‘Do you think we can drive X3 off the production line?’ I intentionally emphasise the word drive.
Doesn’t sound too improbable a request but it would mean temporarily finding a gap at Rosslyn’s production facility – where there is capacity to produce 76 000 X3s annually – for TopGearSA to drive the first X3 literally off the factory floor.
BMW is reticent on the request. Hey you have to ask…
But I’ve jumped ahead of why we’re here. The idea began earnestly enough; drive a new BMW X3 from Rosslyn in Pretoria to Durban harbour – a facsimile of the journey many will take en route to European markets. But with a historic spin, one with South African flavour. A tribute to Mandela on what would be his 100th birthday.
Frantic googling ends serendipitously in an app specifically suited to a road trip of this ambition. Technology continues to come to our late rescue by calculating the quickest route to tick off our destinations hither and thither between start and end point.
Then the message; ‘Ok, we’ve got a gap for you at 12:30, only 30mins so you’ll need to be quick’. Rosslyn isn’t a place that easily discards seconds or operates with any degree of patient improvisation but our X3 – the very first one – has returned to the front of the factory line where it was almost four months ago greeted by whoops and cheers from all involved.
Behind are X3s with a myriad engines, trims and right- or left-hand drive. As far as achievements go, this one feels surreal. And the weight of responsibility eclipses almost anything I’ve done in my career since even multi-million rand supercars are replaceable but there is no second, first X3.
This one happens to be a good spec too; fundamentals of 3.0-litre turbo diesel (195KW and 620Nm), all-wheel drive – not all that necessary on today’s route unlike the suite of autonomous features which will be deployed down the N3 with such urgency you’d think we’d forsaken our love for driving. There are other nice touches too like the upgraded sound system, power tailgate, all the connectivity services, wireless charging, electric seats. BMW SA was clearly eager to sample all their new tools and software on this.
Driving out Rosslyn’s main entrance I check the odometer. 5000kms of mostly promotional work but perhaps conducting some early tests too. We fill up, reset the consumption and delve into the phone’s app which gives us our first stop in Pretoria. For Mandela, Pretoria was the endpoint of the Rivonia Treason Trial – where he and many freedom fighters were sentenced at the Palace of Justice and, about 5 kilometres from here, Pretoria Prison where he’d spend many years before moving to Robben Island. Today Church Square is a paradigm of young, multicultural activity; a creative meeting hub for students amid buildings that carry immense gravitas if you know your history merged with modern updates like public transport and new benches under recently-planted trees.
We cross over the public transport lane for some photos, an act which quickly gathers the attention of a young photographer (BMW bag et al) who then in a matter of minutes is uploading them to his Instagram page. The South African flag on the bonnet is having a profound effect as much as it leads to a litany of questions. On the way here a man rested his head on the bonnet during a red traffic light all the while patting it with his hand as if he felt jointly responsible for the journey ahead, and possibly behind.
Skip over Pretoria prison since it’s not renowned for tourism and put a wrap on Pretoria by visiting the Long March to Freedom Monument. Inconspicuous entrance, R70 later and a deserted parking lot off eeufees road leads to a football pitch of incredible bewilderment. 100 bronze statues of freedom fighters from Walter Sisulu, Chris Hani, Oliver Tambo, Frances Baard, Fidel Castro… So engrossed by it all, we are unaware that a peacock is now attacking our X3, jumping up alongside in an angry flash of psychedelic colours. I laugh at the thought of sketching this out for the insurance claim.
With the sun deflating behind Pretoria’s skyline it’s our turn to march, this time homeward for an early start tomorrow morning with over 600 kilometres to travel and even more uncertainty ahead. We feel like tourists in our own country.
1 X3 SA GP heads into Johannesburg CBD for the first of four destinations, including a well-timed scamper to catch a picture of us driving across Mandela Bridge which is said to join new and old Johannesburg. The urban patchwork – the grime splashed with artisan coffee shops – continues to Market Theatre where many acclaimed shows, actors and poets dared to speak out.
So far each stop has been quiet, almost forgotten in history but then we round a corner as the unmistakeable sight of tourist bus crests into view. This confirms, more than any GPS location, that we’ve arrived at Chancellor’s House and should get to photographing our X3 before more arrive.
Some have their hands cupped around their eyes, faces pressed to the glass. Others are photographing the Shadow Boxer statue of Mandela. The streets are cleaner and the colours a little more vibrant; this is where Mandela and Oliver Tambo opened up South Africa’s first black law firm. A fight against justice ties well with the boxing analogy.
Number 8115 Vilakazi Street. The only street in the world where two Noble Peace Prize Winners lived; Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. We park the X3 right outside Mandela’s House where he moved in in 1946 and then returned in 1990 after serving 27 years in prison. We wander aimlessly around the concrete floors, ducking under the low entrances to the two bedrooms and shower room which converge on a small central living space. Encircled by yet more tourists who might have last been around here for the 2010 World Cup. But we’re also anxious to get on the road, stockpiled with luminous energy drinks and light luggage but a catalogue of memory cards, lithium batteries, lenses, drones and hopefully the three different types of USB cords needed to charge them.
