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OFF-ROAD TEST

New BMW X3 in Portugal





30 December 2017


BMW recently unveiled its new BMW X3 to international press at the Penha Longa Resort in Portugal, and Leisure Wheels attended the glitzy event.
It was an appropriate venue, it turns out, for a very chic, new, compact SUV.

The Penha Longa Resort in Sintra, Portugal is apparently a popular venue for BMW when it comes to launching new vehicles. It has something to do, undoubtedly, with the fact that this luxurious golf resort is located right next to the Autódromo do Estoril race track. The new BMW M5 was launched there recently. For the launch of the latest X3, however, the attraction was not the racing circuit, although there’s little doubt that BMW’s new X3 would have been a lot of fun around the track. Instead, the appeal was the resort itself, which BMW took over more or less completely, turning Michelin chef Sergi Arola’s titular Arola restaurant into its forward operating base. Penha Longa, as it turns out, shares some characteristics with the X3. Like the BMW, it is chic, sporty and steeped in history.

Evolution of the X3
Though it’s hard to believe, the X3 is now 15 years old. It was revealed in 2003 as the xActivity at the Detroit Auto Show. The actual X3 was unveiled at the Frankfurt Auto Show that same year, and it entered production shortly afterwards. Initial reviews were a bit mixed. While people liked the X3’s engine options, all-wheel-drive system and luggage capacity, they also criticised its harsh ride, disappointing interior and high asking price. It was a solid vehicle overall, but lacked some refinement.

That refinement came with the launch of the second-generation X3. It was a much better vehicle than its predecessor, better looking, more refined and quite a bit larger. In fact, the 2010 X3 was very close in size to the original X5. The suspension set-up was also much improved. Thanks to a new multilink rear-suspension and changes to the front struts, the vehicle was more comfortable, but still fun and agile.

Now we have the third-generation X3. While BMW hasn’t completely reinvented a winning product, it has changed the X3 significantly. There are more lines and creases, and the vehicle looks sportier. There’s a bulging bonnet up front, and the vehicle is lower than its predecessor. At the same time, it is slightly longer and wider, giving it a squat and aggressive appearance. Overall, the new X3 looks a lot like the larger X5, which is not a bad thing. It looks more like a premium product than the outgoing model ever did.

Riding round Sintra
In total, four derivatives of the X3 will be made available: the 20i, 30i, 30d and M40i. Only two models were present at the launch, though, the diesel-powered xDrive30d and the new M40i. We were handed the keys to a blue M40i first, and sent off on a scenic drive around the resort town of Sintra. It’s close to the Sintra Mountains and the coast, so it offers some excellent driving.

The range-topping M40i is the first M Performance vehicle in the X3 range, and its sporty bona fides were immediately apparent as we set off. The 2 998cc TwinPower engine delivers 265kW of power and 500Nm of torque, and mated to an eight-speed Sport Steptronic BMW transmission, it provides all that oomph in rapid and predictable fashion. Put your foot down, and the M40i explodes into action with aplomb. On the twisting mountain roads, the power unit could barely even be given a workout, and it was always clear that boatloads of power remained in reserve.

Equally apparent was the X3’s excellent composure. Riding on a double-joint spring strut axle at the front and a five-link rear axle, the SUV feels incredibly nimble. According to BMW, body roll has been improved and 55kg has been shaved off. Mated to an AWD system with a rear bias, it stays planted on even the tightest bend. At the same time, the ride isn’t harsh. It’s firm, sure, but it’s always comfortable. Another great feature of the M40i is its soundtrack. Even at sensible speeds, the vehicle sounds fantastic thanks to new and larger twin tailpipes.

After a drive through the mountains and along Portugal’s exquisite coast, we hit the highway. The speed limit was usually around 100km/h and the road was dead straight, so it didn’t offer much in terms of driving fun, but it did give us an opportunity to test out BMW’s CoPilot feature. This semi-autonomous system includes active cruise control, steering and lane support, lane-keep assist and lane-change assist. Activate all these features, and you’ve got an SUV that can basically drive itself on the highway. The X3 wants you to keep your hands on the steering wheel for safety reasons, but it’ll do most of the work for you, so when you’re not in the mood to push that M40i engine, you can sit back and relax.

We also played around with the infotainment system, which looks much like the system of old, but now includes touchscreen technology. So, while you can use the traditional rotary dial, you can simply touch the screen, too. Or, you can use gesture control, as well as BMW’s Voice Assistant. Regardless, it’s an excellent system with great sound, and while it can seem a bit complex and confusing at first, you soon get used to it.

A mountain jaunt
After our drive around Sintra, we hopped into an xDrive30d model for an off-road ride. While this was really just a scenic drive on a bad gravel track, it reinforced the fact that the X3 has some real off-road capability. When the X3 was first launched in 2003, it was criticised for its lack of 4×4 ability, but the automotive landscape has changed a lot since then. These days, most crossovers are 2WD only and don’t boast much more in terms of ground clearance than a sedan or hatch, so by those standards, the X3 is impressively capable. It’s got BMW’s xDrive, of course, and it also has 204mm of ground clearance and a wading depth of 500mm. Should you plan on venturing off tar on a regular basis, you can fit the X3 with 18-inch rims.

It’s not an off-roader, but you can go surprisingly far in an X3. For those leading an active lifestyle, the BMW is therefore great. It can get you to your favourite mountain-bike trail, and you can probably even get your entire 29-inch bicycle in the back.

And what about that xDrive30d engine? While not as powerful or rev-happy as the M40i petrol mill, the 30d oilburner has loads of torque and is great to drive. It develops 195kW of power and 620Nm of torque, with peak torque kicking in from 2 000r/min. Like the M40i, the 30d engine is mated to an eight-speed Steptronic gearbox, though not the Sport version that’s in the M40i.

Euro flair
The new BMW X3 is an excellent successor to the outgoing model. It is sporty, stylish and very chic. The ride and performance is as good as you’d expect, but the new X3 combines this with a level of class, luxury and minimalist interior design that gives it a far more premium feel than the previous version. It is a great vehicle, and that’s just as well, since the X3 is facing stiffer competition than ever before. Not only is it competing against its traditional Teutonic rivals, but it’s also squaring off against excellent competitors from the likes of Volvo (XC60) and Jaguar (F-Pace). Thankfully, the new X3 is up to the challenge. The new BMW X3 will be launched in South Africa in November.

BMW X3 Pricing
xDrive20d R684 200
xDrive30i R739 800
xDrive30i (Sport A/T) R742 800
xDrive30d R868 300
xDrive30d (Sport A/T) R871 300
M40i R991 100

Text: GG van Rooyen
Image: Supplied