Has the mighty BMW X3 finally met its match? It's been king of sub-£50k SUVs for the best part of four years, but its reign could finally be ended one of two new arrivals to the class.
First up is the stylish new Land Rover Discovery Sport – a car that's based on the popular Evoque, but adds a huge dose of practicality thanks to a its bigger boot and standard seven-seat layout.
The X3 should also be worried by the new Lexus NX. It might not be the most practical large SUV, but its hybrid powertrain keeps CO2 emissions to a minimum, helping make the NX a remarkably cheap option for company car drivers.
The Volvo XC60 is our final contender here. An efficient new D4 diesel engine has breathed a new lease of life into this ageing SUV, and massive discounts also work in the XC60's favour.
xDrive20d SE auto
List Price - £34,500
Target Price - £32,664
Land Rover Discovery Sport
2.2 SD4 SE Tech auto
List price £35,695
Target Price £35,695
List price £34,495
Target Price £34,158
D4 SE Lux Geartronic
List price £35,510
Target Price £29,466
Despite having the least powerful engine, the XC60 is actually the fastest of the four when you put your foot down. That’s mainly because its front-wheel-drive layout (the others all have four-wheel drive) means it’s lighter than its rivals.
That said, the BMW isn’t much slower, and its engine actually develops its peak pulling power at lower revs, allowing you to build speed in a slightly more relaxed fashion. The X3’s brilliant eight-speed automatic gearbox helps here, responding more quickly and smoothly than the Volvo’s and nearly always choosing the most appropriate gear for the situation at hand.
Our acceleration figures show the Lexus is ultimately just as quick as the BMW, and its electric motor gives an instant hit of torque at low speeds. Sadly, things aren’t so impressive out on the open road, because whenever you ask for a burst of acceleration the Lexus takes an age to respond; first there’s a pause, then the petrol engine’s revs soar before finally you start to build speed.
The Land Rover was the slowest performer in our tests, although it rarely feels short of puff. It’s just a shame the nine-speed auto ’box hesitates for so long when you go to pull out of junctions, and changes down unnecessarily when you just want to build speed gently.
Top speed**BMW8.5sec8.9sec3.4sec5.5sec130mphLand Rover9.4sec9.1sec3.5sec5.6sec117mphLexus8.8sec8.5sec3.4sec5.1sec112mphVolvo**8.3sec8.2sec3.2sec5.0sec130mph
RIDE & HANDLING
SUVs need to be comfortable, but sloppy handling isn’t an acceptable compromise. The new Discovery Sport strikes that balance pretty well, with a ride that’s smooth and settled on faster roads, and is only slightly lumpy in town.
If you’re hoping the ‘Sport’ badge hints at what the Land Rover is like to drive then you’ll be slightly disappointed, because it’s not exactly fleet-footed. That said, it changes direction without too much body sway, grips well and has precise steering with enough feedback.
The BMW is more impressive. It rides with a level of sophistication the Discovery Sport simply can’t match; it's more settled at low speeds and there's less nausea-inducing body bounce on undulating roads.
However, it should be noted that our test X3 was fitted with BMW’s optional (£940) variable dampers, which let you stiffen and soften the suspension at the touch of a button. The X3 also has the most natural-feeling and communicative steering, although we do wish it wasn’t so heavy when manoeuvring.
Meanwhile, the Volvo’s soft suspension deals with speed bumps even better than the BMW’s. Things aren’t quite as settled over scruffy town surfaces and potholes, but the XC60 lopes along comfortably on A-roads and motorways.
There’s plenty of body lean in bends, but the Volvo never lurches about in an uncontrolled fashion – although its steering is vague and overly keen to self-centre, which can be disconcerting at faster speeds.
The NX does a reasonable job of staying flat through bends, but its front tyres wash wide of your intended line too early; its steering doesn’t do a great job of telling you when that's about to happen, either.
An even bigger bugbear is the Lexus’s ride. At low speeds, you feel far too many imperfections through your backside, while potholes are transmitted straight through to the cabin.
BEHIND THE WHEEL
The Discovery Sport’s wide seats are comfortable even on long journeys. Our test car came with optional £1045 10-way electric adjustment, which includes adjustable lumbar support, although you can have eight-way electric seat adjustment for a more reasonable £420.
