BMW X3 review: An SA favourite returns with a makeover

There’s any number of ways you could see the Pilanesberg, one of South Africa’s great nature reserves.

First prize for most would be the lodges and resorts offering lavish rooms and sundowners on the deck. Hoity-toity influencers might go glamping; pre-assembled luxury tents that set up the perfect Instagram shot. Anyone above such pomp will go real camping. Others would be equally happy to slum it out in rickety self-catering chalets. Or perhaps to some, the homely allure of Ouma’s bed and breakfast is most appealing.

Completely different worlds co-existing in the same reserve. Just as it is in today’s overpopulated mid-sized SUV market. You could pick one up from almost any major manufacturer, at any range of pricing. All look and feel exceptionally different; all do much the same thing. 

Which brings us to the launch of the new, facelifted BMW X3. For the German manufacturer it has become one of their best selling models around the world, including South Africa where it is regularly the top selling medium sized luxury SUV. So it’s understandable why they would want to do something special to announce its makeover.

Meeting in Waterfall early on a Monday morning, we indulged in a few breakfast snacks and a short presentation before heading off to Shepherd’s Tree Lodge, one of the more deluxe choices of venue in the Pilanesberg.

The trip there would be handled by the M40i, essentially the performance king atop the X3 range. It is also stupendously fun to drive.

From the BMW Midrand base we meandered past Hartbeespoort, with our route plotters giving new meaning to the idea of scenic. At the North West border they even found a cheeky dirt crosscut to send us on to sample the off-tar driving experience.

Eventually we were more or less back on the main track, which meant open highways and plenty of room to nudge the 3.0l turbo engine.

There’s a subtle growl that accompanies the pedal as it edges nearer to the floor. Nothing outrageous or screeching, as you might find in an M Competition, but just enough to trigger the primal pleasure sensors in the brains of most mild motoring enthusiasts. On the road it translates to a steady quickening of the pace — the speedometer needle happy to travel out of legal bounds if not watched carefully.

Thankfully it retains plenty of grip as well, not succumbing to the trembles which speedy SUVs often face. Steering is precise and the handling smooth; it’s just what you’d expect from this luxury segment. 

Driving behind our colleagues was the best vantage point to see the “facelift” in action — by far the most distinguishing element of the new exterior are the rear lights. The best way to describe them is that there’s an elongated horseshoe running through the centre. It’s all very futuristic and undoubtedly ratchets up the vehicle’s sex appeal.

Cruising alongside the beautifully parched South African landscape is a good time to remember that these are locally produced. In 2018, BMW decided to swap out the 3-Series for the X3 on the manufacturing line of its Rosslyn plant, north of Pretoria. Now we found ourselves driving the latest batch.

Unfortunately, our country is not immune to the challenges of the semiconductor shortage that has affected the rest of the world. This reality bares itself here most visibly in the lack of a wireless charging dock on the X3. Although such an amenity has become almost standard, it shouldn’t be a deal breaker … unless you decide it is. 

In either case such issues were quickly forgotten as we pulled into the gates of the Pilanesberg. We checked into rooms that stretched out from the main building — to such an extent that you had to dial for a golf cart to go back and forth unless you were feeling particularly sprightly. Each mini-apartment had a wide glass sliding door that opened into the infinite valley of the reserve’s signature koppies. The outdoor showers strategically faced the same direction, allowing you to wash in front of the whole world and no one at all. Suffice to say it’s going to be painful to go back to Ouma’s B&B after sampling this lifestyle.

This is where we begin to draw parallels with our trip’s transport. The X3 looks good. It feels good. There’s a plush sense of comfort when you’re nestled in its seat, surrounded by leather and other soft materials. Whether you want to call it a midsized-SUV or Sports Activity Vehicle, there is little in this class that comes close to its scent of opulence.

The reason you would pitch in extra for a five-star lodge is no different to why you’d cough up close to a bar, at minimum, for this experience.

But with the X3s parked it was time to forget about all of that for the time being. That evening we dressed warmly and headed out on an open-top game drive.

A lone elephant bull scrounged amid the shrubbery of one hill. Down below, buck and a few stray wildebeest congregated, seeking refuge in a burnt plain, away from the tall grass and potential predators lurking inside it. Further down the road a serval scampered into the bushes just as quickly as it could be pointed out.

Returning to camp we headed straight to the boma, where game- meat potjie was served on long tables surrounding the bonfire. Malva pudding and whisky would close out the night. 

In what felt like five minutes later, the morning call filled the rooms of those of us stubborn enough to opt in for the pre-dawn game drive. The lonely herbivores had survived the night, to the mild surprise of our friendly game ranger. Later on he excitedly gestured to a crimson-breasted shrike, a beautifully bright creature birdwatchers come from across the world to tick off their list.

After a quick breakfast it was back onto the road. This time in the xDrive20d. Which made it apparent that the order was not the ideal way to experience the X3. 

After the M40i, its other iterations feel a bit tame. There’s nothing wrong with them, the bite is just far less vicious.

Why wouldn’t one just buy the former to begin with? The answer, as it is to most things in life, is money. After rubbing your eyes at the price list, you’ll realise that the M40i starts at just north of R1.4-million. That’s R500 000 more than a base model. The truth is most small families will happily save that chunk and settle for the normal engine (2.0 turbo diesel) experience.

Which, again, isn’t a bad one. Especially when it comes to comfort — even the bumpiest bits are dispensed with relative ease. The drive is crisp at the wheel and smooth in the passenger seat.

Once more we moseyed to our destination, this time stopping near the Cradle of Humankind for lunch before entering Johannesburg. Our two-day journey wasn’t an arduous one; it could have been undertaken by any other vehicle in this class. But few would have offered a similar feeling of luxury.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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