The new X3 is an SUV with some seasoning
(Full disclosure: BMW’s local importer, which is what they call franchise holders in other countries, wish I wasn’t so salty towards their X6 sales darling. I, on the other hand, wish manufacturers took charge of their products again instead of kowtowing to the flimsy whimsy of the car-buying public, which leads to some pretty irrelevant stuff, such as the X6. It is obvious one of us will have to back down, and I suspect it will be me.
Some battles one cannot win, no matter how much newspaper space is dedicated to it. Also, the brand new M-tuned X3 blew my mind away and made me forget the X6 for a minute...
For the second time in 2017, I found myself in the business class seat of a South African Airways flight out of Nairobi heading to the highly scenic driving environments of George and Knysna in the Western Cape of the RSA to put a brand new BMW through its paces. As usual, this was the machination of The Smiling Suit from our 5 Series episode in March, and he was as warm a host as one could ever wish for)
So, the G01. What is it?
The latest iteration of BMW’s attack on the highly lucrative RAV4 parade, but with some seasoning added. The best way to completely dominate a field is to outclass the rest of the pack. Has BMW outclassed its competition? Yes and no. Yes, because the Japanese and Korean crossover utility lineup can only dream of conjuring up the kind of magic BMW has with its latest anti-wagon at that price point. No, because much as BMW was the first luxury premium brand to venture into this unforeseen money-pit, it is no longer alone. Jaguar, Mercedes-AMG and Porsche loom large in its high beams and might adversely affect the size of BMW’s share of the sales pie.
What have you just written?
Look, the dynamics of the motoring industry are as active as they are fickle, and as such, they keep changing from time to time by definition.
This puts carmakers on edge and while they love to be visionary, more often than not they are compelled to be reactionary, or else doom and gloom awaits them.
Toyota and Honda embarked on a visionary quest in the mid-90s, creating the RAV4 and the CRV respectively; two unknowns in an equation chock-full of variables, with the hopes of creating a new market niche.
Well, they succeeded in creating that niche, but what I can safely bet was they did not anticipate their innovation would be the definitive automotive segment of the first two decades of the 21st Century.
The crossover class has proved to be such a sales hit, every manufacturer is doing it. Like most other successful innovations, the stench of “Why-didn’t-I-think-of-it-first” is strong in this one: the crossover utility vehicle, sometimes known as the soft-roader, is simply the confluence point in the Venn diagram comprising station wagon, minivan/people mover and full on off-roading SUV.
The crossover has also ensured the death of the traditional three-box car design.
The formula to concoct it is even simpler: take a compact saloon car platform, clad it in a longroof frock, put it in high heels, drop the hem a little, splash a bit of AWD and voilà! In the words of the great Borat Sagdiyev: “Great Success!” And a great success it is too: it costs little to develop since the platform is pre-existent, and it flies off the shelves.
The thirst for this type of vehicle is so much and automakers are making such a killing from them that for successive generations of these vehicles, these automakers can now afford to develop bespoke platforms for them rather than scrounge on old frames.
BMW is already on its third generation X3, its RAV4-class battleship, putting it at par with the Nissan X-Trail, which feels like it has been around longer (which it has, by about three years). The first X3 was not so good; nobody remembers the second one.
This third one should change all that.
So, enough with the convoluted language, let’s get on with the interior
A lot more low-tech compared to the G30 5 Series we drove earlier in the year. I also think it could benefit from a steering wheel with narrower spokes rather than the thick, chrome-accented ones, which seem a bit yesterday...
Subtly stylish X5 lookalike with flexible features
Oh, great! Another salty article…
No it’s not. Nobody’s complaining... yet. In fact, let’s get the complaints out of the way real quick.
The navigation system on Day 1 kind of disregarded the preprogrammed route and kept suggesting alternatives, talking over my colleague’s catchy hip-hop instrumental playlist and driving up our collective blood pressures.
That was an isolated hiccup because on Day 2 everything worked fine and the satnav can be shockingly accurate when it decides to. Also, the woman living in the dashboard can be rendered mute at the press of a button.
