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BMW X3 is business-like fun

The Car: 2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i BMW was among the first to build a small premium crossover, but the old X3 has been getting a little long in the tooth as the competition rolls out new model after new model.
The X3's interior layout is very intuitive and even the much-maligned iDrive control is easy to use now that BMW has made some tweaks.

The Car: 2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i

BMW was among the first to build a small premium crossover, but the old X3 has been getting a little long in the tooth as the competition rolls out new model after new model. With the redesigned X3, can BMW re-assert that they're the segment leader?

The numbers:

Price $56,495 including freight

Power 300 horsepower at 5,800 r.p.m.; 295 foot-pounds at 1,300 r.p.m.

Fuel economy (City/Hwy) 11.2/7.8 litres per 100 kilometres

The tech:

Standard Dynamic stability control, rain- and speed-sensing windshield, power heated seats with driver's side memory, Xenon headlights, Bluetooth hands-free, iDrive vehicle control 6.5-inch hi-res screen

Options Panorama moonroof, park distance control, rear-view and top-down camera, power rear hatch, HiFi sound system

The drive:

With mainstream vehicles becoming better and better equipped (check out the standard backup camera and navigation systems on a mid-line Nissan Rogue, for example), it's becoming harder for the luxury marques to differentiate their products. Oh sure, they can charge more for the badge up front, but what are you actually getting?

In the BMW, the first thing you get is a distinctive exterior styling that has everyone who scratched their heads at Chris Bangle's earlier designs saying, Oh. NOW I get it. The X3 is a handsome little brute, with sharp, bold creases in its flanks, a pugnacious snout and a squared-off back end. It's stylish without being over-stylized.

More of that same design extends to the interior where the layout of the controls and instrumentation is delightfully intuitive. Everybody knows the old chestnut about early iDrive-you-crazy control setups, but BMW has tweaked this system until it's a cinch to use. Matter of fact, I prefer it to pretty much any other control system out there.

However, you'll be happy to note that the X3 also has normal controls for quick, no-look adjustment of A/C and radio, as well as redundant controls on the chunky steering wheel. Ah yes, the steering wheel. . . .

BMW makes the fattest tillers in the business. Why? Because there's a little Ultimate Driving Machine in everything the Bavarians make. Or so they would have you believe. Flicking the drive-selector (a pretty cool-looking piece of kit once you get used to it) into sport, let's see how the X3 dances.

Now, I learned to drive behind the wheel of a mid-1980s 535i with a five-speed and a big straight-six engine, so I'm both a big fan of the roundel badge and also its harshest critic. Having issued said caveat, this little Cute-Ute is more hoots than a bag-full of hyperactive owls.

One gets a sense of the playful character of the X3 when you press the starter button and the exhaust barks in a manner you wouldn't expect from a genteel lux-o-cruiser. But then, it's not a heffalump. Sure the X3 is heavy at a curb weight of 4,200+ pounds, but it shucks that weight with a mesa-flat torque band of 295 foot-pounds of twist from 1,300-5,000 r.p.m.

It's not shy about letting you know you've got your foot in it either. The X3 is entirely composed under throttle and makes that insanely dangerous Westbound Capilano on-ramp a comparative doddle, but it's happy to sing you some straight-six showtunes when your left foot's buried in the carpet.

Lastly, the ride. The old X3's Achilles heel was that it had feet of clay. Actually feet of stone: the suspension was as unyielding as if it had been hewn from solid granite. This new model is much better, although fans of pillow-top motoring would be best to avoid optional 19-inch wheels: they look cool, but with a sporty suspension, you're probably going to find things a bit bumpy.

The verdict:

The jury is in Canadians love small crossovers almost as much as we love our double-doubles. Not everyone needs an off-roader, but the high seating position and relatively low, car-like fuel economy of a CUV are appealing propositions to the Canuck mindset.

What's more, the luxury CUV niche that the X3 competes in has been especially red in tooth and claw of late as the big brands realize not everyone is plumping for the big-ticket V-8 models anymore.

But the big cheeses in Bavaria need not worry: the X3 is bound to be a winner. It's roomy and capable, easy to manoeuvre and has an intuitive control layout. What's more, it drives like a BMW ought to: supremely composed, but with a bit of cheeky good fun underneath that business-like exterior.