d, and it's so impressively smooth, quiet and effortless in its acceleration that you can genuinely forget you're driving a diesel at all. The smaller diesel lacks the outright punch to overtake quickly and cleanly, and is probably better suited to city life, and while the sole petrol option improves matters, its the rich stream of torque on offer from the big six-cylinder diesel makes it our pick of the bunch.
The eight-speed transmission is a treat, too; silky smooth in its changes, and quick enough to feel near-enough telepathic when you plant your right foot.
Plenty of work has gone into improving the ride, handling and NVH, or in other words, how quiet and cosseting the interior is, and even on loud road surfaces the cabin is impressively quiet, and the standard suspension strikes a handy balance of supple and sporty, so much so that, even on the twisting stretches of tarmac, there's seemingly no need to lean on the optional adaptive dampers (leaving a handy $1900 in your pocket).
But the big news in the cabin is the adoption of BMW's Driving Assistant Plus (BMW's autonomous technology) as standard on the 30i and 30d, meaning you can drive hands-free for up to 40 seconds. It's not infallible, of course, and will only work consistently when there's clear road markings, but it's a very handy safety net.
When the 45-badged cars first launched, they were something of a revelation. BMW's turbo six-cylinder fans sniffed at the 2.0-litre's staggering outputs and all-wheel-drive chassis, but this car really captured the imagination. The GLA45 might be slightly unexpected, but it's better in almost every way as a daily driver than the A or CLA.
For a start, its higher ride height seems to translate to a much better ride quality. Anything on 20-inch wheels should have an appalling ride, but the GLA45 manages to be firm yet comfortable. Put the other two in Race mode and you'll need to up your private health insurance extras to include osteo, physio and whatever "o"-ending specialist fixes your back.
The improved ride quality meant I was far happier to chuck this car around. While it doesn't have the same ultimate overall performance of the lower cars, it's far more comfortable whether you're on it or just driving around. The front seats are supportive and comfortable, and the steering is excellent.
As for the engine...well, it still farts like toddler during a moment of silence at a funeral, but you can't deny its technical brilliance and huge power outputs. I remember the CLA45's engine as being a bit highly strung. Perhaps I couldn't separate the overall high-strung nature of the car from the engine, but I felt the same engine in this car wasn't as jumpy.
The way it propels this car into triple figures is tremendous fun. It's not as charismatic as the Audi five-cylinder, perhaps, but that doesn't matter in the end - it's properly fast, attached to a better chassis and offers a cabin with a driving position fit for humans.
The safety story starts with six airbags (dual front, front-side and curtain), as well as cruise control, lane departure warning, blind-spot monitoring and a city-speed auto emergency braking system that detects pedestrians that BMW calls its Approach Control Warning. You’ll also find parking sensors front and rear, a reversing camera and a parking assistant function that will tell you if you’ll fit in a parking space, all of which arrives as standard on the xDrive20d.
Stepping up to the 30i or 30d adds Driving Assistant Plus, which includes Active Cruise Control with AEB, cross-traffic warning and steering and lane assistants that form part of BMW’s autonomous package (the same that appears on the 5 series), and that will allow you - in the right conditions - to take your hands off the wheel for spells of 40 seconds.
The X3 was awarded the maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating when tested in 2011, but the new-generation model hasn't been tested yet.
The GLA comes with nine airbags (including driver's knee), blind-spot sensors, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, forward-collision warning and mitigation and driver-attention detection.
The Mercedes standard warranty is three years/unlimited kilometres with roadside assist to match. Service intervals are a very reasonable 12 months/20,000km.
The company also offers capped-price servicing - first service is $576 but the second and third are a whopping $1152 each. Three years will set you back $2880.