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Driven: New X3 - a real junior X5

2010-12-03 09:36

Lance Branquinho

X-FACTOR: Very much BMW’s middle-child SUV, the new X3 deputised quite convincingly as a junior X5 – more so than the old one...

Vehicle Specs
Manufacturer BMW
Model X3
Engine 2l turbodiesel, 3l in-line six turbo
Power 135kW @ 4 000-, 225kW @ 5 800r/min
Torque 380Nm @ 1 750-, 400Nm @ 2 000r/min
Transmission Eight-speed auto
Zero To Hundred 8.5-, 5.7 sec
Top Speed 210-, 245km/h
Fuel Tank 67l
Fuel Consumption 5.6-, 8.8l/100km
Weight 1 790-, 1 805kg
Boot Size 550l (1 600l)
Airbags Six
Tyres 225/60 R17 (20d), 245/50 R18 (35i)
Front Suspension Double-joint struts
Rear Suspension Multi-link
Rivals Audi Q5, Volvo XC60
BMW’s second-generation X3 is at last available in South Africa but this the second best-selling X-branded vehicle is now in a much broader hierarchy than at launch back in 2003.

With the X1 as BMW’s SUV buy-in point and the X6 as the brand’s headlining all-wheel drive in the South African market, the second-generation X3 is now very much the middle child of Munich’s X-family.


The entirely new, second-generation X3 rides on a dedicated platform instead of that of the 3 Series - as was the case with its predecessor.

For now the new X3 will have only two drivetrains (xDrive20d and 35i), each powering all-wheel drive through ZF’s superb eight-speed auto transmission. An xDrive 30d is expected to join the line-up early in 2011.

The new X3 is larger yet more fluidly styled than the first-generation, with neat styling details masking its increased size well. Bumper-to-bumper, it gains 83mm. Width is up by 28mm and road to roofline is 12mm more. To all intents and purposes, the X3 is now nearly the same size as the original X5.


The second-generation X3 is more spacious and features BMW’s new instrument binnacle with its shallow dials. BMW’s iDrive controller has also (finally) been invited aboard, residing on the centre console.

The materials and perceived build quality may be premium but equipment levels are fair instead of outstanding. With both the xDrive20d and 35i you only get auto aircon and MP3-enabled infotainment as notable standard features. Powered front seats are R10 800 extra. Cabin safety is comprehensive though, with two front airbags and curtain airbags for the first and second-row occupants.

BMW offers two optional navigation systems, an entry-level unit retailing for R13 700 and a high-end unit with DVD drive and eight GB of disc space for R21 300. Or you can chose a combination of the premium navigation system and BMW’s internet integration (which pairs with the latest iPhone4 or Blackberry smart phones) for R30 000, which is a no-brainer if you need to stay in touch with business while at the helm.

Some of the really neat stuff you get on BMW’s sedans (and the X5) are not even on the options list. If you want lane departure warning, blind-spot warning or brake-active cruise control, well, buy the X5.

Strangely enough, a head-up display is an optional extra for R14 100. I can't help but wonder if indulging customers’ Top Gun fantasies, instead of shoring up the X3’s available safety features with proven BMW goodies such as brake-intervention cruise control or night vision is not perhaps a marketing decision without merit with regards to the X3.

Although the new X3’s luggage capacity is 80 litres more generous (550 litres with the second-row seats in use, 1600-litres with it tumbled forward) the lack of a deployable cargo tray or wet/dry compartment does limit its talents as an effortless lifestyle cargo-carrier.

LESS IS MORE: Simple design is impeccably executed but don’t expect full-house equipment levels, even after ticking all the option boxes...


There is no diplomatic way to say it but I was never particularly taken by the first-generation X3. With suspension components from the fourth-generation E46 3 Series and rather low-profile tyres, it was well below par on gravel roads - an unforgivable state of affairs for something with all-wheel drive and SUV aspirations.  

The second-generation X3 addresses the ride issue with its dedicated platform, wider track and revised axle spacing. With plenty of clever suspension bits borrowed from the next-generation 3 Series and dynamic damper control an option, BMW’s technical experts have done all they can to ensure the new X3 manages to retains the brand’s driver appeal without compromising ride on imperfect roads.

Powering the two available X3 models are BMW’s journeyman turbo engines, the three-litre in-line six (these days a single-turbo N55 unit, of course) and a two-litre common-rail injected turbodiesel.

With peaks outputs of 225 and 135kW for the in-line six and turbodiesel respectively, the new X3's are more powerful than their numbers-matching predecessors. BMW says the 35i is 1.5sec quicker to 100km/h (setting a performance-car competitive time of 5.7sec) whilst being eight percent lighter on fuel. The 20d is 14% less thirsty and a half-second faster to 100km/h.

Each engine hs ZF’s eight-speed auto transmission; there's no intent to offer a six-speed manual in SA.

BMW’s local debut of its stop/start system rolls out with the new X3, too, although it prioritises aircon comfort over all-out efficiency. Succinctly: if you want to stay cool don’t expect the stop/start to engage when you stop.


To illustrate the harmonised dynamic ability of thisX3 BMW sent us on a challenging route that took in most of the Mpumalanga’s best mountains passes (which easily rank among the greatest driving roads anywhere) and some of the rather severe dirt roads linking them in-between.

Navigating flowing passes such as Kolwyn’s, this the first X3 with electric instead of hydraulic steering assistance was classily composed.

Turn-in is as intuitive and crisp as one has come to expect from products branded by the blue-and-white propeller roundel. Brake deep into a curve that tightens from sweep to wrist-over-wrist steering and the stability systems intervene by slowing the opposing inside rear wheel to tighten the line and see you through smoothly.

The more powerful X3 35i's dynamic stability control system has a compensation algorithm to ensure its intervention safety net on the limit remains predictable and true despite brake fade.

For R20 850 on the diesel (R21 850 on the 35i) BMW will fit dynamic shock-absorbers, Servotronic steering and variable torque-split between the rear wheels to ensure as pure a dynamic experience as you could wish for.

ROUGHING IT: BMW’s xDrive system is more than capable enough to deal with secondary tracks and some sandy surfaces. Dirt road ride quality hugely improved...


The cars at the launch were mostly on (optional) 245/45/R19 Pirellis. Although the X3 proved it had a surfeit of mechanical grip, conventional wisdom (in my mind) dictated that such large low-profile tyres would brutalise ride quality across a badly rutted, corrugated and therefore classic South African dirt road.

A few kilometres down our first gravel section (which I turned on to with a sense of dread), the new X3 proved it has convincingly banished its predecessor’s ox-wagon ride quality. With the xDrive20d and 35i in fact running 17 and 18" wheels as standard equipment, expect an even more comfortable ride if you steer away from the image-appeal 19" rims.

Beyond dirt-road sojourns, BMW mapped a mellow off-road route meandering through the Lion Sand concession adjacent to the Kruger Park. Here the X3’s 212mm ground clearance proved ample for most of the ruts and challenging middelmannetjies. A run down, through and up a dry river was easily completed with the dynamic stability control disabled in a manner prioritising traction instead of posture - perfect for powering through sand.

Although the X3 range for now lacks the Q5’s range of engines and cabin cargo-carrying adjustability it is a very much better car than its predecessor. Where it was once the junior (a position now occupied by the X1), this X3 is now BMW’s xDrive middle-child and a very unproblematic one at that. 

Pricing: (CO2 tax included)

X3 20d - R465 308
X3 35i - R605 182

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