It was hardly a surprise: we just completed a gruelling five-hour off-road section of the Sahara, including a short sprint across a section of the Paris-Dakar Rally. The BMW X3s had stolen a march across the rocky, compacted desert floor, the sand baked so hard in the unrelenting sun that it was more like ridged concrete. From time to time, we came across the welcome relief of soft, deep sand dunes, where, with traction control turned off and the car in Sport mode to maintain high revs, we had alternately floated and churned at high speed through deep drifts of red sand, hurling the SUVs up slipping slopes and crashing down the other side, spinning one way, twirling the other, as across northern Africa we slipped and bumped and grated.
We spent two gruelling 12-hour days driving south from Marrakesh, up and over the Atlas Mountains, to the Algerian border, across dry lake floors the size of cities, finding blissful but brief ribbons of new tarmac strewn like dark tinsel across the arid ground. Occasionally the monotony was punctuated by camels, donkeys, small towns, mosques and groups of children inexplicably walking hand in hand with school bags along the side of a track seemingly leading nowhere.
Remarkably, the entire desert adventure was done on fully inflated road tyres. Never, in 15 years as a motoring journalist, have I driven across sand and been told to keep tyres at normal pressure (deflating the tyres slightly gives you more grip). BMW just shrugged and said the X3 could cope fine on its Pirelli run-flats. And it did: only one of our group of 10 cars got stuck in a dune in two days – the rest suffered nicks and tears to side walls from the rocks, although, with the exception of our ruptured tyre, the rest made it all the way either with the side wall intact, or by running the cars at 50mph on the semi-flat run-flats.
It was a remarkable and worthwhile adventure: while Land Rovers earn their stripes by climbing up inclines at crazy angles, the BMW proved its value through sheer endurance. Mile after mile (500 to be precise) dust storm after dust storm, through the heat and the dry river beds, past the cacti and the goats, the X3 rumbled on, at eye-watering speeds as we struggled to keep pace with our local guide who sustained a merry 40mph-70mph through the worst of it. The cabins remained peaceful, the Harmon and Kardon stereo pumping out finely balanced notes. The cars were covered in sand at the end of it, number-plates invisible, and we had been shaken to bits, but, aside from one little rattle somewhere below the cabin, there was nothing to say what these family SUVs had been through.