X3 sets bar – but hold that wheel

I do feel a bit sorry for Audi, not winning the SA Car of the Year title this year with its new Q5.

The essence of the competition is that any finalist should be better than its class rivals and the Q5 definitely is, with Business Day motoring scribe Lerato Matebese describing it last year as “easily the most refined SUV in its segment”.

At least it was at the time it was announced as a finalist.

Since then, the new BMW X3 has come along and it took me barely 5km to realise it is the new class leader – and by some margin.

We spent some time with the X3 20d as the most likely volume seller in the range and also because it was the one we were most impressed with at its local launch.

There we raved about how good it was on gravel roads outside of George and Knysna, but our test unit spent its time in the urban sprawl of Johannesburg, where many X3s will live.

The design gives it a much more grown-up look, more in the vein of its other X-model siblings, but it has also grown in stature, particularly when it comes to the 54mm longer wheelbase.

This ensures more interior space for those sitting in the rear.

However, there is also more space up front and here is where the biggest changes are most apparent.

The dashboard is a much more premium piece of kit, especially in the Luxury Line we tested.

It’s more executive BMW sedan in its appearance and layout and there is just a hint of 7 Series in the buttons and the tech. Even the pathway lighting on the ground either side of the car as you climb out is straight from the 7 Series.

The interior feels solid, premium, quality.

Currently the X3 models are imported but one hopes the same level of quality will be apparent in the X3s that will be built at the company’s plant in Rosslyn from April.

Another area that quickly impressed was sound insulation.

You expect to close the door on the world outside when you get into a 7 Series, but the X3 was the same.

There was hardly any noise intrusion from that hectic outside world. The silence within the cabin allows you to best experience the infotainment system.

BMW has managed to dispense with the need for wires and you can now use Apple CarPlay wirelessly, providing a more seamless connection with the outside world.

The system has the gimmicky gesture control which I still struggle to get to grips with but beyond that everything works really well.

As you would expect in a BMW, the driving position is excellent, although I am no fan of the move to skinnier steering wheels, at least not in a car from Munich.

The steering provides good feedback, although the weight of the pre-electric power steering era is not quite there.

Comfort is superb with well-designed seats and the suspension soaked up all but the worst that Joburg roads could throw at it.

There is more technology but this is where I went from being the X3’s biggest fan to wanting to park it on the side of the road.

Actually it almost tried to do that itself.

I am talking about the self-driving technology, that stuff we think we will be able to put all our trust in in the future.

I joined the M1 in Johannesburg for the cruise to work and set the cruise control as well as the lane departure and lane-keeping systems.

The car constantly corrected itself. At times it was a subtle slight turn of the wheel, making it appear nervous, and at others you could feel the car move more.

Then, for no reason at all, and with a slightly slower car in front, it started to veer into the middle lane.

I pulled it back.

Further on, it started veering towards the hard shoulder then suddenly pulled itself back before doing it again in some kind of strange rear-wheel drive tank-slapping moment.

I shouted at it, turned the systems off and took the next junction off the highway, annoyed.

The experience showed we are far from ready for autonomous tech in the real world.

The road lines were fine, the traffic flow provided no major surprises and there seemed to be no excuse for the car’s behaviour.

I accept the technology is not quite there but it begs the question of why include it.

Maybe there were parameters I did not realise.

That aside, the new X3 is brilliant, and I stick to my opinion that the 20d is the best of the range.

It’s also the cheapest, providing more leeway to add in the nice toys, but maybe stay away from the self-driving stuff.

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