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Up, down and sideways

Up, down and sideways

The evening sun was just beginning to cast shadows and glint off the small lake near where the crowd stood, as the cars were readied for BMW’s xDrive off-road experience. The idea of the event: to showcase the prowess of BMW’s X series SUV line-up, or as BMW prefers to call them—Sports Activity Vehicles. On offer for our driving pleasure were the entry-level X1, the middleweight X3, and the big, brawny X5. About half an hour of obstacles awaited the drivers and the cars, and as the sun cast its golden glow over the rough earthen trails and man-made obstacles designed for the vehicles, it was hopped into the white X3 and set about tackling them.

The X3’s cabin is a nice place to be, suitably spacious and giving the other four passengers little reason to complain even as we trundled over the rough, unpaved surface to the start of the obstacle course. BMW encouraged us to enjoy the vehicle at its mechanical best, with the traction control turned off. The xDrive four-wheel-drive system needs precious little tampering as well, adapting automatically to the road conditions, with the screen on the well-laid-out dashboard displaying a visual representation of the angles the car is tossed about at.

The first order of business on the course is to tackle a rocky descent, complete with loose stones and water-cut gouges, waiting to swallow the wheels. Navigating the car gingerly over the best path down the incline is work enough, so we left the cumbersome process of braking to the Hill Descent Control system. Engage it, and a little amber icon pops up on the info display behind the steering, which turns green as the car’s electronics acknowledge that we have begun our descent. A few flicks down on the selector on the steering to tell it what speed we want to be going at, and then the system gets down to business, removing the need for the driver to manually apply the brakes, as it individually brakes each wheel. It’s a surreal feeling, as the groan from the different wheels indicates the system at work, but it gets the job done, leaving me free to focus on not leaving us in a ditch. The next main challenge we encounter is a slushy pit with a small island in the middle, requiring us to drive around it. A seemingly innocuous affair, until you consider how deep the water is. The X3 wades through effortlessly, however, and the xDrive system keeps the car from spinning up its wheels even as we exit the water. This would not be much of an off-road experience if the car wasn’t disturbed from a happy horizontal axis in some way, and that’s what awaited us next, as I navigated the X3 through a couple of lateral inclines in either direction, feeling one of the wheels briefly lose contact with the ground. As is the norm with four-wheel-drive systems on such vehicles, xDrive can detect such instances, and ensure power delivery to the other three wheels. As we then took on a series of shallow ditches to give the suspension a workout, it dawned on me that despite offering precious little control to the driver in terms of settings to play with, the system did an admirable job reacting to the conditions the car was facing. I did get to push a button or two eventually, as we decided we’d hang out in the middle of a slope without using the brake, to test out the car’s Hill Hold functionality, another staple feature in any self-respecting off-roader’s kitty. Engage the feature, climb halfway up a hill and let go, and the car stays there till the accelerator is re-engaged. Soon after, we encountered some more ditches, and not the shallow kind. Here, as we made our way from one to the next, the car swayed precariously for a moment between each, as one wheel bounced in the air. Looks mighty impressive from outside, but within the cabin, cocooned in an electronic safety net, we might as well have been navigating a bad country road. The bit that wasn’t as simple was the drop that followed, designed to upset the car and let it scrape its well-reinforced body against the ground, as it momentarily see-saws with no purchase from the wheels. It was an exercise in putting faith in the vehicle, as it tipped into an alarming forward drop angle, but the moment the wheels hit the ground, the car was as composed as ever, a slightly increased heart rate on my part being the only indication that we’d pretty much just driven off a small ledge. In order to reward our efforts, we were greeted with a small clearing of loose gravel, where the instructors encouraged us to go have fun and do some donuts. All the participants were happy to oblige, and as I happily kicked up some dust as we drew circles in the loose ground, it felt good to sample some of the power from the 140hp engine under the hood. Some more trundling over a broken path, and all too soon, my time with the X3 had come to an end. The car had navigated everything the terrain had thrown at it with uncanny ease. These cars make the off-road experience fun, but more importantly, they make it accessible.

Sooraj Rajmohan

Source: The Hindu

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