BMW Transforms Goofy X3 SUV Into $56,000 Real-Deal Ride: Jason H. Harper

Of all the ways to evaluate a new car, I have added another inadvisable but compelling one: the coffee test.

Step one: Buy a large, brimful cup of hot Joe and place it in a shallow cup-holder. Step two: Drive like the dickens on a curvy road to gauge the vehicle's body roll and suspension. Step three: Do the hot-hot-hot! dance while wiping steaming liquid from your jeans.

I eventually got the cup to topple. More notable was that I was driving a compact SUV and it took a full-on, emergency-style stop from 60 mph to create a splash.

In the all-new BMW X3 — $55,625 as tested — I'd bombed over speed bumps at 50, taken corners at 45 and gunned down straightaways, all of which the vehicle handled with ease.

SUVs are rarely a thrill to drive, especially compact SUVs, whose short wheelbases and high centers of gravity tend to translate to goofy handling. Most even look like clown cars.

When the original X3 came out in 2004, it felt half- hearted, a product from the minds of marketers and not engineers. The bean-counters had cause, selling more than 600,000 worldwide, proving the X3 more of an optimum profit machine than the ultimate driving one that BMW ads boasted.

Competition in this bracket is toughening. In addition to the Audi Q5, Land Rover will introduce its more compact Evoque SUV and we'll likely see a smaller Porsche SUV as well.

No wonder the BMW engineering team got on board. The 2011 model handles like a true-blue Bimmer.

Irksome Name

I tested a pre-production X3 in Los Angeles. Irksomely named the X3 xDrive35i, it starts at $42,000. The xDrive28i, with a less potent engine, has a base of $37,625. All-wheel- drive is standard.

The X3 is meant to bridge the gap between the urban and suburban worlds, with enough space to occasionally haul five passengers and some of their stuff.

Despite its height and 4,200-plus pounds, the X3 feels almost as capable as a 3 Series sedan. The suspension is brilliant. Ramming over speed bumps resulted in only the most modest of vibrations through the cabin. I took a careening turn worthy of a cinematic car chase and the only complaint was a bit of wheel noise.

The automatic transmission has eight speeds and will swiftly kick down several gears upon demand. The thick steering wheel, which fit into my hands as if custom made, has shifter paddles, but they're mostly superfluous.

In gentle motoring, the transmission works in ninja mode. The liquid surface of my coffee barely rippled in stop-and-go traffic.

Engine Growls

Stomp on the gas from a standstill and the SUV has enough torque to buck onto its back wheels while the engine growls — good visceral fun. Brakes are gradual and nicely weighted, but with significant bite during an emergency stop (as my pants discovered). Emergency blinkers come on automatically when the system senses panic braking, warning drivers behind you.

Many drivers prefer SUVs because the driving position is like an adult high chair, allowing them to survey the world. The X3's seating is both comfortable and authoritative, with so much glass on the sides and rear that there are virtually no blind spots, especially if you position your side mirrors correctly. Headroom is good in both front and back. You could seat five, but woe to the person in the middle rear.

Stitching, leather and wood inserts are pretty, though there's still too much dark plastic on the dash — an unfortunate commonality among BMWs that aren't a 5 or 7 Series.

Heads-Up Display

The updated iDrive system is a breeze. When I had lost my way on L.A.'s canyon roads, I dialed in directions in less than 30 seconds. The available heads-up display, which reflects onto the windshield in front of the driver, shows the directions on the glass itself in sharp detail. A new standard in nav systems.

As for the clown-car looks, the new model is far better than the previous version, which seemed tall and stubby. This is partly because it's several inches longer and a bit wider. It might better be called compact-ish.

In the light of dusk you might even mistake the front for a 3 Series sedan. The double kidney grill and the curved roof and body lines lend a car-like appearance.

I'm not completely sold by the side styling. A crease begins in a blank space just behind the front wheel, flowing lavishly down the side and to the rear lights. It makes the windows look pinched.

A vehicle like this will always have a few compromises, and the X3's are suddenly scant. Those who would naturally gravitate to a 3 Series might now consider its bulkier brother.

The X3 isn't quite as handsome, yet like the coffee I spilled, it's a fair trade.

The 2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i at a Glance

Engine: 3.0-liter six-cylinder with 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 19 city; 26 highway.

Price as tested: $55,625.

Best features: Drives almost like a 3 Series sedan; great electronics.

Worst features: Middle rear is cramped; too much plastic on dash.

Target buyer: The upscale suburban mom or dad who likes an occasional Sunday drive in the canyons.

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