Johannesburg - The rationale behind sports SUVs is an elusive one, as a high centre of gravity and a powerful engine in principle make an alliance about as comfortable as that between the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters.

If you want a fast, corner-hugging car with oodles of cabin and boot space - especially if you never intend going offroad - then a high-performance station wagon will do the trick much better than an SUV. But such cars, though popular in Europe, are for some reason almost extinct in our SUV-worshipping market where a couple of centimetres of extra ride height is revered.

That said, many modern sports SUVs, despite their inherent physical limitations, are doing a decent job of blending pace with handling grace. The new BMW X3 M Performance M40i xDrive is one of them.

Selling for R1 000 676, it’s the most powerful version of the new four-model X3 range that recently went on sale in South Africa, and which will be built at BMW’s Rosslyn factory near Pretoria.

It has outstanding roadholding for an SUV. Though somewhat top-heavy as all vehicles of this ilk are, it’s still a machine you can chuck around the bends without it feeling especially soggy or prone to toppling over. The new X3 is up to 55kg lighter than its predecessor but the M Sport suspension and rear-biased xDrive all-wheel drive system also play big factors in these dynamics, giving this powerful X3 the ability to tuck into sharp curves without running into early understeer.

The steering is nicely weighted as per longstanding BMW tradition, especially when the vehicle’s set to Sport or Sport + mode. There are also Comfort and Eco Pro modes which adjust the engine, steering and gearshift characteristics and regulate the sound of the exhaust. For extra money, customers can order Dynamic Damper Control which adjusts the suspension to the road surface and driving situation.

On the tar the ride quality’s pretty good as long as you avoid potholes, and the sports suspension is firm without being uncomfortable. But the low-profile 21-inch tyres weren’t entirely happy churning through offroad trails, where bumps and ripples are jarringly transmitted to the human occupants.

The X3 is a surprisingly effective offroader, with the 204mm ground clearance and the traction to tackle tougher obstacles than the customary shopping-mall pavement. Where some vehicles, including 4x4s without diff locks, might get stuck on obstacles where two diagonally opposite wheels lose touch with the ground (known in the parlance as an axle-twister), the intelligent xDrive system combined with Stability Control ensures the wheels that are still touching the ground always have drive.

But we shan’t linger on that point because this particular Beemer is likely to spend most of its time on tar. Here, along with its already-mentioned cornering skills, it also displays some entertaining forward thrust courtesy of its 3-litre straight-six twin scroll turbo engine which generates 265kW and 500Nm. It’s a gem of an engine with a very lively nature and gratifyingly gruff note from the sports exhaust.

In our Gauteng performance test the big vehicle scooted to 100km/h in a hot-hatch-like 5.1 seconds (the factory claims 4.8 secs at sea level), and keeping your foot buried swiftly ushers this big BMW to its governed 250km/h top speed. It’s an all-round effortless, lag-free performance that’s complemented by a smooth eight-speed Steptronic auto box.

This kind of pace comes at a price however, and our test vehicle gulped through 12.8 litres per 100km (the factory claims a figure of 8.4 litres).

The new X3’s undergone a significant restyle, and looks more masculine with its enlarged kidney grille, and reshaped front bumper with bigger air scoops and flatter fog lamps. At the rear, full-LED tail lights get a striking three-dimensional look.

There’s also been a welcome upgrade to the interior. In the past, BMW interiors had the paint-by-numbers executive look but were short on styling pizzazz. Now, presumably inspired by the alluring interiors made by rivals Mercedes-Benz and Audi, BMW is laying on the automotive charm. The new X3’s interior is replete with electroplated accents and quaint little styling touches, including smart-looking metallic window buttons, and X3 logos in the doors.

The third generation X3 has also grown smarter on the technology front, and now inherits semi-automated driving features from the 7 Series, including lane keeping assist, steering assist, and active cruise control - these being optionally available at extra cost. The infotainment’s been upgraded with a larger display and the ability to control it via voice, touchscreen, and also optionally gesture control for features like the audio volume and answering calls.

Standard features include a wireless charging pad for smartphones, electrically adjustable seats, three-zone climate control, navigation, and keyless engine start.

The new optional Head-Up Display has crisper graphics and resolution, and there’s an optional digital instrument panel that changes its theme and colours when Comfort, Sport or Eco Pro are selected.

Although the length of the new X3 stays much the same, it’s grown a little wider and the wheelbase is slightly stretched. It has plenty of interior room, enough to make you think twice about spending a lot of extra money on an X5. The boot’s also a very spacious 550 litres, and it now comes with an automatic tailgate. Conveniently, the rear seats can be flipped down remotely from the load compartment to expand the luggage area to 1 600 litres.

VERDICT

If you like your high-riding SUVs with lots of burly performance, the X3’s got you covered. There is also a full-blown M version in the works which will presumably use the 3-litre turbo engine from the M4, and should arrive sometime in 2018.

FACTS

BMW X3 M40i xDrive

Engine: 3-litre, six-cyl, turbopetrol
Gearbox: 8-speed automatic
Power: 265kW @ 5500-6500rpm
Torque: 500Nm @ 1520-4800rpm
0-100km/h (tested, Gauteng) 5.1 seconds
Top speed (claimed) 250km/h
Price: R1 000 676
Warranty: 2-year/unlimited km
Service plan: 5-year/100 000km

ALTERNATIVES

BMW X3 M40i xDrive 265kW and 500Nm R1 000 676
Audi SQ5 Quattro 260kW and 500Nm R1 044 000
Jaguar F-Pace 35t AWD S 280kW and 450Nm R1 172 446
Mercedes-AMG GLC43 4Matic 270kW and 520Nm R969 406
Porsche Macan GTS 265kW and 500Nm R1 351 000
Range Rover Velar P380 280kW and 450Nm R1 110 116