The rise of the turbodiesel continues seemingly unabated, and while the research and development of petrol engines is hardly stagnating, the oil burner is what is capturing the imagination with improvements in power output. BMW’s 2,0-litre engine is a case in point
When BMW first introduced the 2,0- litre turbodiesel in the 3-series it made 100 kW. Now that figure is up to 125. More significantly, torque has swelled to 340 Nm and is much more accessible, too.
It is this version of the engine that is in the latest X3 derivative, for the first time enabling buyers of Beemer’s small SAV – for Sport Activity Vehicle – to have it mated to an automatic gearbox. This uprated engine/auto box combination joined the model range late in 2007.
It thus enjoys the benefits of an early-07 facelift , which softened up some of the X3’s harsher lines and made the rear view slightly less fussy. Overall it’s a big improvement.
The interior remains largely unchanged, though more generous door pockets have been added and the steering wheel is new.
Features and equipment
★ ★ ★ ★
The X3 evaluated here wears the Executive suit and it’s arguably the version to go for if there’s an inclination to go 4x4ing: the unpainted lower extremities are less likely to be damaged when the tarmac ends.
Standard kit extends to the panoramic sunroof, front and rear Park Distance Control and lots of leather. It also has reasonably tall 55-profile rubber, though our car had optional 50-profile tyres, now on 18-inch rims. The “Business” satellite navigation system was also fitted, as was Bluetooth preparation, for a final price of R466 950.
The standard equipment list includes an MP3- compatible six-CD shuttle, cruise control and hill descent control – the descent speed of which is altered via the cruise control’s speed regulator on the multi -function steering wheel.
So much for the “soft ” features. What matters here is the multi -mode automatic box, which is equipped with six ratios and is a model of intelligence in the way it communicates with the engine.
The third part of the mechanical triumvirate is xDrive, a permanent 4×4 system that uses a chaindrive off -take to send torque to the front wheels.
There’s a slight rearward bias (40:60) in normal driving but that figure is swift ly changed by an electronically controlled multi -plate clutch, with the ability to send all torque to one end or the other. Lateral distribution is controlled by the “e-differentials” that simultaneously plays the role of traction control.
★ ★ ★ ★
The cabin of the X3 is a mix of modern and traditional, appearing fairly stark at first glance. The zones are defined by a series of horizontal lines, and padded plastics that both look and feel good are in abundance.
The driving position is superb and the seat is quick and easy to reposition, with all controls placed alongside the cushion. The steering wheel adjusts for height and reach. It is easy to position so that the compact, semi-circular instrument binnacle can be clearly seen.
The gauges (which include a temperature readout) look a little small at first but are in fact highly legible. In the automatic version the X3’s relatively narrow footwell poses no problem either.
The driving computer is comprehensive in terms of features, and the stalk to operate it (the one shared with the wipers) has a pleasing tactile nature, as do the other controls.
The range, flexibility and efficiency of the climate control system is hard to fault, even though it lacks a dual zone function to enable the passenger to choose a temperature setting independent of the driver’s.
Below the ventilation system is a small bank of rectangular switches to operate the hill descent control, park distance control and Vehicle Dynamics Control.
The rear seating is of a high standard as far as comfort and support is concerned and all but the tallest adults will find the legroom more than adequate. A sturdy – if slightly thinly padded – armrest folds down between the seats to reveal useful storage space and allow access to pop-out cup-holders in the leading edge. All seats have excellent headrests that can be positioned in exactly the right position.
We also liked features such as the extra storage compartment in the top of the dash – it makes an ideal place to store petrol and toll slips as they accumulate on a long trip. The front door pockets are also usefully proportioned and divided into small and large compartments.
While it might not have the biggest luggage compartment in its class, it does boast some nice features. These include a boot board, which is reversible, and mounting points on which to attach a net divider vertically behind the seats.
★ ★ ★ ★
BMW’s 2,0-litre diesel comes of age in this engine. Even when cold there are few clues to its compression igniti on nature and we’d say as an overall package it’s right at the top of the pile.
A torque peak of 340 Nm at just 1750 r/min reinforces that claim and we can’t recall an instance when it felt short of puff while waiti ng for the turbo to spool up. In virtually all areas of performance this two-pedal model is superior to the manual (110 kW and 330 Nm) we tested three years ago.
Move the gear lever to the Steptronic sequenti al gate and it’ll allow the motor to run to about 4500 r/min before swapping cogs, while in Sport mode it changes a couple of hundred revs sooner. As is oft en the case with turbodiesels, the earlier shift s work best in terms of performance and the X3 will rush to 120 km/h in a litt le over 14 seconds, only running out of steam at 205 km/h.
It’s prett y much free of any obvious exhaust emission along the way and mechanical refi nement is highly impressive.
An important part of the package is a gearbox that responds both rapidly and smoothly, kicks down with alacrity and disguises shift-shock extremely well for a four-cylinder vehicle.
Economy was also exemplary: in the course of our test we averaged 7,9 litres per 100km, recording just 7,3 per 100km on our steady 120 km/h test route.
We expected the X3 to stop as well as it goes and it didn’t disappoint: not only is it reassuring in the way it hunkers against the tarmac when the brakes are used to their maximum potential, but it also returned very consistent and rapid deceleration.
★ ★ ★ ★
The X3 is one of those rare sports activity vehicles where you rapidly forget that you’re driving something that is taller and heavier than a conventional car. Subjectively the driving position and car-like forward view help, but the sense of balance and tremendous poise imparted the first time tarmac is tackled at pace, confirms this impression.
It can be driven briskly with exceptional confidence thanks to accurate steering that is devoid of ambiguity, and the near-absence of body roll. The latter quality is important in ensuring peace of mind for passengers, with none of the sense of instability that can have occupants subconsciously reaching for the grab handles.
Since xDrive first came on the scene, a number of similar systems have been introduced, but Beemer’s permanent 4×4 arrangement is still one of the best. It distributes torque front/rear seamlessly, giving the X3 better off-road ability than its low-slung appearance might suggest.
There’s actually 205mm between the floor and the X3’s belly, the main shortcoming being the long wheelbase compromising the ramp angle, though approach and departure are excellent, thanks to short overhangs.
The X3 is fitted with hill descent control, the speed of which can be regulated anywhere between six and 25 km/h by using the cruise control up/down buttons. It’s a handy feature, especially for automatics where a long first gear can result in less downhill control than is often needed.
Our test car was fitted with 235/50/18 rubber, resulting in a fairly firm ride that on the rare occasion felt slightly unforgiving. There’s clearly little flex in the sidewalls, but then that’s why its handling is so superb.
★ ★ ★ ★
It might be expensive and adding features is a wallet-emptying exercise, but the combination of superb road manners and a class-leading engine/gearbox makes it good value for those who place a priority on dynamic behaviour. And it backs this up with a more than capable showing on the dirt.