Getting X’ed up

Text: Danie Botha

Photography: Danie Botha and BMW Press

The only really cool American car was Kitt – David Hasselhoff’s amazing Pontiac Trans Am in the television series Knight Rider.

No wait… come to think of it, there are maybe a few more on the cool list – but they all hail from the booming years of American motoring, which are long gone. Cars like the original Hummer. The original Shelby Cobra. The original Ford Mustang. The original Dodge Charger.

But besides for the Hummer, you won’t see any of these classics on the road.

Instead the country roads near the town of Roscoe, in the state of Georgia, are mostly filled with 15-year old double cab trucks and SUVs. With badges such as Roadmaster, Armada, Ramcharger, Eagle, Blazer, Typhoon and Galopper. Names that could give small children nightmares.

These vehicles are big and wallowly – they are designed for maximum comfort and space, and not for handling and driver involvement.

Which is kind of weird because, as far as roads go, these ones are in beautiful shape, winding through seemingly endless forests. And they are relatively quiet too. So, from a driving perspective, you want to be in something a lot more driver-oriented.

Something like a new BMW X3.

We are piloting the new xDrive35i. It has 225 kW of power and 400 Nm of torque. It is equipped with a state-of-the-art eight-speed automatic gearbox. It goes from 0-100km/h in 5,7 seconds, and only runs out of steam at 245km/h. It is the most driver-focused “X” model to date, even featuring BMW’s optional Dynamic Drive Control – which makes it even more sporty, and more involving to drive.

So the theory about awesome driving roads and a driver-oriented BMW X3 with 225 kW and permanent four-wheel drive is sound. In reality though, it’s a right pain. Serious-looking police officers in serious and fast-looking police sedans abound. And the speed limit on these roads is 72km/h. Gosh darnit!

Okay, so while we dawdle along at 72km/h in a twin-turbocharged SUV on the beautiful B-roads, we have ample time to talk new X3.

The new X3 is all-new. It features a new suspension set-up comprising double-joint spring-strut axle at the front and a five-link rear axle, the traditional 50/50 weight distribution between the front and rear axles, electric power steering, sure-footed traction provided by the xDrive four-wheel drive system, and big brake discs.

You can also add dynamic stability control (DSC), dynamic traction control (DTC), dynamic brake control (DBC), cornering brake control (CBC), automatic differential brake (ADB-X) and hill descent control to the standard list, along with 18-inch light alloy wheels on the xDrive35i derivative.

For those who demand even more sport the X3 can be had with BMW’s optional Dynamic Drive Control system – a first for an “X” model. Here the driver has the option of three modes: Normal, Sport and Sport+. The system adjusts damper behaviour, accelerator pedal progression, engine response, the power steering system, DSC thresholds and the gearshift dynamics of the auto gearbox.

However, unlike the typical American gas guzzler, the new X3 xDrive35i even helps save the planet. It comes standard with BMW’s Efficient Dynamics system, with an Auto Start Stop function. Stop at a traffic light, with your foot on the brake pedal, and the engine switches off, all by itself. Release the pressure on the brake pedal, and the engine automatically fires up again. Additional planet saving measures include brake energy regeneration, the electric power steering system and on-demand control of ancillary components.

We are still traipsing gingerly through the American countryside to a place called Painted Rock Farm, with country star Brad Paisley’s Anything like me filling the cabin. We are down to a 35 mile per hour (56 km/h) limit. We now even have time to explore the cabin some, while we meander along.

What is most apparent is that the new X3’s cabin is noticeably bigger than the previous version. Especially the rear seat passengers now have more space. Ditto with the boot area.

The swoopy design follows the current BMW trend, with the a wide centre stack, electronic handbrake button, clear and concise instruments in front of the driver, and the large LCD display living near the top of the centre console. Obviously luxury and airbags abound. New in the leather-clad interior is the option of BMW’s head-up display (HUD) information system.

Finally, and with a state trooper diligently standing guard at the turn-off from the main road, we arrive at Painted Rock Farm, for an “off-road” test.

As could be expected though, this is not a serious 4×4 test. More of a merry drive on typical farm roads, with a tiny bit of mud and water thrown in for effect. The X3 is a soft-roader, with no pretentions of being a hardcore 4×4. Always has, always will be.

Still, the new X3’s ground clearance is now pegged at 212mm – up from the previous version’s 203mm. It handles the dirt road and minor challenges in its stride.

After the 4×4 test, we enjoy lunch on the farm, with the fleet of X3s standing in neat lines. We ponder the new exterior styling, over some traditional “corn on the cob”, or a mealie roasted on a grill.

Is it sufficiently different and modernised, compared to the previous X3? Oh yes.

Is it sufficiently different from the X5 and X1 for casual passersby to easily identify it as the new X3? Probably only just.

But we agree that it is suitable modern and good-looking, without being extraordinarily beautiful.

Later, as we head back onto the quiet B-roads that would take us back to the bustling city of Atlanta, I experience a momentary lapse of, er, judgement – and floor the go-faster pedal.

The luxurious cabin is instantly filled with the sound of beautiful straight-six noise, as the BMW sprints for the next corner. The steering feels just right. The eight-speed gearbox swaps cogs, fast and efficient. One corner after the next is dispatched, the BMW surprisingly agile and nimble, like a BMW sedan. The X3 is alive. Very alive. It’s a smile-a-metre kind of ride.

But with cop car looming around every other corner sanity soon prevails, and we slow down and stick to the 72km/h speed limit. Finally, we reach busy Atlanta. It had been quite an extraordinary day, exploring the beautiful American countryside in a German high performance compact SUV, amidst all the American gas guzzlers.

So, does the powerful yet surprisingly “green” X3 have the firepower to take on the magnitude of compact SUVs on our market, and beat them?
10-4. It sure has.

The range, the prices

Two X3 derivatives will be on sale in South Africa. First up is the range-topping xDrive35i, with that awesome 3,0-litre straight-six engine, coupled to the new eight-speed automatic shifter. Prices range from R598 000 for the Standard version to R629 600 for the Exclusive.

Next up is the X3 xDrive20d. The diesel option is powered by a turbocharged engine that features all the latest and greatest in diesel technology. It produces 135 kW of power at 4 000r/min and 380 Nm of torque from 1 750 to 2 750r/min. It is said to sprint from 0-100km/h in 8,5 seconds, and reach a top speed of 210km/h. It is sold as standard with a six-speed automatic gearbox, but the new eight-speed auto ‘box is available as an extra-cost option.

The xDrive20d Standard retails for R463 000, while the Exclusive version costs R499 300.

For the record, BMW claims an average fuel consumption of 5,6 litres/100km for the diesel model, and 8,8 litres/100km for the xDrive35i.
By the time you read this the new X3 should be on display at your local BMW dealer – it will officially be available here from the end of November, 2010.