Lisbon, Portugal - BMW has launched a butched-up and teched-up new generation X3 in its bid to stay ahead in the midsized SUV game.

Or SAV, as BMW insists on calling its Sports Activity Vehicle, which arrives in South Africa next month. And it’s not wrong with that moniker, because the third-generation X3 has been lightened by up to 55kg and is a wieldy thing to drive, with slick handling for a high-riding adventure vehicle.

The twisty roads of southern Portugal, where the X3’s international media launch was held last week, revealed an eager performer with BMW-typical steering and handling characteristics, 50:50 front to rear weight distribution, and relatively minor body roll. This car belongs to a sportier breed of modern adventure vehicles, especially the M Performance M40i version we drove in Portugal which sets the pulse racing with its power and M Sport suspension.

This turbocharged straight-six petrol 3-litre (not a 4-litre as the badge implies) lays down a spirited 265kW and 500Nm. That’s a massive 40kW and 100Nm hike over the old X3 flagship, and makes the new M40i good for a 250km/h top speed and sea-level 0-100km/h sprint in just 4.8 seconds, says BMW. It’s a gem of an engine with a responsive nature and gratifyingly gruff note from the sports exhaust. And, if the factory figures are to be believed, it will sip just 8.4 litres per 100km.

The all-new X3 will also be available in 2.0-litre and 3.0-litre turbodiesel versions when it’s launched here, respectively mustering outputs of 140kW/400Nm and a burly 195kW/620Nm and fuel figures of 5.4 and 6.0 litres/100km. All versions get an eight-speed Steptronic transmission.

The standard Driving Experience Control switch lets the driver switch between economy, comfort or sports modes. Optionally, customers can order Dynamic Damper Control which adjusts the suspension to the road surface and driving situation.

The third-generation X3 has also bulked up in its styling, and although the length stays much the same, it grows a little wider and gets a larger kidney grille to add some visual snarl. It’s now more like a shrunken X5 than a stretched X1 in terms of its road presence. The rear also delivers a bolder visual punch if you opt for the full-LED tail lights with their three-dimensional look.

On the technology front the third generation X3 boasts updated semi-automated driving features including lane keeping assist, self steering, and active cruise control. The infotainment’s been upgraded with a larger display and the ability to control it via voice, touchscreen, and also gesture control for features like the audio volume and answering calls.

Also new is the optional BMW Display Key that made its debut in the 7 Series. With a built-in screen, this device shows a variety of status information on the car and serves as the control unit for the optional auxiliary heating, for example.

The cabin gets a more upmarket feel with improved fit and finish, and the window buttons and other controls are given a classier touch with an optional electroplated accents package.

Access to the roomy 550 litre boot is gained through an automatic tailgate, and the rear seats can be flipped down remotely from the load compartment to expand it to 1 600 litres.

Overseas versions of the X3 will be offered in rear- or all-wheel drive, but locally all models will have drive to both axles via the xDrive system. The X3’s not a hardcore offroader but the all-wheel drive and raised 204mm ground clearance do give it ability beyond mere climbing of shopping mall pavements. On a mild offroad course at the Lisbon launch, the X3 had enough ride height to avoid scraping its belly on fairly substantial bumps. It was also able to keep moving forward in axle-twisting situations where two diagonally opposite wheels were off the ground, thanks to the intelligent xDrive system which directs torque to the wheels with the most grip.

Initially the X3s to be launched here will be built in BMW’s Spartanburg plant in the USA but from April next year they will be sourced from BMW South Africa’s Rosslyn factory, where X3 production has replaced the 3 Series. Customers can choose from four model lines - Standard, xLine, Luxury Line and M Sport.

The new X3 will be on display at this weekend’s BMW M Festival at Kyalami, with tickets priced from R150. For more information visit the www.bmwmfestival.co.za website. -Drive360

PRICES (standard models)

X3 xDrive20d - R687 506

X3 xDrive30i - R745 956

X3 xDrive30d - R873 088

X3 M40i - R1 000 676