BMW spiffed up the X3 a little for 2007, but it looks the same to me -- I remember when I saw the first X3, a 2004 model. X3 is almost 15' long, within an inch or two of Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, and a little shorter than other luxury SUVs. X3 has a lot of presence. Those "Bangle Bends," BMW designer Chris Bangle's signature bodywork, give a lot of dimension and richness to X3's exterior.
I walk around the X3 to examine the details. There's the double-kidney grille, just like the rest of the BMW lineup, topped with another logo. Man, that hood is intricate! Even with a dark coat of Monaco Blue Metallic paint (a $475 option), the bends and scallops stand out like sculpture.
I stop to stare into the X3's eyes. Those Halogen headlights are almost feral, and loaded with personality. Why so angry, X3? This is no "cute ute." Breaking free of their gaze, I continue around to the side of the vehicle.
A sharp crease helps to define X3's beltline. My eyes wandered down to the big wheels on my test vehicle -- 18" alloys that came as a part of the $2,200 Sport Package, an upsize over the standard 17" hoops.
Around back, some weirdness -- big taillights on the corners that don't match up in size with the smaller lights on the tailgate. It reminds me of the controversial BMW 7-series decklid design of a few years ago. It's a bit of deconstruction, like the tailgate was designed independently of the rear fenders. This will take some getting used to.
I'm ready to get back inside.
In the Driver's Seat
A deep breath. I duck back into the X3. I close my eyes and slide into the driver's seat.
Hold on a second -- this isn't a normal seat. Something's different. Right -- that Sport Package includes sport seats. Firmer, more supportive and with better side bolstering than the standard X3 seats, they also feature a great adjustment for tall drivers: adjustable thigh support. I spend a few minutes toying with the seat adjustment, depressing the clutch on the six-speed manual transmission, toying with the tilt, recline and lumbar adjustments and setting the memory before I realize that the steering wheel is also highly adjustable. It's manually adjustable for both tilt and reach. In combination with the seat, drivers of all sizes will be able to find a comfortable driving position.
I look around the cabin, soaking it all in. BMW can do a great interior -- and they can also strip so much away on their entry-level models that they feel cheap. X3's dash doesn't suffer from cheapness -- there's a tasteful swash of real wood trim, and a nice variety of materials. The top piece of the dash is a non-reflective almost gummy plastic that gives a little to the touch. It's perfect for driving, though it would probably be a challenge to keep clean.
The instrument panel lives under an igloo-shaped eyebrow, and features big, clear white-on-black analog rotary gauges. The center stack houses audio and climate controls. A small covered compartment crowns the stack where an optional nav screen might live in a fully-optioned X3.
I think I'm ready to drive.
On the Road
I turn the key, and the 3.0 liter in-line six-cylinder engine roars to life. The stat sheet says that the engine will produce 260 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque. The torque figure seems low, but peak torque is available at just 2700 rpm and X3 weighs in at a slim 4012 lbs, so we shall see.
I back out of my driveway, noticing the slightly heavy steering. That sport steering wheel is incredibly thick, which increases the contact area for my palms. I'm getting very good road feel at low speeds.
Snicking the X3 into first gear, I'm glad that I wore my driving shoes -- pretentious, I realize, but necessary if I'm going to get any kind of feel for the X3. I have big feet, and X3's footbox is quite tight.
I head north to the Angeles Crest Highway. It's a beautiful day -- clear skies, cool temperatures and open roads. The X3 handles the curves nicely. The sport suspension (part of that Sport Package again) is firm and communicative, and keeps the SUV level through the turns. X3 is happy at any speed that I choose, but it gets even happier the faster I dare to push. I have to remind myself that I'm on a public road, and dial down the speed to the legal limit.
Time to head home. That firm suspension is less welcome on the freeway -- too much road feel makes cracks and bumps into sharp jolts in the cabin. That's the price you pay.
My personal favorite is the Infiniti FX35/45. I'd also consider the Acura RDX and the Lexus RX 350. Mazda's CX-7 is a lot of fun to drive, and can be loaded up with enough luxury options to compete in the class. Lincoln's MKX is the only real American luxury crossover vehicle, and it is more luxury than sports in my book.
I step away from the X3, avoiding the gaze of its feral eyes. "I understand you, X3," I try to silently communicate. "You're a sports car trapped in an SUV's body. Who should buy you?"
X3 silently stares into the distance, impassive to my silent entreaty. I guess I have to answer this one myself.
X3 is for the driver who absolutely must have a BMW, but needs the capacity of an SUV. X3 is for the parent who will not surrender to the minivan, who isn't ready to drive silently into the traffic, and who can't imagine driving anything from Japan.
Unfortunately, X3 is not for me. Is it for you?