Why is diesel still popular? Over 600Nm that’s why. And 8l/100km cruising average without slipstreaming the cars ahead. You can call this X3 30d a bit of an XXL hot hatch with the 0-100km/h time of 5.8 seconds, a top speed of 240km/h surfed on a torque band that nibbles up and down the 8-speed auto like a carbon emissions saver, rather than the plebeian term for a gearbox. Oh and it’s refined too; think 5 Series insulation on a chassis that despite endless featureless N3, remains alert. It’s a tricky compromise to pull off; comfort and focus but it’s there, tucked under an armoured fortitude of autonomous functionality.
Roaring out of the first toll gate, we switch them all on. The digital display lights up a green icon of the steering wheel with ten seconds of hands-free driving before it starts to remind you to return your hands and apply light pressure. Nobody really tries to see how it will respond if you don’t; the general theory is gently apply brakes, flash the hazards and come to an eventual stop in the lane. But at 120km/h with 18-wheelers charging by, is it worth finding out? BMW’s autonomous tech is great, in fact the more you use it, the more dependent you become – like a safety net when reaching for that last Pringle chip in the dark shadows of the plastic sleeve… If asked to quantify autonomous tech during long distance driving I’d say there’s 50 per cent reduction in concentration which over 600 kilometres equates to a far fresher feeling at our sleep-over point.
Which currently has all the confirmation of sleeping in the car until the third Airbnb pings back a confirmation. In hindsight I should have dialled BMW’s concierge service for this very last minute booking but little did I know then that we’d have our turn on the drive home. Soon as we take the North Coast off-ramp we do the typical Johannesburg ritual of opening every window (sunroof included), letting the sea air rush down into our lungs, our faces tingling with humidity. The turbo charger chewing on denser air, notably vociferous with hyperbolic wooshes vented through the wastegate.
Following morning begins with the challenge of bluffing our way through harbour security with polite smiles and waves until eventually our progress is halted within sight of the water’s edge and no amount of desperate pleading, many hand gestures of taking pictures or even our emotional story of adversity with overcoming the odds is buying us any leeway. But we’ve got trains and shipping containers – essentially the X3’s home away from home as steps along the logistical supply chain before they ultimately disgorge on Europe shores. Hands on each other’s shoulders, staring across the water’s surface we have an overwhelming sense of pride, not just in arriving here but South Africa’s production of X3 amid serious global competition. It’s a testament to the quality established through decades of producing 3 Series.
But this particular X3 is not setting sail today because we’ve planned another two stops between here and Johannesburg including the Ohlange High School on KZN’s Inanda route where on the 27th of April 1994, Mandela cast his first democratic vote at the school funded by the first president of the ANC. We then go searching for gravel roads which we duly find in the Midlands with the revelation being that the X3 tends to favour some rear-bias sporty agility in these conditions. Of course myriad sensors micro-manage the grip, adapting the car from tarmac to gravel with a great deal of composure. A properly South African SUV on a blueprint of a South African road which zig-zags its way to Mandela’s capture site where 56 years ago, to the day, the most wanted man in South Africa was arrested. We mingle with the tourists, shuffle through the museum catching little facts and reciting them under our breath to commit them to memory and of course stare up at the 50 steel rods which – from the road – make up Mandela’s face as a reminder to his 27 years of incarceration.
The adventure. Just what the X3 promises over its sedan equivalents. The convergence of long distance travel, comfort, security, impervious to poor road conditions with a true-to-brand-ethos of sportiness. Thanks to diesel, we’ve managed this trip, nearly 1000kms on a single tank before the petrol light chimes. The solution is to use the navigation to find the nearest pump but I’ve got one last test up my sleeve.
‘Hello’, answers a voice with well-rounded English vowels, from a man sitting somewhere in Europe. Instantly it seems like any request isn’t too unreasonable. A bit similar to Google Home Assistant but with human intelligence to interpret the request, pull location data from our car and then refine the answer.
‘Do you know where I can find a Wimpy and a filling station’?
‘You’re driving down the N3, in about two kilometres there’s a BP…’
Uncannily, as he finishes the sentence, sure enough it looms into view. Our guardians in the sky watching over our journey. Today’s request was simple, but I’d like him to be there in an emergency.
Kilometre 6500 brings 1 X3 SA GP back through the main entrance at Rosslyn. We have put our names to a piece of South African motoring history as it joins legends like the BMW M1, 333i and 325is in the growing collection at the museum. This one set the standard for the many thousands to follow, a South African achievement no doubt that Mandela, on his 100th birthday, would have celebrated.
- Price: R868 300
- Engine: 2993cc, 6cyl turbo diesel, 195kW, 620Nm
- Transmission: 8spd auto, AWD
- Performance: 0–100km/h in 5.8secs, 240km/h
- Economy: 6.2l/100km, 162g/km
- Weight: 1820kg