The long haul with BMW's new X3

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Even in comfort mode, which dials back the engine and throttle response, the test car made short work of meandering camper vans and dawdling rental cars. Photo: David Thomson

David Thomson takes an extended road trip in the flagship of BMW'S new X3 range, and returns home tired but impressed.

It's just gone 4pm, and I'm sitting on a grassy bank beside a Central Otago orchard with my partner and brother-in-law, savouring a real fruit ice cream. It's a lovely Sunday afternoon, but life isn't quite perfect: we've just driven over 460km the day after a family wedding in Hokitika, and home is still over 200km away.

At this point, I am questioning the wisdom of a spur-of-the-moment decision to take the long-way home to Dunedin, via the Haast Pass. Perhaps it would have been wiser to have returned the way we came two days earlier, taking the shorter (under 550km) route via Arthur's Pass and Canterbury's lightly trafficked inland scenic route?

The reasons for choosing the Haast Pass route were largely personal (see this weekend's Drivesouth editorial), but it is also fair to say that a round trip of 1200km in three days (with a big party in between) is not something to willingly contemplate in any old vehicle. And nor was it one originally scheduled for the performance flagship of the new BMW X3 range.

That opportunity came when a last-minute shuffling of test car schedules to meet someone else's needs meant that the X3 M40i arrived later than planned.

There were reservations nagging in the back of my mind when accepting BMW's request to delay testing the X3 M40i for a week: my West Coast whanau aren't into ostentatious automotive displays; performance SUVs are fast, but sometimes too harsh in ride and road noise for truly comfortable distance driving; mid-sized ones aren't always that roomy in the back for adults; and what of the thirst for fuel?

BMW, of course, knows plenty about such vehicles; in 1999, the German brand's X5 was the first luxury SUV that sacrificed off-road ability in favour of on-road manners. It's a recipe so successful that the X5 is now BMW's top-selling vehicle here, and there isn't a major luxury or performance car-maker than hasn't either followed BMW's lead or is about to do so.

The X3 arrived as a smaller sibling to the X5 in 2003. Fast-forward to 2018, and both are now in their third generation, with the latest X3 having arrived last November, and the current X5 _ around since 2013 _ scheduled for replacement in 2019.

The third generation X3 is not only substantially bigger than the model it replaces, it is also longer and wider than the original X5.

Styling is elegant, but even with its M-Sport body kit and badges and optional 21-inch alloy wheels, the test car carried its sporting DNA with a degree of visual restraint that suited my requirements to a tee.

The interior is notably spacious, with sufficient head and leg room in the back to easily accommodate a six-foot-plus passenger behind a similarly tall driver.There is enough width across the rear to take three adults at a pinch, though comfort is vastly superior with two adults in the back.

Cabin design echoes the X3's relatively restrained exterior. Key surfaces are soft-touch and textured, there are burnished chrome strips, surrounds and door handles, carbon fibre inserts in the doors and centre of the dash, and M-Sport badging at the base of the centre console and on the sports steering wheel.

The dashboard is topped by a 10-inch widescreen display that includes touchscreen and gesture control operation as well as BMW's familiar rotary controller.This screen is the main interface for media connectivity, satellite navigation, BMW connected drive, communications and vehicle information and settings.

Other key convenience features on the test car included a Harman Kardon surround sound audio system, tri-zone climate control, and both heating and chilling options for the power operated front seats. Leather-trimmed, those seats are very well bolstered, with adjustable under-thigh support. They proved excellent on the extended test.

Split 40:20:40, the rear seats of the test car boasted reclining backs. This, along with rear-seat heaters, a full-length panorama sunroof and one or two other items were fitted as options over-and-above the standard X3 M40i specification.

Boot space is unchanged from the previous X3, at 550 litres with the rear seats up, increasing to 1600 litres when the back seats are folded down. The tailgate is power-operated and there's a decent rear cargo blind, albeit one that rattled occasionally on test.

Driver aids on the M40i include a heads up display, adaptive radar cruise control, self-dipping headlights, active lane keeping assistance, autonomous emergency braking and surround-view parking cameras. Most of these features are part of the wider BMW Driving Assistant Plus and Parking Assistant Plus packages that are standard on the M40i.

All X3s offered here are equipped with four-wheel drive and an eight-speed automatic transmission, and, while lesser models are fitted with turbocharged four-cylinder motors (petrol or diesel), the M40i takes BMW's B58-series 3.0 litre petrol-fuelled straight-six.

