THERE’S NO WAY one can give a driving impression of the new BMW X3 by not referring to the much maligned car it replaces. Even though motoring writers panned version one for its looks, hard and uncomfortable ride, premium price and cramped interior, a lot of people all over the world went out and bought one.
So much so that in its life cycle of six years BMW managed to sell 615000 of these ugly ducklings. Shows you how much we know. But I can understand why it sold so well. During 2007 I drove more than 20000km in a 3.0si. The car was built like solid brick outhouse (it even looked like one) and it went like a rocket. So what if it was thirsty, expensive and the ride as hard as Margaret Thatcher? It was a sports car on stilts and I loved driving it.
Times have changed though. BMW might claim to have invented the Sports Activity segment, but their competitors have caught up with some pretty decent cars like the Audi Q5, Volvo XC60, and Land Rover Freelander. Even Koreans Hyundai and Kia, offering smaller, cheaper 4×2 options such as the iX35 and Sportage, are stealing market share.
So the new X3 has to be more attractive, more fuel efficient, have more space, ride more comfortably without sacrificing its dynamic sportiness and compete on price and specification. Does it succeed? Five out of seven isn’t bad, but it’s not a clean sweep.
The BMW designers and engineers have clearly taken some of the criticism to heart. The design of version two is much more coherent, slotting in comfortably between the X1 and the recently tweaked X5. Although it’s still easily recognisable as an X3, the boxy awkwardness has been replaced by sleeker lines that hide its growth in both width (29mm) and length (80mm). That’s helped grow boot space by 80 litres and improved leg- and headroom for rear passengers. It’s also 13mm lower and fractionally lighter (25kg).
Now built in Spartanburg, South Carolina, instead of by Magna Steyr in Austria, the car finally gets iDrive, but you’ll have to pay extra for nice-to-haves like the new Connected Drive system which syncs your smartphone (internet and all) with the car’s entertainment system. Bi-xenon lights, heads-up display, panoramic sunroof, satnav and a variety of trim packs are all on the options list if you’re prepared to dent the cheque book.
Instead of the five engine choices South Africans had with the old X3, the new car will initially be available with a 135kW 20d and a range topping 225kw 35i petrol both more frugal and powerful than the engines they replace. A 30d meneer that has the same power as the petrol but with lots more torque joins the line-up next year. All X3s now come standard with eight-speed auto transmissions and stop/start technology. Stop at a traffic light and the engine switches off automatically to save fuel. Press the accelerator and it starts again. Works well and after a day you won’t even notice it any more.
We drove both the entry level diesel and the turbocharged 35i at launch, and the improved ride comfort of the new X3 was immediately noticeable. It doesn’t jar and crash over imperfections and through small potholes as brutally as the old X3, but it also hasn’t sacrificed its impressive driving agility. The 35i has real get-up-and go, with a claimed 0-100kph of 5.7sec and a top speed of 245kph.
The x-drive system splits torque 40:60 front: rear. It’s no rock climbing 4×4, but no X3 owner buys his or her car for its off-road ability. It handles gravel and even rutted dirt roads like the paths we drove in the Kruger National Park at launch just fine.
The X3 does handle tar beautifully and you could improve its already impressive dynamics even further by adding optional goodies like electronic damper control (R13500), performance control with on-demand variable torque split at the rear wheels (R1600), sports suspension settings (R3700) and variable sport steering (R7350).
So new X3 fixes some of the first version’s faults: it’s better looking, bigger inside and rides a lot more comfortably without losing the sporty drive it was renowned for. All of this comes at a price, with the 20d starting at R463000 (excluding CO2 tax of R2308) and the 35i breaching the R600000 barrier (R598k plus CO2 tax of R7182), and that’s without ticking any of the nice-to-have options. The X5 35i is only 60k more. I know which one I’d choose.