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km : Feature Article

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31 May 2012

I’ll be the first to confess that I’m not a fan of crossover vehicles. In my mind, a station wagon serves a different purpose than a sport utility vehicle, and anything that splits the difference is a compromise. Which is why my garage contains one of each. But after nearly 12,000 miles behind the wheel of BMW’s latest X3, I’m softening (ever so slightly) to the possibility that it might just be the one crossover to make me a believer in the one-car-for-all-reasons cause.

The current X3 was introduced in late 2010 as a 2011 model, replacing the woefully outdated and, by then, outclassed first-gen model. We waited for the initial surge to die down and ordered a 2012 edition last summer for late fall delivery, opting to pick it up fresh at the factory in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Holding back gave us time to figure out exactly how to configure the X3 in such a way that we didn’t feel like we were surrendering our souls to the gods of suburban concession.

The solution: combine the most powerful engine (the 300-horse, 300-lb-ft 3.0-liter turbo-six, badged xDrive35i) with the most aggressive visual and dynamic option in the form of the M Sport package (19-inch wheels and testosterone-enhanced body kit and trimmings). Ruby Mica paint with Oyster premium leather would complete the effect, offering the somewhat tall X3 its best opportunity to impersonate an actual M car.

We have yet to regret this decision. Every morning we delight in the crisp, cold-start bark of the turbo engine, enjoying its guttural roar for the half-minute or so before it mellows out to a quiet purr. Our default driving routine is to slip the transmission in sport mode immediately and set the dynamic dampers to their sport setting as well. Aside from sitting up so high, this combination really does deliver some semblance of what the Germans like to call the “sportif” experience. It’s a blast to open up on the long, flat rural roads that make up the vast majority of paved surfaces in the Midwest, and it’s remarkably composed when the topography throws a kink in between the straightaways. Only the brakes fail to live up to expectations set by past BMWs; they’re quiet and relatively effective, but rarely inspire confidence in anything less than a panic stop. A heavy foot works best, but it always feels like new pads have just been installed and haven’t been fully bedded in yet.

Throughout it all, the X3 has managed to deliver an average of 20.6 mpg in mixed suburban driving, truly splitting the difference between a small wagon – most approach 30 mpg these days – and the mid-teens gluttony of a traditional SUV. We’ve faithfully fed it premium gasoline, as recommended, but have occasionally on the coldest morning experienced a slight hiccup should we fail to let it warm up for a minute or so. Otherwise, the X3’s day-to-day performance has been faultless, requiring not a single trip to the dealership so far. We haven’t even picked up any sharp objects with the runflat tires yet, punching holes (pun intended) in my Theory of Magnetic Runflats.

We’d love to tell you what a ruggedly utilitarian pack mule the X3 has been, but the truth is we’ve used it exclusively for the same typical, mundane chores that most people seem to think justifies owning a crossover/utility vehicle: groceries, holiday shopping and kid-toting. In truth, a 335i sedan would so far have been just as useful, but it’s been a while since we’ve splurged at Ikea, and if the day ever comes that we need a half-dozen Borgsjö shelves and a new Pöang, the X3 will be just the ticket. We’ve only recently been able to take full advantage of its 40:20:40 split rear seat, hauling an E-Z-Up tent to a local media event.

The one feature we’ve come to love but would cringe at the thought of buying has been the snap-in iPhone adapter for the center console. It certainly makes docking the ubiquitous brick a lot quicker and easier than fiddling with the white cable (not to mention holding it solidly in place while driving) but at $249 it’s an awful expensive accessory. We’d choke at paying half that, in fact. Hopefully BMW finds a way to make it more accessible, because it makes the phone feel like a truly integrated component of the vehicle, especially with the BMW Apps functionality that allows for integrated (if limited) use of Facebook, Twitter, Pandora and Mog, among others.

The service indicator seems to think we’re good for another 4000 miles before a visit to the dealership is required, so we’ll keep an eye on things over the next few weeks. Otherwise, we’ll let the X3 keep doing its thing, at least until that new 3-series wagon comes out…


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