Review: BMW X3 can’t avoid the snowball

The role of an SUV has changed quite a bit over the last decade or so. Back in the day these vehicles used to be hardcore off-road machines; unapologetic in their mission to be robust and mean. And though these machines were multi-skilled back then, their skillsets have been dwindling down to cater to the needs of a status-, fashion-conscious buyer.

It’s a sad reality and one that has picked up massive pace the last couple of years. Think of it as a snowball: rolling down a mountain, growing bigger and gaining momentum. Only in this case, it won’t be demolishing anything in its path but absorbing it.

The BMW X3 has been around for quite some time and in late 2017, the automaker launched the newest version of this SUV on local soil. Featuring more technology, improved on-road dynamics, and a striking design, this BMW is a good example of the type of SUVs the aforementioned buyer will target.

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Image: Charlen Raymond

Masking its size

The first acquaintance anyone will make with the X3 is its design. Though it may look big, the SUV does well to mask its true size. It’s just over 4.7 meters long, 1.6m high, and boasts a ground clearance of 204mm. That’s true SUV diameters, and even the weight of 1.8 tons does not make its presence felt. But this X3 looks properly good in its silver paintwork. And topped off by huge 21-inch wheels, it has a menacing presence.

A quick glance will have you mistaking this SUV for its bigger brother, the X5, but it just goes to show how much of an overall improvement BMW has made to take the X3 up a notch. The X3’s design continues to resemble BMW’s family of SUVs and though the vehicle has been altered, the design still says ‘BMW SUV’. But it really does look like an X5, hey.

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Image: Charlen Raymond

On-road dynamics

At the start of the test tenure, when first setting off, this X3 immediately impressed with its compliant ride quality. It’s not always that a car manages to impress from the first greeting, but this X3 did. It put big emphasis on the SUV’s sturdiness at low speeds and its ability to absorb bumps. Steering-feel at low speeds is nice and meaty, but not to the point where the car is a drag to turn – even with a turning circle of 12m!

But it’s on the open road that this car really comes into its own. A literal devourer of kilometres and a master cruiser while using as little fuel as possible. One can be forgiven for thinking that the six-cylinder 3.0-litre diesel engine will run your budget into the ground, but it’s anything but a fuel guzzler. The 195kW/620Nm turbocharged engine is not afraid to unleash its full power when called upon, but most of the time there is rarely any need to exploit everything.

At speeds there is no hints of body roll and is the X3 assertive of what it wants to do. Three driving modes (Sport, Comfort, Eco) alter responsiveness of the throttle, steering, gear changes, and chassis. And unless you are really pressed for time Eco and Comfort strike a very good balance in terms of driving pleasure.

Jogging along at national speeds, the eight-speed automatic gearbox will assist in bringing fuel consumption down to around the 7.0 L/100km mark, which is really great considering the size of this vehicle. Plus, it has an all-wheel drive system to contend with! BMW claims that this X3 will average 6.2 L/100km, but that figure of 7.0-litres is a win in my books. It’s not every day that a 3.0-litre engine will return those numbers.

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Image: Charlen Raymond

Geared towards the city

But the X3 has fallen victim to the snowball. It moved away from something you can use to tackle gravel and sandy terrain with and is it much more comfortable in the city. The tyres on some models, like this test unit, have very low profiles. And even when you drive sedately and cautiously, you are taking a risk off the beaten track. Be that as it may, the X3 is a pavement hopper rather than a gravel road conqueror. It’s a bold statement of having it ‘made’ in life. It speaks to a new buyer, a new audience, that find themselves anywhere away from a gravel road – the original terrain SUVs were made to traverse.

The X3, like many other vehicles in this market category, offer what sedans have to offer but without the limitation of space. It’s big, can seat five passengers and their luggage, have a raised ride height to crawl over a cobblestone, and with enough technology and features you’d ever need.

But this X3 is perhaps the finest example of a pavement hopper. It may be pricey at well over R900 000, but it executes its purpose quite well. Even if you never find yourself in the SUVs original terrain, just driving around the city will be gratifying.

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Image: Charlen Raymond