First Drive: 2011 BMW X3

Matt Phenix
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2011 BMW X3

Nineteen-ninety-nine wasn't so long ago that we've forgotten the hullabaloo over the prospect of BMW building a sport-utility vehicle -- and building it in America, no less. But the original X5 was a real BMW after all, a 5-series-based charmer that heroically set up the 3-series-based X3 that followed a few years later. Unfortunately, the X3 proved somewhat less than worthy of its BMW roundel. It wasn't bad to look at and it was difficult to fault in the powertrain department, but road manners were on the iffy side and its lackluster interior was a serious downer. The package improved with a top-to-bottom refresh for 2007, but let's just say there'll be few tears shed over the passing of the first-generation X3.

From the curb, there's no mistaking the entirely new 2011 X3 for anything but an X3, but don't hold that against it. This is a superior vehicle: swifter, more agile, and significantly more refined than its predecessor. The sheetmetal is decidedly more twenty-first-century. The car is stout and handsome from most angles, with a dramatic swoosh on its flanks and character creases all over (the hood alone has six). The kidney-shaped grille openings are larger and tipped forward, and the headlamps are smaller but just as weirdly shaped as the old model's. At the rear, the taillamps are neatly refined, although we could do without the body-color valance under the rear bumper.

Like the exterior, the passenger compartment is generally easier on the eyes and a superb place to while away the miles. The driving position is unsurprisingly terrific, and, at last, material quality is above reproach. Advanced technology is plentiful, neatly integrated, and, for the most part, genuinely user-friendly. Even the infamously confounding iDrive interface seems easy to navigate nowadays. The downside (and it's a minor one) is that the new X3's cabin is a bit less commodious than that of the outgoing model. Front-seat legroom and rear-seat headroom are down marginally, and the center console seems a bit broader than it needs to be.

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