Both the Lexus and Volvo get electric front seats as standard (including adjustable lumbar support) and the seats in both cars are very comfortable. The Lexus’s are particularly supportive, with its side bolsters holding you in place better.
Tweaking the height of the manually adjustable driver’s seat in the BMW is more of a chore, because you have to simultaneously pull a lever and raise or drop your body weight. Still, at least the front seats are generally comfortable, but adding adjustable lumbar support, via electric seats, costs £1210.
The Volvo’s dash is the worst in terms of ease of use, with too many small buttons. Things are better in the Lexus, although the high-set air-con controls could be more intuitive.
It’s easier to figure out what does what in the Land Rover, thanks to its simple, clearly marked rotary air-con controls halfway up the centre console. The X3 gets an uncluttered layout with controls that are easy to use, too.
BMW has set the benchmark in this area for quite some time now. The X3’s iDrive interface is wonderfully intuitive; you simply twist a rotary dial on the centre console to scroll through the various on-screen menus, then push the dial to make a selection. You can even shortcut your way to certain functions by pressing one of the buttons that surround the dial.
Land Rover hasn’t quite matched the X3 with its new Incontrol system, complete with an 8.0-inch colour touch-screen that responds quickly to prods of your finger. Despite the straightforward home menu and shortcut buttons making it easy to switch between functions (it takes only two prods of the screen to get to postcode entry on the sat-nav), it’s still harder to use this system on the move because you have to your eyes off the road to make sure you're pressing the correct area of the display.
It costs just £50 extra to add a second USB socket to the Land Rover, and the Discovery Sport’s standard 10-speaker sound system is also the best here, with more depth of tone than the standard systems in the other three SUVs.
Meanwhile, the Lexus is one of only two manufacturers (along with Volvo) that charges extra for sat-nav. The NX’s standard screen can also be hard to see in direct sunlight and, although the rotary dial controller makes it fairly easy to hop to the icon you’re after, performing certain functions is an unnecessarily convoluted process.
The Volvo’s system is the most frustrating to use, though, with a small screen that’s controlled with a cluster of buttons and a small rotary dial on the dashboard. The layers of unintuitive menus mean you need plenty of button-prods and rotary twists even to find simple things, such as a track list of the music currently playing. The buttons crammed onto the faces of the dials are also small and tricky to press.
Only Lexus ofers a rear-seat entertainment package. For £1250 you get integrated rear screens and a DVD player, or for £500 you’ll get a couple of iPad docks on the backs of the front head restraints.
Land Rover’s rear entertainment system is available only on more expensive versions of the Discovery Sport.
Screen**Sat-navDAB radioUSB socketBluetoothUpgraded stereo**BMW6.5inYESYESYESYES£335Land Rover8.0inYESYESYESYES£200 Lexus7.0in£995YESYESYESNO *Volvo5.0in£1200+YESYESYES£500
- Includes upgrade to 10 speakers + Includes 7.0-inch screen and upgraded stereo
QUALITY & RELIABILITY
On one hand, the Lexus’s interior feels well built, with tight and consistent panel gaps, solid-feeling switches and a variety of textures that make it look suitably smart. However, it’s let down by exposed bolt heads on the centre console, and cheap-feeling material surrounding the buttons on the steering wheel.
The other three cars all have more consistently high-quality interiors, with denser soft-touch materials in most of the important areas, and slickly damped switches and knobs. The Volvo’s cabin, while in many ways the most conservatively styled, feels even more solid than the BMW’s and Land Rover’s, with more soft-touch plastics.
The NX and Discovery Sport were too new to be included in the most recent JD Power ownership satisfaction survey, but the reliability performance of other SUVs from the two brands are roughly on a par, with the full-size Discovery suffering slightly fewer faults than the Lexus RX.
BMW didn’t fare as well, with the pre-face-lifted X3 coming towards the bottom of the SUV class if you consider only reliability, and the brand as a whole finishing a disappointing 24th in the survey (out of 26 manufacturers).
The XC60 didn’t feature in the most recent JD Power survey, but Volvo as a brand suffered fewer faults overall than the other brands here.
All four cars come with alloy wheels, electric windows all round, climate and cruise controls, automatic lights and wipers and rear parking sensors. The only car without front parking sensors is the XC60. If you want these you’ll have to fork out an extra £325.