The gesture control didn’t seem to work and I gave up waving my hand in front of the centre console after a while.
Maybe it needs to be activated somewhere in the menus; for the 5 Series, it came on automatically in the middle of a highly animated conversation between driver and passenger.
Rear legroom is a compromise if the driver is American in proportion (above left) but what percentile of the world’s population is of that size anyway? It gets a pass on the score card because for normal-sized humans, it is sufficient, with zero concessions made to comfort.
The boot could be bigger as well, but the X3’s existence brief is not exactly a transcontinental load-lugger so much as a grocery shopper with enough clearance to wander onto dust over the weekend. It works. It works very well.
Now, the good stuff. Spec your G01 up and the interior can get very tasteful. The aluminium trim on the door panels have an “X” etched in inverse bas-relief to remind you that you are not in a 3 Series.
Seat adjustment is electrical if you shell out more coins at the dealership or manual if you like reliability and are not so rich.
Driving position varies from bunker-low to treetop-high and everything in between. The steering wheel rim is chunky and feels nice to the touch but sweaty corner-carving throttle-open histrionics that lead to glistening palms can have your paws getting slidey over it.
This is curable by tilting the air vents so that the cold wind hits your palms directly and cools them down.
Ingress and egress is effortless, front and back. The centre console is canted ever so slightly towards the driver and would you look at the pedals on the M40i (see photo above)... nobody takes the time to admire the pedals on a car but just look at them.
Time was dedicated to designing them.
What about the outside?
Well, this looks a lot like an X5 at 80 per cent, with the Hofmeister kink shoe-horned in as an upswept plane aft of the C pillar. That’s about it; for a more detailed analysis, just look at the thing and decide. I like it; you have to admit the car is subtly stylish, a typically German nod towards flamboyance, but I think the lesser versions could do with better (read less flowery) rim designs. The rims on the M look fetching.
This could well be the thinking man’s vehicle
(Full disclosure Part II: usually it’s open season on who drives which car on these travelogues, so you snooze, you lose. I learnt this the hard way back in 2011 at Port Elizabeth when I had to manhandle an Angolan journalist to get a chance at wringing the neck of a 6.2 litre V8 saloon car, otherwise it was a third rotation for me in a 1.2 litre hatchback, which is punitively hard work in a shiny convoy averaging 160km/h cruising speed. Back to the BMW X3...)
So, in ascending order of excitement (and chronology), we do the diesel first. I might have called it slow but it is not conventionally slow; it will still outrun close to 70 per cent of other cars out there. But in the face of its fire-breathing Motorsport brother, it pales into insignificance.
However: it is about 400 per cent more comfortable. I didn’t read the spec sheet to determine whether or not it had the adaptive dampers (I doubt it did), but on a rough, undulating gravel road it soaked up the crests and dips, and the rocks underfoot without breaking a sweat.
I liked sitting in it and I liked helming it despite the dearth in underbonnet firepower. Were it not for the questionability of diesel quality, this would be the thinking man’s BMW.
Thinking men would also have to put up with what is becoming a ubiquitous Euro-diesel thrum when the taps are opened.
Not exactly the uproarious clattery chatter of a Massey-Ferguson on a cold start — we humans are past that as a race — but a distinctly diesel flavour still permeates the pudding and pats the palate not so pleasantly.
It is something that can be lived with, though.
And then there was M, the Swiss Family Rocket ship. Called the M40i, this spec packs lower profile tyres and an aggressive suspension setting that will have the driver quickly vowing never to wander off the hardpack again.
The hard stilts crash and jar, a lot, for what is meant to be a family car first and an emergency response vehicle second, if the emergency is lateness.
The discomfort is immediately noticeable from the moment one tyre leaves the tarmac, more so when coming from the softly suspended non-M car.
Much as the M40i had a more rewarding drive overall, favouring understeer on overenthusiastic corner entry and a smidgen of oversteer on early-power early-apex rally techniques on murram, try not to run on the dust for too long.