This engine, which deploys a single twin-scroll turbo and variable cam timing, is used on several other `40i' BMW-models, with slight differences in power output. As fitted to the X3 M40i (along with a special sports exhaust), the engine musters peak outputs of 265kW of power and 500Nm of torque, with the latter produced from 1500rpm all the way up to 4800rpm.

Thanks in part to the way in which its launch control system interacts with the transmission and four-wheel-drive, the X3 M40i is super-sharp out of the blocks, covering the 0-100kmh in a shade under five seconds. Top speed is electronically limited to 250kmh.

Meaningful straight-line performance on New Zealand highways doesn't revolve around sprint starts, nor anything that BMW HQ would consider high-speed work. Rather it is defined by what, in old-school talk, is called in-gear acceleration. This is what enables the efficient dispatch of traffic ambling along at anything up to 20kmh under our open road limit, and what the availability of maximum torque from low down makes the X3 M40i supremely accomplished at.

Even in comfort mode, which dials back the engine and throttle response, the test car made short work of meandering camper vans and dawdling rental cars, both of which frequent the West Coast in plague proportions. Sport, or sport plus mode delivered even sharper acceleration, overlaid by a sporty growl to the engine note and some tasty exhaust crackle and pop on the overrun. Now even quite short straights became safe for passing a single slower vehicle, and on longer straights, two or three slower vehicles were swiftly overtaken.

Even more certain than a stream of tourist traffic, SH6 between Hokitika and Cromwell includes plenty of twists and turns, and some quite poorly-surfaced sections of highway, too.

When pushed through these more challenging sections of road, the X3 M40i's body control was generally excellent, and roll neatly contained. The test car braked confidently and gripped well turning into bends. But the most memorable aspect of cornering was its balance, strong grip and surefootedness accelerating out of bends.

These positives were due in no small measure to the M40i differing from other X3 variants in having adaptive sports suspension, and a variable all-wheel-drive system that runs a greater rear-drive bias than the rest of the range.

The ability to override the generally sound shift decisions of the vehicle's eight-speed automatic transmission via paddle-shift controls added a further option for driver engagement. It was just a shame that the steering, while accurate and well-weighted, had a muted feel.

In terms of comfort, flat cornering and minimal pitch under acceleration and braking were big positives. Ride tended towards the firm end of the spectrum, though not uncomfortably so on tarmac, and while road noise on coarse chip was greater than I would have liked, it was less than expected.

The extent of the X3 M40i's tarmac focus was aptly demonstrated on a largely gravel short cut on route to Hokitika, up Zigzag Rd from the Raikaia Gorge, and along the dry weather Lake Lyndon Rd. Time was certainly saved, but surface corrugations were transmitted quite sharply into the cabin, wide tarmac-focused tyres tended to float on the gravel rather than bite the solid surface underneath, and anything other than a modest prod of the accelerator brought traction and stability control systems into power-sapping play.

On the open road the X3 M40i was quite close to home: after a stint in the passenger's seat from Cromwell to Ranfurly, I took the wheel again for the final run home. Threading down the winding but relatively open road from Kyeburn to Palmerston was an absolute treat.

As for economy, the test car managed a creditable 8.8l/100km when cruising with care and a shade under 10.0l/100km when pressing along. Acceptable, given everything else the X3 M40i offers.

The long haul with BMW's new X3
At a Glance
BMW X3 M40i
Overall: ****
Design and styling: ****+
Interior: *****
Performance: *****
Ride and handling: ****+
Safety: *****
Environmental: ***+

For: Excellent engine and strong performance, appealing interior, sure-footed handling
Against: Firm ride, strong tarmac focus
Verdict: Great performance SUV, and good for the long haul, too

SPECIFICATIONS
Price: $131,050 (as tested), $119,850 (standard)
Engine: 2998cc turbo petrol six-cylinder, maximum power 265kW@5500-6500rpm, 500Nm@1520-4800rpm
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Brakes and stability systems: Front and rear disc brakes, ABS, VSC, ATV
Safety: Five-star NCAP
Wheels and tyres: Alloy wheels, 245/40 R21 front and 275/35 R21 rear tyres
Fuel and economy: 8.9 litres per 100km on standard cycle, capacity 60 litres
Emissions: CO2 204g/km on combined cycle
Dimensions (mm): Length 4708, width 1891, height 1676