First Drive: 2011 BMW X3

When the new X3 35i paid a visit to the Ann Arbor home office, associate editor Eric Tingwall characterized the eight-speed automatic as overactive and abrupt. I couldn't agree more. With sport mode selected, the combination of so many gears, very aggressive throttle mapping, and instant-on engine power can lead to some wildly hyperactive responses from the powertrain. Strangely, I haven't experienced that with this engine and transmission pair in any other BMW.

Things are a lot less frenetic in normal mode, where the turbo six can still rocket the car ahead at the flex of a right ankle. BMW advertises a 0-to-60 time of 5.5 seconds, which is a lot faster than the old model's 7.1 seconds. (The normally aspirated, 240-hp 3.0-liter does it in a claimed 6.7 seconds.)

Toggling between modes is done with the optional Driving Dynamics Control selector. There are normal, sport, and sport-plus modes, which control throttle and transmission mapping, steering effort, stability control programming, and damper firmness (with the additionally optional electronic damping control).

Dialing up Sport-plus mode is useful for recreating the punishing ride of the old X3. Most people, though, are likely to appreciate the improved ride quality of the new car, as served up by the normal mode.

Looks like an X5, drives like an X5, priced like an X5
Besides the Driving Dynamics Control system, there is a long list of optional features and packages on the X3, but those whose check boxes with gleeful abandon are in for a nasty surprise. At first glance, the X3 seems quite reasonably priced, in the context of its competitors. The base xDrive 28i, at $37,625, is actually less expensive than the previous car, while the turbocharged xDrive 35i, at $41,925, is a couple thousand dollars more. Still, both X3 models nestle between the two Audi Q5s in price, and they straddle the Mercedes-Benz GLK 4Matic. But start piling on the option packages, and the xDrive 35i (in particular) can zoom towards the $60,000-dollar mark. That's plenty rich for a compact crossover -- it also is deep into X5 territory. Sophistication, evidently, does not come cheap.

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