The M40i might shine here, but the gods of broken spines dim that glow when they start blowing a hot, irritating breeze into your ear to remind you that chiropractors make a living off the likes of you. Get back on the tarmac, and the M40i really comes alive.
The flies in the ointment are the lack of texture in steering feel and a discernible lag in throttle response owing to the electronic interference between foot and engine; but these do not detract too badly from what is a typical BMW M driving experience.
The feel-deficient electrically assisted steering is very accurate and finger-light, even in frantic tiller-twirling on a twisty back road.
There is a lot of grip and not a lot of body roll. This car can be hustled hard, and when done so, a smile cracks your face in two and your passenger changes colour and goes green, trying not to upchuck his early breakfast (My apologies to my friend, a fellow Kenyan. My experience with a Nissan GTR 5 years ago taught me to avoid foods like stewed liver if we are going to thrash a car on winding roads. The stomach, unlike the car, is quite easily unsettled)
The size of the X3 has grown so much that the current car is well-nigh the size of the original X5, but visibility is okay all the same, and parking or unparking it presents no problem.
The stubby shifter is now standard fare across all BMWs and will take some getting used to for newbies graduating from Japan.
The parking brake is a tiny electronic switch near the gear lever that is a rip-off from JLR’s own, but hey... advancement is advancement.
This is like calling circular steering wheels rip-offs of the Model T. All versions get the wonderfully simple HUD display that collaborates with the sat-nav and the speedometer to give you pertinent information concerning the accuracy and legality of your trip.
The real threat for now comes from Mercedes
It is interesting to note that BMW is strangely noncommittal about pricing of the G01 in respective markets, but expect the car to cost something in the neighbourhood of $75,000 (Sh7.7 million) after giving unto the taxman what belongs to Caesar.
The price will vary up or down depending on whether you are in the 4-cylinder diesel kart with manual seat controls or the guttural M40i ground-hugging missile. So this leaves the question: would one buy one?
Yes, one would. BMW has become serious about the X3; because this is its new “most important car” in that it represents what should on paper be its biggest seller in the coming days.
One third of all BMW’s sales are X cars, and the X3 is sized just right to fit into the most lucrative vehicle segment that includes almost everything from a Hyundai Tucson to a Tesla Model X. Being a premium luxury brand with a performance bent and a motorsport legacy to uphold, the X3 widens the gap from aspirational middle-class tosh like the X-Trail and the CRV by upping the performance and luxury antes and instead reasserts itself where it belongs: dicing with the likes of upper-echelon snob-mobiles such as the Porsche Macan, Mercedes-AMG GLC-Class and Jaguar F Pace. This is where crunch time ensues.
The X3 will probably undercut the Porsche and the Jag in price, which makes it good value, but it lacks the sheer driving dynamics of its fellow German or the raw sex appeal of the Brit. Up to you to decide: shillings for feelings.
The Mercedes-Benz GLC will be its biggest problem because lately, a well-kept secret locally is the pricing of Mercedes cars.
They are surprisingly “affordable”, but the importer chooses to keep this quiet in a bid to keep uncultured new-money types from festooning their showrooms and tarnishing their highly polished image.
Also, the cooking GLC, the AMG 63 S, carries more firepower in twin-turbo V8 form than BMW’s M equivalent, unless part of the G01’s future includes a dedicated X3M to slot above the M40i. When Bavaria goes up against Stuttgart, it’s always a fight to the death.
The diesel version is slow, the petrol one not good off-road
Oh... Okay. That was very... concise. How was the driving?
Much as it was unplanned, we ended up testing the two performance extremes of the brand new X3. Day 1 had us in the breadline 2.0 litre diesel – called the XDrive20d, the lowliest and slowest X3 you will ever drive; simply because everyone else spotted the M versions before me and dived into them before I was done struggling with my suitcase.
Day 2 had us in the M40i, the hot version, at the crack of dawn because we’ll be damned if we drove that slow diesel again and so we wolfed down our breakfast and fired up the 355hp 3.0 litre twin turbo long before the rest of the gang even had a chance to snooze their alarms.