Refining the X Factor

Having racked up 1,5-million sales globally since its release in 2003, BMW’s compact X3 has proved to be a popular choice in the SUV market. So, does the recently released third generation model better the standards set by predecessors? Wynter Murdoch reports.

BMW’s new X3 is largely the work of a 32-year-old Australian, Calvin Luk – one of the youngest of the German car company’s exterior designers.

He’s considered something of a rising star in corporate ranks, having been responsible for the X1, the 1-Series facelift, as well as the acclaimed Z4 Concept sports car which BMW unveiled recently in the United States and which is slated to go into production late next year.

Luk’s brief for the third-generation X3 was straightforward – give the model more muscularity, more sovereignty and more dynamism. Having racked up 1,5-million sales globally since its release in 2003, the compact crossover has proved to be a popular choice in the SUV market – and BMW clearly expects demand to increase, with additional production facilities due to come on stream in South Africa and China this year to complement output from the mother plant in Spartanburg in the US.

Based on BMW’s recently introduced, highly flexible KLAR architecture – which also underpins new 5- and 7-Series derivatives – the restyled X3 is longer, wider and taller than the model it replaces, with broader shoulders, a stretched wheelbase and shorter overhangs.  “We’ve given it more muscle and dressed it in a Boss suit,” is how Luk describes the vehicle.

He’s particularly proud of the car’s high, powerful-looking front end – dominated by large, kidney-shaped grilles designed to accentuate presence – and wheel arches which comprise rectangular and trapezoidal forms.

“The wheel arches achieve a character which is both rock solid and dynamic,” he says. “Their shape helps to give the car a lot of stability – but, from the side, they also make it look lively when it’s standing still.” 

Though bigger than its predecessor, Luk says the new model is up to 55kg lighter and far more aerodynamically adept, co-efficient of drag having been cut from 0,32 to a class leading 0,29 thanks to an underbody that’s been clad for smoothness and the incorporation of a spoiler at the rear that extends the roofline.

Speaking of the rear, low-mounted, active twin exhaust outlets typify each of the models, those on the top-line M40i – the first M Performance variant in the X3 range – larger in diameter than those of lesser-powered siblings, and louder, too! Incidentally, chrome accented air vents mounted low on the front fenders of each derivative serve cosmetic interests only.

Inside the cabin, the ambiance is plush with a premium feel, incorporating a rich mix of colours, materials and shapes. Digital hardware and switchgear emulates that of more expensive 5- and 7-Series models, with plenty of options available to suit individual needs.

The stretched wheelbase adds more legroom for backseat passengers and helps to bolster ride smoothness. Comfort-enhancing equipment options include three-zone automatic climate control – which adds separate temperature controls for the rear compartment – heated or cooled front seats, and adjustable backrests for the rear set which, if folded flat, expand cargo volume from 550 litres to a copious 1 600 litres.

At the front, the dashboard console is dominated by a centrally-placed, 10-inch infotainment screen that BMW claims is the largest in the segment. Depending on options specified, control can be via touch, gesture, voice or the company’s standard iDrive system.

Evidence of attention to detail in the cabin includes an embossed X in electroplated accents in the front and rear doors, and another on the B-pillars. The windscreen incorporates standard-fitted acoustic glazing to help to reduce interior noise while, as an option, similar glass can be fitted to the two front side windows.

At the launch of the model in South Africa, I had an opportunity to drive the derivative BMW’s spokesmen believe will be the volume seller – the entry-level, xDrive 20d which, in standard trim, sells for just over R687 500.

Powered by a turbocharged diesel engine which produces 140kW and 400Nm, the model offers plenty of comfort, performance, economy and utility. BMW claims a zero to 100km/h acceleration time of 8,0 seconds and a top speed of 213km/h, with fuel consumption in the combined cycle measured at 5,7 litres/100km.

On tar and gravel roads the vehicle – which, like all derivatives in the initial line-up is equipped with a four-wheel drivetrain, transmission effected through an eight-speed Steptronic gearbox – impressed for high levels of grip, compliant suspension settings and accurate steering. The engine offers easy driveability and the ride remains noticeably fluid even over broken road surfaces.

