Slicing through the folds of the Sintra mountains, just 30km outside Lisbon in Portugal, it’s hard not to be distracted by the beauty flashing past.
Atlantic waves pound the shoreline on one side while soaring pine trees throwing long shadows provide picture-perfect moments opposite.
But I wasn’t in Portugal to take selfies at roadside stops, or even visit one of the many lanchonetes that line the cobblestone pavements of quaint little towns so that I could try out the local cuisine.
No, I was in Portugal last week for the international launch of the third-generation BMW X3.
Obviously an important vehicle in BMW’s extensive range, it has sold an impressive 1.5-million units since its introduction in 2003.
Its role for the manufacturer is best summed up by the new designer of the model’s exterior, Calvin Luk: “The X3 is one of the group’s biggest selling models so is hugely important. There is no slowing down in the sports activity vehicle market and that is why there is a lot of focus on this vehicle.”
The main challenge facing Luk was, he says, “to give the vehicle a new character.”
As a result, the car has been significantly revamped, giving it a sharper design. Or, as Luk says, “creating a vehicle that has more of an impact, bolder, in fact.”
The X3, which was unveiled at last month’s Frankfurt International Motor Show, is built in the US town of Spartanburg in South Carolina.
But come April — in what is a massive boost for the South African motor industry — the car will be made at the company’s Rosslyn plant just outside Pretoria for the local and export markets.
And when the X3 is launched in South Africa next month, four models will be available — with the big news being that the first M Performance model in the range, the M40i, will be sold here.
Completing the X3 lineup will be the 20d, 30i and 30d.
As you can imagine, any BMW that displays the M-badge offers that little bit extra. The M40i will be no different.
While across the range many of the exterior stying changes focus on the front of the vehicle — with new LED headlights, air-flap controls on the rather chunky kidney grille to reduce aerodynamic drag, and new LED fog lamps — notable design elements on the M40i include 21-inch light alloy wheels, side skirts, roof rails and a twin black chrome sports exhaust system.
All of which confirm the sporty nature of the vehicle.
At first glance it’s hard to miss the new X3’s more prominent downward sloping roof and the shorter front and rear overhangs than those of its predecessor. The wheel size has increased from a standard 17 inch to 18 inch.
But it is under the bonnet where things get interesting. There will be two petrol and two diesel engine variants on offer and power output will range from 135kW to 265kW.
We wasted no time in getting behind the wheel of the M40i.
As it ate up the kilometres on some excellent roads, the vehicle quickly demonstrated the prowess of its impressive 3.0-litre V6 powerplant.
Tap on the paddleshifts in quick succession and the car lets out a distinctive bark as it zooms seamlessly through the eight-speed Steptronic transmission.
If you can hold your nerve and enter the red zone at 7000rpm, life seems to stand still: the twin-scroll turbochargers unleash their fury and you are rewarded with an aural treat that borders on the brutal.
The speed indicated may be indecent, but the handling feels assured and precise. Chassis modifications have helped to improve the driving dynamics and the M Sport suspension and dynamic damper control are noticeable when the action hots up.
All-wheel drive, or xDrive in BMW parlance, is now standard.
The interior — across the range — has that distinctive BMW look and feel to it. Everything is exactly where you expect it to be and the overall feel is one of quality.
But you will be presented with a new multifunctional leather steering wheel — the design of which is quite progressive when compared with its predecessor. Also included is a 10.2-inch touchscreen which can be activated with gesture or voice control.
Trim lines include XLine, Luxury Line (a new addition) and M Sport, but as with many cars coming out of Germany, it is best to check your credit limit, because the price will dramatically increase as you dip into the options bin.
Additionally, the X3 can be equipped with various driver assist and safety packages.
But it’s the attention to detail — especially in the M40i — that reminds you why the X3 has been so successful. The delicate balance between practicality and sportiness has been achieved, and a brief off-road excursion through the Sintra Nature Reserve in a 30d proved this vehicle has the credentials and ability to play quite happily in the dirt.
A fairly generous approach angle of 25.7-degrees and ground clearance of 204mm mean the vehicle will more than hold its own during a bit of weekend bundu-bashing. The hill descent control came in handy on some particularly steep slopes.
Arriving back in Mzansi after the two-day blur that was Portugal, I made a mental note to add this country to my bucket list of places to revisit.
Hopefully, though, at a less frantic pace, but maybe still in an X3. – Bruce Fraser
Model lineup and pricing (standard models):
X3 xDrive 20d: R684 200
X3 xDrive 30i: R739 800
X3 xDrive 30d: R868 300
X3 M40i: R991 100