First Drive: 2017 BMW X3

First Drive: 2017 BMW X3

Perhaps it is telling that the BMW 3-Series will no longer be produced locally. Instead, the production line at the carmaker’s plant in Rosslyn, Tshwane, will make way for the latest generation of the X3.

The good old sedan body format is no longer hot property. What consumers want is a crossover or SUV.

The traditional three-box saloon has its merits, but when faced with something that is taller, wider, more spacious and apparently has a more rugged body, the case for the traditional sedan is a little underwhelming. Everyone wants to feel like they are getting the most for their money.

BMW says the decision to replace the 3-Series with the X3 at its South African plant is because it forecasts huge demand. It is awesome to note that R160-billion has been pumped into the facility — good news amid the doom and gloom on the economy front.

The model will also be produced at the company’s plant in Spartanburg, North Carolina, in the US.

Last week we attended the local launch of the third-generation X3. From a looks perspective, it is safe to say that the model has shed most of the awkwardness of its predecessors — which is as it should be.

Where the older versions (especially the first one) seemed boxy and disproportionate, the latest generation appears to be just right. The inevitable prospect of a coupé-type rendition (the next X4) seems enticing. According to BMW, the exterior dimensions are largely unchanged from the outgoing vehicle. But the wheelbase is slightly longer.

Is it just me, or have the bean counters at BMW demanded that spending be trimmed on interior quality? One notices it in the little areas, such as the slimmer indicator stalks and with the textures of plastics used on the lower parts of the cabin. Not to say that these elements are substandard (or maybe they are) but long-time drivers of the brand’s products will spot the change.

BMW finally got it right with the manual height-adjustment, however. No longer does the seat sink all the way to the bottom when you pull the corresponding lever, leaving you to squeeze your buttock muscles to achieve a higher position. Now, you just push the handle down — or pull it up — as you would in any other car.

The usual, good aspects of the familiar BMW interior layout were retained: the easy-to-use iDrive system and a button-sparse fascia angled towards the driver. How does it fare in that department? Cue the rehearsed taglines about dynamics, engagement and sheer pleasure.

But don’t be too cynical, because there is a greater focus on refinement and cushiness in the latest X3. Which it delivers.

What an agreeable, plush-riding and well-insulated car this is. If sporting ambitions are your thing, you can opt for the M40i derivative, which is the flagship until the X3M arrives.

In this guise, you get 265kW and 500Nm from a turbocharged, 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine.

It sounds good and hustles the X3 to 100km/h from standstill in 4.8 seconds. It felt rapid, but not blow-your-hair-back fast. And even though it wears an M badge, we still felt more inclined to cruise along rather than exploit its performance credentials.

Look, the M thing stands for Marketing, rather than Motorsport in some cases. I mean, you can get a humble 116i hatchback in M Sport regalia these days. Anyway, the one you probably want is the xDrive30d. Now that complements the persona of the new X3 rather beautifully.

The turbocharged-diesel six-cylinder provides 195kW and 620Nm. The other oil-burning option is the xDrive20d with 140kW and 400Nm. Your petrol choices include the xDrive20i (135kW and 290Nm); which arrives in the third quarter of 2018. This will also be available without the xDrive all-wheel drive trickery — denoted by the sDrive moniker.

The xDrive30i produces 185kW and 350Nm from a boosted four-cylinder. Oh, and all models come standard with an eight-speed automatic transmission.

Time has shown that BMW was onto something when it gave birth to the X5 before the turn of the millennium. It was the start of an entire line of SUVs from the brand — such as the X3 — and the smaller X1.

Of course, we cannot forget the X4 and the X6. There is also an X2 on the horizon. This genre is where all the action is, and the Bavarian automaker is shrewdly capitalising on that trend.

Pricing for the new BMW X3 starts from R684200.