THE SUV market is a significant one, with many motorists having switched to these vehicles as status symbols in preference to executive saloons. BMW resides in the upper echelons of the market with its X5, and more recently, X3 models. Premium pricing assures them of exclusivity, but with much mumbling about high prices on the 2,5- and 3,0-litre petrolengined X3 models, the company came up with a more “affordable” version, using its popular 2,0-litre turbodiesel engine.

As with most BMWs of late, you either like the styling or loathe it. The X3 manages (better than the 5 and 7 Series) to offer a macho image with clean, well-defined lines and crisp edges, and has an aura of class and purpose to it. Inside the cabin, one is met with lots of leg, head and luggage room. The facia and trim quality is excellent, with top grade materials in evidence. The black top section absorbs bright sunlight to prevent eyesight glare, while the rest is finished in a rich cream colour to both lighten-up and add warmth to the interior. Large sun visors do their bit to keep the sun at bay, too. The test car had a light Birch wood trim that was more attractive than the more usual dark timber finishes. The optional six-disc CD shuttle is mounted under the armrest, more accessible than a boot mounting, but it does mean that storage space between the front seats is limited to a few CDs alonside the changer plus a shallow armrest compartment suitable for keys or a wallet.

If the list price seems too low, or if you are an optional-extras junkie, BMW will be happy to oblige with add-on creature comforts. Our test car had quite a number of them. They range from metallic paint for a not-unreasonable R2 900 to a sports package (leather steering wheel with multifunction buttons, 18-inch wheels, sports front seats and front foglamps) for R22 900. A huge, panoramic sunroof with retracting cover adds R14 500, while a variety of TV/navigation/sound system options can be specified. Then there is the choice of electrical seat adjustment, front centre armrest, seat heating, headlamp washers, side airbags for rear passengers, folding mirrors, aluminium running boards, lumbar support, park distance control, xenon headlights and many more. The cost of the extras on our test car totalled just over R80 000... One thing you don’t have to pay extra for is space. Lots and lots of it. Sensible design and a space-saver spare ensure that only a large family with far too many possessions will need to tow a trailer.

It is a pity that this model is not available with automatic transmission, as that would take care of a number of irritations. First is the clutch, which has a varying spring force making smooth engagement rather awkward, leading to frequent stalling. The fact that the left-foot rest is too close to the clutch also annoys. Then there is the notchy gearshift. And, finally, the low rev characteristics of the turbodiesel engine, which offers very little torque below 1 500 r/min. This makes climbing steep hills a mission, requiring either a hectic turn of speed, or clutch-slipping to prevent stalling. So best to stick to the tar or gravel roads and leave the tough stuff to 4x4s equipped with low range transmissions.

The four-wheel drive system, named xDrive, uses a multi-plate clutch with a chain-driven shaft to the front wheels, and a conventional propshaft to the rears. The clutch is activated according to the relative speed of the front and rear wheels, and varying degrees of front/rear torque split is distributed in fractions of a second.

Although the maximum speed of 198 km/h is achieved in sixth gear at very close to peak power revs, top gear is very much an overdrive ratio with this engine, and is only effective at speeds above 90 km/h. The tremendous grip did not allow wheelspin on acceleration runs, and we were mindful of the differential whine we experienced after standing start runs with the 2,5i manual version, so the 2,0d’s times were not as quick as claimed, but were not far behind its more powerful petrol-engined stablemates.

Tyre pressure monitors are fitted, useful if one decides to venture off-road and needs to deflate the tyres. Expected fuel consumption is considerably better than the 2,5- and 3,0-litre X3s at just under 9 litres/100 km, and this should score points with anyone wary of the ever-rising price of oil.

Test summary

The styling should appeal to the majority of enthusiasts, the handling is outstanding, ride typically classy, and build quality up to the usual high standard expected from BMW. The engine is economical, but the lack of low-down torque rules out just about all serious offroad exploits. A five-year Motorplan maintenance plan is included for half-a-decade of hassle-free.

Original article from Car