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Broadcast dates : 11th July 2004
15th July 2004

An on-off-roader with sports sedan levels of on-road road-holding. That pretty much describes the essence of the BMW X3.

BMW calls this car a Sports Activity Vehicle, a variation what is commonly known as a Sports Utility Vehicle or SUV. The distinction is made by the Munich manufacturer to define the emphasis on sportiness with the X3.

This is no common refuse hauler with plush trim and electric do-dads added on. It has its roots firmly planted in the BMW 3-Series sedan, a car noted for its razor sharp handling.

On tar roads some may complain that the ride is a little firm, choppy even, over small bumps and ripples. But the fantastic solidity of the body-shell inspires confidence, as does the distinct lack of body-roll when cornering hard in this tall vehicle. The styling of the X3 earned full marks form the Car Torque team. It combines some of the aggression of the 3-Series sedan with a chunkiness that will appeal to hard-core off-road fans.

The bodywork features short overhangs, useful for accessing steep slopes, and there is a reasonable degree of ground clearance. Sporty apparel includes the shark-fin roof-mounted aerial and the rear roof spoiler. 

On the front and rear ends, the tough plastic bumpers finished in black will appeal to those who want to indulge in a bit of bush-driving, as will the black, scuff-resistant wheel arches.

Interesting optional items on the test vehicle included adaptive headlights, which follow the direction of the steering wheel to illuminate the edge of the road. And the headlights also featured lens washing, handy after some muddy off-road adventure or when driving in heavy downpours.

The wheels are sporty in size and styling, as are the tyre profiles. These have more of an on-road orientation than serious off-road rubber.

Our test model was the 2,5-litre version of the X3, with six-speed manual transmission.

The engine produces 141kW @ 6 500 rpm and 245 Nm of torque at rpm

This power train provides a good mix of economy and long distance ability.

But when it comes to off-road driving of a more serious nature it does have its limitations.

The BMW full-time four-wheel-drive system is known as xDrive. This features an electronically-linked multi-plate clutch system between the axles, to transfer torque to the wheels with most traction.

This limits wheel spin and it is a very effective system for both on-road driving in slipper conditions and off-road.

The X3 is ideally suited to holiday travel. And its elevated seating position makes it an ideal game-viewing vehicle. The interior carries through all the modern BMW styling themes and the build-quality is superb. These vehicles are built in Germany and fully imported to South Africa.

There are numerous storage compartments, cup-holders, map pockets and armrests for both front and rear passengers.

ISOFIX child seat mounts are standard and up to eight airbags are offered, depending on the model ordered.

The luggage compartment offers four hundred and eighty litres of conventional stowage space and over fifteen hundred of stowage space with the rear seats folded flat.

In keeping with its active image for this vehicle, BMW claims that three mountain bikes can be transported in the luggage compartment.

The BMW X3 can be ordered with a navigation system. Another option is the panoramic sunroof, a massive glass area that can be opened for holiday fun.

Our venue for our X3 day-drive was the Krugersdorp Game Reserve, just 30 minutes away from Johannesburg.

At the reserve, the Protea Off Road Experience offers 4X4 trails in sight of fantastic game viewing, such as Rhino, Lion, and a multitude of buck and antelope species.

Itís possible to get really close-up viewing of lions in a special enclosure. There are 21 lions at the reserve, but because the enclosure is one hundred hectares in size, the experience is one straight Out of Africa.

With game viewing consigned to a series of wonderful memories, Jannie Rykaart, the man behind the Protea Off-Road Experience on the West Rand, put the X3 put its paces over a medium-level obstacle course.

For descending steep slopes, the X3 comes with a hill-descent control, which automatically brakes the wheels which have traction and releases those which have already lost grip.

But there are limits to the system, and when all grip is lost the driver can apply the brake pedal and lock up all wheels.

On slippery surfaces and on climbs, Jannie reported that he could feel the X-Drive transferring torque to wheels with traction as he climbed the rocky ledge above the river bank.

But the lack of low-down torque and the absence of a low-ratio gearbox put the X3 at the very limit of its performance.

To get the engine in its torque band, the climb should have been approached at higher speed in first gear.

But the presence of rocks and sharp ridges meant that under body damage would have been a certainty if he had rushed the slope any faster.

Consequently, Jannie made lots of use of the clutch to ease the X3 to the top of the ridge.

And using the clutch like that would cause serious slippage if such obstacles were attempted more than once.

Soft-roaders like the X3 are more suited to conventional dirt roads than trails. But it is nice to know that they can handle the occasional drift or wash-away if the need arises.

All in all, a very impressive family holiday vehicle, with plenty of boulevard cruiser appeal.

We predict the X3 will be a runaway sales success for BMW. But like other vehicles in this market, drivers should be aware that they are not real off-roaders.

For that, a double-cab pick-up or a pucker Land Rover, Jeep or Land Cruiser is what you are after.

The BMW X3 costs R385 000 for the six-speed manual version. An automatic version of the 2,5-litre model costs R398 000 while the three-litre automatic, the third model in the range, costs R428 000.

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