I remember being in high school when BMW decided to release the first images of what it called the ‘SAV,’ or Sports Activity Vehicle.
Words by Gerhard Horn
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Apparently ‘SUV’ was just too commonplace for the famed German company, but we won’t call them out for that too much, as it had the last laugh.
I remember some negative reports, with old-school journalists, called a high-riding BMW a heresy, but they were dead wrong. Two decades later and 1 out of every 4 BMWs sold is an SAV. And, to be honest, it’s not hard to see why. Every time BMW used to launch one of its SUVs, it ended up being class-leading. The original X5, X3, X1 and the controversially styled X6 and X4. I was lucky enough to run an X6 as a long-termer for six months and it was sublime.
Unfortunately, BMW isn’t competing only with itself anymore. Since the launch of the original X5, every other luxury German manufacturer has joined the SUV club. Mercedes, Audi, Volkswagen and Porsche have SUVs competing across the spectrum. Even the Brits recently joined the party after Jaguar launched the brilliant F-Pace. And that’s before we even get to the Italians, French and Japanese…
Simply having a BMW badge isn’t going to cut it these days and consumers, now more than ever, are willing to jump ship from one brand to another. Luckily, BMW has gone and built another brilliant contender. I can’t call it class-leading, simply because I haven’t had the pleasure of driving the new Audi Q5 or Alfa Stelvio. Both are, I’m reliably informed, magnificent in their own right.
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In keeping with the previous X3, BMW played it safe with the styling. I’m not 100% convinced you’d be able to tell it’s an all-new model at a glance, but since it’s a handsome car despite this, I really didn’t mind.
Since one spends way more time on the inside, the quality and layout of the interior are far more important. Some have criticised BMW interiors for being too similar across the range, but I can’t say I agree. Why mess with a recipe that works perfectly? And now BMW has added to the ease of use by finally including a touch-screen interface. I had no problem with the iDrive system (you get used to it quickly once you actually live with a BMW), but the touch-screen system just works so much better. The resolution of the screen and the graphics are stunning as well, making it a joy to use. Obviously, being a German car, you get an agreeable amount of luxury kit as standard, but you can delve into an options list with every conceivable gadget available. You can even tick the box called gesture control, which allows you to reject a phone call by waving your arm to the left.
What you do get as standard is legendary build quality and impressively low noise, vibration and harshness levels. The all-new X3 is easily on par with the more expensive X5 in that regard. Most importantly, it feels more expensive than it actually is and it is comprehensively up to date. Top marks for the interior.
At the moment you can walk into a dealership and order numerous versions of the car, but as luck would have it, we drove both the volume model and the performance version over 2 stunning days in George and Knysna. The latter is looking like its old self again, it has to be said. There are still some signs of the fire here and there, but for the most part it was green and the locals were out and about, smiling and waving as they do.
I got behind the wheel of the xDrive 20d first – the one most people will buy.
I’m happy to report that you’ll be getting a fine car with a fine engine, but the good news doesn’t stop there. The famed 20d engine now develops 140kW and 400Nm of torque. Power is sent to all four wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission.
In all honesty, this is all the X3 you could possibly need. It felt plucky and BMW claims that it will only consume 5,4l/100km on the combined cycle.
On the road, it felt exactly like a BMW should, which is planted and confidence inspiring. The electric steering doesn’t provide much in the way of feedback, but that’s a common theme in cars these days. The 19-inch wheels were more concerning to me, as gravel and large alloys aren’t exactly known for being best buds. I was sure we were going to shudder to bits during the gravel portion of our drive.
Somehow it works, at least as well as it does on the Jaguar F-Pace. The comfort levels of the X3, even on models running on 21-inch rims, is astounding and perhaps the stand out feature of the new car.
You can select from driving modes such as eco-pro and sport, but, for the most part, we just left it in the standard default setting.
The car soaks up the bumps and isolates you from the experience so well, that you quickly work your way up to high speed over loose surfaces. And even when it’s necessary for the electronic nannies to intervene, it’s all over and done with before you even realise it happened. I’m not saying you should buy an X3 and drive it like a loon on gravel, but it’s nice to know that the car’s abilities are so far beyond what the average driver will ever do. As a family man, I’d feel very confident exploring the countryside with my family in one of these things.
In fact, the only criticism I can think of is that the 20d didn’t exactly spark any sort of spirited driving, which is odd for a BMW.
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On the next day, I had a go in the M40i, which took care of that one negative comment.
This particular model is equipped with a turbocharged 6-cylinder petrol engine and it puts out a nice, smooth 265kW and 500Nm of torque. It accelerates to 100km/h in 4,8 seconds, which is just as fast as the previous generation M3.
The M40i tugs at your heartstrings from the moment you push the start button. Those 6 cylinders emit a dirty, dirty noise, which only gets better the harder you drive it. This model is best described as windgat, a nice middle finger to the concept of saving fuel. If saving fuel is your thing, BMW can point you in the direction of its electric car range.
This car is best enjoyed in Sport mode. It has loads of grip and even if you overstep, as we did a few times on some slippery muddy roads on the outskirts of George, it quietly and confidently brings you back in line.
On tar it’s superb and the way it covers ground is amazing. I’d be a bit hesitant to get this model, however, because it feels stable and in control at speeds that would get you on the cover of the local paper. I doubt my licence would survive 6 months if I owned one of these.
As you can probably tell, I like the new BMW X3 very much. As an added bonus, if you invest in an X3, you’ll be investing in South Africa. As of next year, the BMW plant near Pretoria will stop producing the 3-Series and start producing this car.
I suspect it might be class-leading, but I can’t be sure. My colleagues tell me the Stelvio is a more engaging thing to drive, so it’s probably a good idea to drive both. While you’re at it, drive the Audi Q5 as well.
Pricing is also good, with the all-you-could-ever-need 20d starting at R683 000. The model you want (M40i) retails for R991 000, however, which seems like a lot, but isn’t all that bad once you compare its power and price to similar cars from its competitors.
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