Meanwhile, leather seats are included in the price of the BMW, Lexus and Volvo, but disappointingly, Land Rover provides only part-leather seats as standard. If you want full leather it’ll cost you a further £650. That said, the Volvo is the only one of these SUVs without heated seats.
Overall, though, the Lexus has the longest kit list. Although it’s the only car without an electronic tailgate, it gets LED headlights, keyless entry and start and a reversing camera, which are either expensive options or not available at all on the other three cars.
BMW and Volvo each provide two ‘free’ paint colours: white and black, and white and red respectively; Land Rover offers only white and Lexus only black.
seats**Heated front seatsClimate control**Cruise
Rear parking **sensors**
SAFETY & SECURITY
Both the Land Rover and Lexus are yet to be crash-tested by Euro NCAP, while the BMW and the Volvo were awarded five stars overall. Look at the results closely, though, and it’s the XC60 that better protects adult occupants, while the BMW was awarded the highest child and pedestrian scores.
The Lexus and Land Rover come with eight airbags as standard (the Discover Sport has one in the bonnet to protect pedestrains). Meanwhile, the X3 and XC60 both have six, while rear side airbags aren’t an option on any of the four. The Volvo is the only car not to come with tyre pressure-monitoring.
Automatic emergency braking is standard on the Volvo, Lexus and Discovery Sport, while the systems on the XC60 and NX can detect pedestrians as well as cars. A similar system is available on the BMW for £1400.
The Discovery Sport is yet to be tested by security experts Thatcham; the others scored well in their resistance to being broken into and driven away.
Several months after it goes on sale the Discovery Sport will get a brand new 2.0-litre diesel engine. That’s a good thing because the 2.2-litre engine in this version (carried over from the Freelander) is gruff at low speeds, and sends a few too many tremors through the steering wheel and pedals when you accelerate.
The Land Rover isn’t the most refined SUV in other respects, either, because its door mirrors generate some wind noise on the motorway, and a noticeable amount of road noise finds its way into the cabin.
Still, the Discovery Sport is a positively hushed cruiser compared with the NX. The Japanese car lets even more road noise into its cabin at 70mph, while you can also hear its suspension working away on any road that isn’t perfectly smooth.
The NX is more impressive around town, where if you drive it gently the electric motor has enough power for near-silent progress. Any attempt to build speed in a hurry just brings frustration, though, because the e-CVT transmission causes its petrol engine to rev hard, even under relatively moderate acceleration.
The Lexus’s regenerative brakes are also frustrating; the amount of pressure you put on the pedal doesn’t directly relate to how quickly you stop, which makes it difficult to slow your progress smoothly.
Meanwhile, the Volvo is the quietest cruiser here. You can barely hear its engine at all at 70mph, and while there’s some wind noise, little road noise finds its way into the cabin. True, the XC60’s engine is a little coarse when you work it hard, but it’s actually quieter than the BMW’s which – despite recent improvements – is still rather vocal.
At least the X3’s engine doesn’t send much vibration through to the driver, and the BMW generates less wind and road noise than in any of the other SUVs here.
Noise at 30mph**Noise at 70mph**BMW60.2dB67.5dBLand Rover62.8dB68.2dBLexus62.3dB69.2dBVolvo60.9dB66.8dB
SPACE & PRACTICALITY
The Land Rover is the shortest car here, yet it gets seven seats as standard while the others don’t offer them even as an option. There’s lots of room in the front, and two tall adults can sit comfortably in the middle row, which slides and reclines in a 60:40 split, and can be tilted forwards easily to give access to the third row.
You need to be dexterous to squeeze through the awkward gap, though, and ‘occasional’ is the best way to describe the two seats you’ll find when you get there; an adult or older child will feel cramped in the third row, especially around the foot area.
The other three SUVs have plenty of space for tall people up front, and for two lanky occupants in the back, although the Volvo is comparably tight on rear legroom, and the Lexus is noticeably shorter on rear headroom than its rivals.
