A trip across South Africa in a BMW X3 is the perfect reminder of this German SUV's brilliance.
It’s hard to explain, but we feel like the BMW X3 seems a little underrated. Here, you have one of the most formidable luxury brands producing a medium-sized SUV that also happens to be the best seller in its class locally, and yet, due to a combination of factors, it has lost some of its allure.
It goes up against the Mercedes-Benz GLC and Audi’s Q5 as its two main competitors, and to a lesser extent the Land Rover Discovery Sport, Range Rover Evoque and perhaps even the recently launched, but already forgotten, Alfa Romeo Stelvio. In this class, there are plenty of options and you should certainly make your money work for you, as it will take you pretty far considering the potential discounts on offer (read: discounting luxury cars needs to stop).
From the outside, the X3 is a good-looking SUV, though you can say it looks a little too similar to the previous generation and also the soon to be replaced new X5. But it’s important to note that this generation has only been in production since the beginning of 2018, and once you jump inside, the interior, the fit and finish, and the driver technology are first-rate. It rivals that of Audi’s Q5 and easily surpasses the GLC and others already mentioned in this class.
The BMW X3 we get in Australia is sourced from South Carolina, in a town called Spartanburg. The X3, X5, X6 and the upcoming X7 are also produced there. Nonetheless, BMW also builds the X3 in South Africa, about a 45-minute drive out of Johannesburg. Much like the American plant, the South African plant gets its engines from Germany, but the rest is all made there.
The Australian market used to get the 3 Series from South Africa a long while ago, but for now we get the SUVs from the US of A and the rest from Europe. There is no talk of that production shifting back to the right-hand-drive market that is South Africa, but there’s no reason why it wasn’t the perfect place for us to test the X3 in a cross-country epic adventure.
Bar the recently teased high-performance BMW X3 M, the current BMW X3 range consists of four variants: the 20d, 30i, 30d and the M40i. The 30d is definitely the sweet spot in the range, with a 3.0-litre turbocharged diesel that delivers 195kW and an enormous 620Nm of torque helping the spacious SUV go from 0–100km/h in 5.8 seconds.
That’s the car we started our journey with out of Johannesburg and heading towards the factory in which the cars are built. If you’ve been in a modern BMW in the last five or so years, the X3’s interior will feel very familiar. Nonetheless, while it carries over a sense of commonality – which seems far improved in terms of refinement than ever before – it’s feature-packed with the latest technology.
BMW has long been the pioneer of head-up display systems, with the rest playing catch-up. In the X3’s case, it’s a similar story with a super defined and very clear visual representation of everything from your speed to navigation and other useful data. Other features include self-parking, remote 3D view (allowing you to see exactly what is around the car), as well as perhaps less known features such as BMW Personal CoPilot and BMW ConnectedDrive Services.
The co-pilot is basically level-one autonomous driving, which includes active cruise (independently adjusts the distance to the car in front of you), as well as lane-departure warning, and collision and pedestrian warning with autonomous emergency braking. We engaged the radar cruise control and allowed the car to control the accelerator and brake system, and it worked flawlessly for hours on end. It’s nothing new, but BMW’s simple implementation and the smooth operation were noted.
The connected systems allow remote locking and unlocking of your vehicle, as well as concierge services and real-time traffic info. Frankly, we think you just need Apple CarPlay to take care of most of your needs – for which BMW tends to implement better than any other manufacturer, at a charge of $479 for 36 months – and you’re set.
In saying that, BMW's iDrive system is perhaps the best in the business, so if you're not all that keen on using CarPlay, you'll be more than happy with the speed, clarity of the screen, and the general responsiveness of the German's infotainment system.
Through the South African highways and inner-city suburbs, the X3 30d feels unrelenting with its mighty torque. There is an effortless level of performance here, which really begs the question as to why you’d really need an M version for picking up the kids or getting around town.
In fact, once we had our way with the 30d, we jumped into both the 20d and 30i petrol, and found even the base model more than enough. With its 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel, the baby X3 provides an output of 140kW/400Nm. That’s genuinely more than you’ll ever need for an SUV of its size in Australia, and it will do 0–100km/h in a more than respectable 8.0 seconds.
We also drove the 30i, which is powered by a 2.0-litre petrol turbo with 185kW and 350Nm, and found that the pick of the bunch if you just want to hammer it most of the time. But frankly, with fuel economy figures reaching well over 10L/100km in the real world for the petrol, the 20d – in which we averaged around 6.4L/100km – was still the more logical choice. All models use a genuinely excellent eight-speed automatic transmission.
Somehow in our trip across South Africa, my Russian co-driver and I managed to get lost in a few small towns (or slums as they would be called) with nothing but pothole-infested roads, dreadful road conditions in general and relentless undulations. In many ways, one could say those road conditions are similar to what we – as Australians – would call normal roads here, and we’ve criticised the X3 in the past for having a hard ride, but here in this instance it felt right at home.
The ride is definitely a little on the firm side thanks to the run-flat tyres, but it’s by no means uncomfortable (especially if you don’t option up the larger 21-inch wheels and pick the adaptive suspension at a very worthwhile $1462). And as the roads to South Africa’s countryside opened up on the way to the Three Rondavels, the X3 really came to life.
The German company’s focus has always been that now somewhat cliché ‘sheer driving pleasure’, but as we started to really push through the twisty stuff going down mountainous roads, it became obvious that it’s more than just marketing hype. There is an excellent level of grip without having to rely on the car’s nanny controls. Meanwhile, the steering is back to BMW’s traditional meaty feel with great feedback response.
During our almost 1000km drive, we also spent a fair bit of time in the back seat, and you’d be surprised by just how much head and leg room there is. This may be a medium SUV technically, but just like how a small Coke from McDonald’s in America is our large size, the SUV is by no means medium. So, for those that have two kids, it’s more than ideal. There’s a ton of room inside and the cargo capacity measures a huge 550L with the second row in place. That expands to 1600L when the second row is folded. More than enough for any IKEA trip.
Being a permanent AWD, all three variants of the X3 were put to use on some proper gravel and dirt roads across South African game reserves and through the Kruger National Park. Frankly, none of it was what we would call actual off-roading, but it gave a fair idea of what an actual owner would do with their car, and it’s fair to say that the X3 can handle a bit of soft-roading without much hassle. We wouldn’t recommend you off-road this thing, but if you ever had to, you’d only be limited by the ground clearance and not the car’s ability.
Overall, it’s hard to fault the X3 for anything other than its long list of options and – perhaps for some – its ride quality that's slightly firmer than it should be. It is, in this writer’s opinion, a better choice than Mercedes-Benz’s GLC with regard to its dynamics, interior fit and finish, and general feel from behind the wheel. We would highly recommend having the car on your test-drive list if you’re shopping in this segment, and to aggressively cross-shop it with the Audi Q5.
BMW offers the X3 with a three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty. Buyers can purchase a pre-paid five-year service package upfront, which costs $1495 for the X3 and includes five years or 80,000km of servicing.