When BMW introduced the X3 I found myself wondering why they'd want to do such a thing. Then I reasoned the suits in Munich were just trying to get an extra share of the ever-burgeoning SUV market and needed to come up with a smaller, slightly more affordable version of the X5 to do so. Such a cynical attitude is easy to maintain when you've got no real basis for criticism, so in this case a simple test drive really did make all the difference.
In fact, the X3 and X5 are entirely different animals. I never relish the idea of getting into a truck unless I'm looking to go off-roading. Having said that, the X3 is not a truck and it's hard to say how it'd perform over mud and rocks. On the road, though, it's more capable and nimble than many cars I've driven. Notice I said cars, not SUVs. When given the opportunity I actually find myself excited about stepping into the X3, especially if the weather's bad.
This vehicle seems perfectly suited to an active person's lifestyle (which isn't to say I'm particularly active). It can fit a fair amount of stuff in the back, comfortably seat four people (five if the middle person in back is skinny enough) and offers the benefits of improved ground clearance and all-wheel drive. The biggest surprise is that driving the X3 is much akin to driving a 3 Series with a slightly elevated seat position. The clutch is a little long and the shifter is a bit vague, but it takes impressively well to spirited driving and cuts through curves with remarkable aplomb. Power output is adequate, and along with the six-speed manual transmission firmly establishes the X3 as a performance-oriented mode of transportation, in contrast to your ordinary pickups or "utility vehicles." BMW unashamedly points this out in its broadcast ads, referring to the X3 as a Sport Activity Vehicle rather than lumping it in with the larger SUV crowd, and I for one can personally testify the factory claims are spot-on.
As we mentioned in the introductory installment, our X3 came with just about every option imaginable. Naturally, many are extraneous bells and whistles that contribute nothing to the driving experience. I found the navigation system to be a bit of a pain in the butt since you have to acknowledge the safety warning message on the screen before you can do something as simple as changing the radio station, and it took me a while to discover which knob accomplished this. That's really not a big issue I guess, because most factory nav systems these days work that way. I also found the park-assist sensors to be overly protective and prone to going off needlessly as I pulled in and out of my garage space. Considering this SAV's modest girth, I really don't feel they're necessary. And talk about loaded: This X3 even has integrated headlight squirters. I've been told these are useful in wintry conditions of the sort you might find somewhere outside Southern California, but honestly, who the hell needs them here?
I could take them or leave them, but myriad options are no good reason not to buy the car. Most people would regard more options as gravy: the more, the better. And of course, you always have the option of not buying them. When all you can complain about is excessive equipment, I think it says something significant about a vehicle's basic goodness. As it should be, the truly rewarding aspect of owning an X3 will be in the driving. The utility of its layout and the reassurance of all-wheel drive only serve to make it that much better, leading me to believe BMW could be on to something with this "Ultimate Driving Machine" thing. Some people will read this and write it off as so much journalistic smoke, but it really is a lot of fun-better than you'll know until you drive one for yourself.
Total Mileage: 4987
This month's fuel economy: 21.3 mpg
This month's costs: Around $35 a tank
Thumbs Up: SUV utility, sports car mannerisms
Thumbs Down: Super-sensitive park assist