JOHANNESBURG – To celebrate BMW South Africa's switch from producing the 3 Series sedan to building the X3 SUV at its Rosslyn Plant in Pretoria, we had the chance to drive several X3 models for more than 1 000 km through Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Limpopo. What better way to learn about a vehicle than spend a three full days behind the wheel?
The motor manufacturing industry is an exceptionally important one here in South Africa and, frankly, every automaker building locally should be congratulated for its contribution to the economy, especially during these challenging times.
BMW invested billions of rands at its plant in Rosslyn to switch from the manufacture of the 3 Series to that of the X3. Perhaps most impressive, though, is the fact that production of the 3 Series continued unabated while the extensive building work and upgrades were going on in and around the factory.
The X3 produced at Rosslyn is for local consumption as well as the export market. The local range currently comprises the xDrive20d, xDrive30i, xDrive30d and flagship M40i (before the inevitable X3 M arrives, anyway). We have already driven the X3 xDrive 30d Steptronic and the X3 M40i, so during this trip, I decided to spend some time with what is currently the "entry-level" model in the line-up: the xDrive20d.
Behind the wheel
I expected to be a little disappointed as I climbed into the xDrive20d after a long stint behind the wheel of the xDrive30d, with the latter impressing thanks to the high perceived quality of its cabin, a smooth engine (which offers an abundance of torque) and a chassis that offers a good ride quality.
But the interior of the xDrive20d isn't really a letdown. Sure, you notice that the infotainment screen is smaller than that in the more expensive model, but it's more than sufficient for most needs.
Our test unit was fitted with 19-inch wheels (18- and 20-inch items are also available). During the trip, we negotiated some 150 km of gravel roads, and it was over these surfaces that we were thankful for the 19-inch wheels. As expected, some bumps filter into the cabin, but at constant speeds and taking the changing surface conditions into account, the road tyres and suspension coped well.
Back on tarmac, the 19-inch wheels offered both sufficient damping and high levels of grip. Still, if you plan on traveling often on gravel roads, I would recommend opting for the fatter 18-inch tyres.
The 2,0-litre turbodiesel engine in this derivative delivers 140 kW and 400 N.m, with the latter on tap from as low as 1 750 r/min. And this unit performed admirably, both over the mountain passes of Mpumalanga and on the highways. The low-down torque helps with overtaking, and even renders the X3 mildly amusing in the twisties. As with the 3,0-litre model, the cabin is quiet and the overall experience relaxing when you want it to be, despite the SUV's obvious dynamic abilities.
BMW's X models have long been positioned as more dynamically adept than the majority of their competitors, and that remains the case here. However, depending on your chosen specification, the new X3 can also be one of the more comfortable and luxurious SUVs in its segment. Indeed, if you're considering “downgrading” from an older X5 to a new X3, you'll likely find that the new vehicle ticks more than enough boxes.
And that powertrain? Well, the xDrive30d might offer the sort of performance associated with the Bavarian brand's in-line six-cylinder turbodiesel engine, but there's no denying that the more affordable xDrive20d will get the job done for the vast majority of buyers, too.