While BMW’s X models are generally regarded as soft-roaders, this version of the X3 boasts about 200mm of ground clearance, excellent Hill Descent Control, 25 and 22 degree approach and departure angles, and can wade through water almost 500mm deep – in my view extending its off-road capabilities despite its lack of a low-range transfer case.

Certainly, over deeply eroded gravel mountain passes in the George area – some of them awash with large puddles of water – the vehicle maintained excellent composure, instilling driver confidence for its ability to traverse the obstacles with nonchalant ease.

At the other end of the scale, the hero model in the range – the M40i – sells for just over R1-millon in standard trim. Visual differences include more aggressively styled front and rear fascias, different sills and M badging.

Brakes, too, are bigger than those of its siblings – 13,7-inch rotors at the front with four piston calipers and 13,5-inch units at the rear versus 13,0-inch rotors and single piston calipers all round on the regular line-up, along with sportier suspension and steering calibrations.

Powered by a punchy, force-fed, six-cylinder petrol-fuelled engine that displaces 3,0 litres to produce 265kW and 500Nm, the model is an exhilarating performer – but be warned; it’s stiffer ride is far less forgiving from a comfort perspective than that of its stable mate.

Sport sedan quick, the M40i is said to cover the zero to 100km/h sprint in 4,8 seconds, with top speed rated at an electronically limited 250km/h. Through the gears under hard acceleration the noise emitted by the twin exhausts is sonorous – and the vehicle will dive with alacrity into corners, the tyres gripping hard and the cabin remaining reasonably flat thanks to heftier anti-roll bars and beefed up spring rates compared to those of its siblings.

Overall, refinement is generally excellent and the lighter, more rigid upper structure translates into substantial gains in agility and feedback for the driver. Body control is excellent, as is the steering feel.

While the M40i will grab the headlines, in my view a well-specified xDrive 20d will prove to be more than adequate for most consumers. However, the range offers a number of models in between the two extremes and more derivatives – including a rear-wheel-drive only example – are scheduled to join the line-up from September.

For those in search of more diesel power, an xDrive 30d which produces 195kW and 620Nm is available at a starting price of around R873 000, while a petrol powered xDrive 30i – driven by a six-cylinder engine similar to that of the M40i’s, but which produces 185kW and 350Nm – is on sale from R745 956.


BMW X3 xDrive20d
Type Four-cylinder diesel
Displacement 1 995cc
Power 140kW @ 4 000 revs/min
Torque 400Nm @ 1 750 revs/min
0-100km/h 8,0 secs
Top Speed 213km/h
Combined cycle 5,2 litres/100km
CO2 emissions 137g/km
From R687 506


BMW X3 xDrive30i
Type Four-cylinder diesel
Displacement 1 998cc
Power 185kW @ 5 200 revs/min
Torque 350NM @ 1 450 revs/min
Transmission Eight-speed Steptronic
0-100km/h 6,3 secs
Top Speed 240km/h
Combined cycle 7,4 litres/100km
CO2 emissions 168g/km
From R745 956


BMW X3 xDrive30d
Type Six-cylinder, in-line diesel
Displacement 2 993cc
Power 195kW @ 4 000 revs/min
Torque 620Nm @ 2 000 revs/min
Transmission Eight-speed Steptronic
0-100km/h 5,8 secs
Top Speed 240km/h
Combined cycle 5,85 litres/100km
CO2 emissions 153g/km
From R873 088


BMW X3 M40i 
Type Six-cylinder, in-line petrol
Displacement 2 998cc
Power 265kW @ 5 500 revs/min
Torque 500Nm @ 1 520 revs/min
Transmission Eight-speed Steptronic
0-100km/h 4,8 secs
Top Speed 250km/h
Combined cycle 8,3 litres/100km
CO2 emissions 190g/km
From R1 000 676


BMW X3 xDrive20i (from third quarter of 2018) 
Type Four-cylinder, petrol
Displacement 1 998cc
Power 135kW @ 5 000 revs/min
Torque 290Nm @ 1 350 revs/min
Transmission Eight-speed Steptronic
0-100km/h 8,3 secs
Top Speed 215km/h
Combined cycle 7,22 litres/100km
CO2 emissions 165g/km