Despite having the most rear legroom, reclining backrests and a flat floor, the Lexus isn’t great for three in the back, because the roof tapers in at the outer edge of the car. The BMW, Land Rover and Volvo all have a raised tunnel running along the centre of the floor that middle-seat passengers have to straddle, although the Discovery Sport’s wide cabin and comparatively flat rear bench make it best for carrying three across the middle row.
All of these SUVs have big boots, but it’s the BMW that’s the most useful, with its low load lip, deep load bay, and rear seats that fold almost flat. That said, the XC60 is best for particularly long or wide items, thanks to its extra width and front passenger seat that can be folded.
The Lexus’s boot is similarly broad, and with its rear seats toppled there’s only a slight slope in the extended load bay. It’s just a pity there’s a high lip to lift stuff over.
In five-seat mode, the Land Rover’s boot is only slightly smaller than the others’. It’s narrower, though, and items can fall into the gap between the boot floor and middle row of seats.
BUYING & OWNING
Open the brochures of these four cars and you’ll see the Land Rover is the most expensive by £185 over the Volvo. The BMW and Lexus cost around £1000 less.
After dealer discounts are taken into account, though, the Volvo is the cheapest of the four, putting a £3200 gap between it and the next cheapest, the BMW. In fact, the Volvo works out the cheapest over three years for cash buyers, too. It might lose value more quickly than the other three, but huge discounts – together with its strong performance in our real-world True MPG tests – help make it between £2343 and £5067 cheaper than the others.
The Lexus makes most sense if you're buying on PCP finance. Based on a 36-month agreement and with a £5000 deposit, limited to 15,000 miles a year, the NX will set you back £471 a month. That’s £17 a month less than the Volvo, £24 less than the BMW and £70 cheaper than the Land Rover – assuming you hand back the car after three years.
The NX is cheapest for company car drivers, too; 40% taxpayers will have to sacrifice between £580 and £3700 less of their salary than if they go for the Lexus instead of one of the other contenders. The Land Rover is the most expensive company car because of its relatively high CO2 emissions.
List price**Target PriceMonthly BIK (40%)Contract hireResale value (3 yrs)True MPGCO2 output**BMW£34,500£32,664£252£40953%38.4131g/kmLand Rover £35,695£35,695£342£50355%33.9166g/kmLexus£34,495£34,158£195£45249%45.5121g/kmVolvo£35,510£29,466£236£38647%42.8124g/km
1st - BMW X3
For Brilliant to drive; superb infotainment; well equipped; big and practical boot
Against Variable dampers cost extra; so-so real-world economy
Verdict Still the best sub-£50k SUV on the market
2nd - Land Rover Discovery Sport
For Seating for seven; smart and practical cabin; resale values
Against Slow-witted gearbox; gruff engine; poor efficiency
Verdict Practical and stylish, let down slightly by its efficiency
3rd - Volvo XC60
For Practical boot; strong performance; safety
Against Steering; fiddly infotainment system
Verdict A great-value SUV with plenty more going for it
4th - Lexus NX
For Cheapest company car; well equipped; good True MPG
Against Awful ride; poor refinement; smallest inside
Verdict Poor to drive, but a seriously cheap company car
Once again, the BMW X3 emerges victorious – and the truth is its dominance among sub-£50k SUVs was never threatened.
It’s still easily the best of its ilk to drive, but it’s the X3’s staggering all-round ability that makes it so hard to beat – something that’s highlighted by the fact it scored above- average marks in every area.
The new Discovery Sport comes closest to shaking up the pecking order. It’s the only premium SUV at this price with seven seats, and it’s surprisingly practical in other respects, thanks to its flexible middle-row of seats and well-shaped boot.
Sadly, the Land Rover isn’t nearly as good to drive as its German rival, and despite being more expensive to buy, it comes with less standard kit. Yes, it goes some way towards making up for this with its strong resale values, but a high CO2 output and disappointing real-world fuel economy count against it.
Big discounts help make the XC60 the cheapest of the four to own. As with most Volvos, it’s incredibly safe, and it’s also the quietest motorway cruiser here. So, in spite of its age, it’s still definitely worth a look if you don’t have any need for four-wheel drive.
The Lexus is much harder to recommend. Our biggest criticism centres around its uncomfortable ride, but it’s also the smallest inside and the least refined. Incredibly cheap company car tax bills go some way towards saving its blushes, but as a private buy the NX makes very little sense.