BMW does anything it can to avoid using the S-word. That three-letter acronym has become a four-letter word around Munich--despite the fact that some of the company's more popular vehicles fit into the category. You won't hear anyone call them SUVs, though.
"The Ultimate Driving Machine" has described BMW models since the 1970s. When the company branched out into raised-ride-height, all-wheel-drive wagons, the Bavarians wouldn't dare call them what everyone else did. It simply didn't fit their image. So they invented the "Sports Activity Vehicle," or SAV, title. If it walks like a duck...
The walk of the X3 isn't immediately identifiable as duck-like. On the contrary, from behind the wheel of the second-generation small SUV-like BMW (pictured below right, next to the first-gen model), the driver would hardly call it an SUV.
Yes, it has a body like an SUV. Yes, it sends power to all four wheels. And yes, it stands taller than your average sedan. But that's where the SUV references end. This particular vehicle does not bring up the truck-like images that many SUVs will--and that's because it's not truck-like at all.
When you recite BMW's nearly four-decade-old slogan, memories of the sporty 2002 or the M3 spring to mind. If an X3 rolls up, you don't automatically think "ultimate" anything.
While popular, the first-generation X3 was not very BMW-like. Even BMW was so uncertain about moving into the market that the company outsourced production.
Styling had many of the hallmarks of a BMW, including the twin-kidney grille openings flanked by the four round headlights. The execution of this design, however, made the X3 look cheap compared to the rest of the lineup.
For the sequel, BMW moved production in house and into its Spartanburg, South Carolina plant... alongside the other "SAVs" (X5 and X6). Meanwhile, styling moved upscale.
Replacing the basic slab sides, the new model gained the subtle creases introduced years before by controversial designer Chris Bangle. Some of his earlier designs have not appealed to the usual BMW-loving press, even offending some of BMW's core fans. That doesn't seem to be the case any longer. A richer, more BMW-like style wraps around the new X3.
Driving dynamics are not SUV-like. Pushed into corners, the X3 feels like a BMW where the car grips the asphalt and is very reluctant to let go. Body roll associated with tall vehicles like this cannot be found here. The truck-inspired steering found in "traditional" SUVs is missing, replaced instead by the precision tuning BMW uses throughout its lineup.
And then there's the power.
Yes, it's got the inline-six every Bimmer fan drools over. Displacing just under three liters and boosted by two turbochargers, the X3's engine produces 300 horsepower and scoots down the highway amazingly well for a two-ton wagon.
With eight forward ratios, the transmission does exactly what it should, whether keeping the engine running in a narrow and fuel-efficient range or keeping the power on the road. Motivational forces were always on tap, and mixed driving returned a surprisingly good 22 m.p.g.
"SAV" was one of those marketing ploys that only automakers can attempt. Calling the X3 an SUV just doesn't work. None of the truck qualities associated with the unused S-word exist in the BMW, aside from the ability to seat five and the all-wheel-drive function.
The X3 has finally come into its own and has earned the BMW label. At 52 grand, it also has earned a BMW sticker.
From the driver's seat, I found little for complaint. On the way to Hersheypark, however, my three little passengers in the back seat weren't as happy. Kids should not be so jaded as to find fault in a BMW... that isn't an Isetta. Come to think of it, they probably would have been all smiles had I been driving the tiny bubble car of the 1950s, but it wouldn't have taken the family to ride the Sooper Dooper Looper.
The kids' focus was on the comfort of the rear seats and the requirement that they all sit together. You just can't expect every vehicle to be a minivan (especially if the vehicle wears a blue and white roundel on the hood and is this fun to drive).
Small rattles in the large sunroof weren't noticeable to the kids, but I sure heard them.
The only other complaint comes from the often-maligned iDrive electronic controller. It has been simplified compared to earlier versions, but it's still too distracting. Doing routine things like changing radio stations or scrolling through menus to adjust the speakers can be distracting--a problem that would be enhanced during the longer time behind the wheel required for a road trip.
Remember when the sound system in your car had those little buttons for five preset stations? Paging through 100 satellite stations would be difficult with so few buttons, and I'm sure you miss hearing a fading AM station blaring through one tinny four-inch speaker, too.
Curb weight: 4,222 pounds
Engine: Inline-six, 2,979 c.c. DOHC 24-valve twin-turbocharged
Horsepower: 300 @ 5,800 r.p.m.
Torque: 300 lb.-ft. @ 1,200 r.p.m.
EPA estimated m.p.g. city/highway: 19/26
Base price: $41,050
As-tested price: $52,025, including $875 destination
Also consider: Audi Q5, Cadillac, SRX, Lexus RX350, Mercedes-Benz GLK