There was an age when trucks were trucks and cars were cars. There was a difference. Families who needed to haul people and boats did so in a Bronco, Wagoneer, or Suburban. The rest bought sedans or station wagons. Simple as that. Then things got complicated.

The minivan emerged, but its cargo carrying capability quickly turned into just baggage. That spawned the age of the rugged SUV, single handedly draining the Middle East oil fields. Now it s the crossover, an SUV-like body on a more fuel efficient car-like unibody chassis. If I could guess the next segment buster I wouldn t be writing this at 1am, I d be using the knowledge for personal gain.

So for now, everyone s building crossovers, including BMW. They have three of them if you count the four-door coupe-like X6 and they would prefer it if you called them SAVs or sports activity vehicles. The newest is the second generation X3. It s now roomier, better looking and less expensive that the first one. Always a winning combination.

A Little History

Legend has it that Lexus, looking to compete in the hot sport-ute market (and flesh out a very anemic lineup) created the RX300 from an existing car chassis. It literally created the segment. RX was a home run, often the most popular model in the Lexus lineup and dominant in its class since introduction. The competition followed the money.

The first generation of X3 was launched with a suspension that was so rock hard, so punishing, die-hard Bimmer fans had to get their molars checked during regular service intervals. Eventually it was rectified, but I have to believe that the reputation took much of the momentum out of the original X3 s sales.

The fresh new one is available in two models, both with xDrive standard (that s all-wheel drive to you and me). In BMW s ungainly new nomenclature they are the xDrive 35i and the one I m driving, the xDrive 28i. The second gen X3 is a much better looking vehicle. An inch wider and three inches longer, it s a hair lower now (though ground clearance is up by a half inch) and it gives the overall design a nicely planted look. It s now nearly as big as the original X5.

Perfect? Well... no. A crease along the shoulder droops down toward the side marker up front. My eye is constantly drawn to it, hoping to straiten it out somehow.

The Go Parts

The xDrive 28i gets a 3.0-liter inline-6 complete with the usual BMW variable valve lift and Double-VANOS. They like to point out it s the world s lightest six cylinder engine for its size. There s 240 horsepower at 6,600 rpm and 221 lb-ft of torque between 2,600 and 3,000 rpm.

The automatic transmission is an eight, yes, eight-speed. It can be shifted manually on the console. If you have your heart set on a manual gearbox, sorry, ain t gonna happen but be happy knowing it s possible to drop from eighth gear straight to second if need be.

Enjoy driving? X3 will be high on your list. 0-60 comes up quick, just under seven seconds and remember, this is the smaller engine (xDrive 35i pumps out 300 horses). For a crossov.... I mean SAV, it s very nimble on it s feet , expected from a BMW. Fuel economy is EPA rated at 19 city, 25 highway. That nearly matches the efficiency of the Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid.

Ride quality is the coveted firm-yet-comfortable dynamic. Does it lean and roll in corners? No. Good road feel? Yes. Quiet on road trips? About average. Brakes? Excellent, with good modulation. In short it s what you would expect from BMW and in many ways a more successful design than their 5-Series GT. In hard cornering the stability control feathers in nicely and can be mostly defeated. Not exactly a 3 Series but, try the same maneuver in a Lexus RX and see what happens.

As a whole X3 buyers will seldom venture off-road, but even if it s just wet rainy streets, xDrive will be appreciated. The brave few that point their shiny Bimmer onto forest service roads should find no problems. I drove X3 on very rough dirt roads and in deep mud and it shrugged it off easily. The Rubicon Trail is another story. X3 is not designed for severe off-roading in case you re thinking about trading in a Jeep Wrangler. There s hill decent control, I didn t find a situation where I needed it.

Haven t We Met Before?

If you were blindfolded and were in the X3 s interior when it was removed you d know instantly you were being kidnapped in a BMW. It s very familiar, right down to the unique tan color of the lower instrument panel that s just got to be trademarked by them. There s the usual clean purposeful gauges, high quality materials with a conservative design, and a sound system that, with a slight brush, previews the radio presets.

The large LCD screen that displays the blizzard of menu items is crisp and clear. The same can t always be said about the iDrive user interface but it has been improved. The heated leather seats are very supportive with the seat cushions adjustable for length. Heated steering wheels, an option here, are terrific.

I continue to find BMWs transmission joystick less than elegant in operation. The concept is very easy to grasp but I occasionally find myself in neutral when thinking drive is selected. The small button for park is just that, small. Also distracting is the rear defrosting elements that don t run straight across, they are curved like a rainbow or radar screen. I feel like I m hunting for Red October every time I look in the rear view mirror.

This car is equipped with the Premium Package that includes Fineline Siena wood, giving the cabin a warm inviting feeling, and a panoramic glass roof that keeps things light and airy. Phone and iPod integration are standard, Sirius satellite radio is optional. For cupholder aficionados, both a regular coffee cup and Godzilla, my giant thermal mug fit just fine.

In back the X3 is fairly spacious, two passengers will be very comfortable with decent knee and legroom, 3 should be just fine. The middle passenger has to straddle the larger driveshaft tunnel, otherwise things like headroom are fine. There are lots of places to store things (door panel slots, map pockets, the fold down center arm rest) and electronics can be charged from the 12v power port. The rear seats don t slide fore and aft to max out passenger or cargo room. My tester gets a 60/40 split seat back, a 40/20/40 unit is optional.

People buy these rigs because they need to haul big things, like big bundles of bath tissue (which I realize might be a personal thing on my part). As far as cargo space, X3 does just fine. 9 packs of TP is average in class. There s space under the load floor but no spare. X3 sports run-flat tires. On the wall of the cargo area is my new favorite accessory, a big thick elastic band that holds stuff in place.

Other Considerations

Obviously, the X3 is not the only luxury crossover on the market. The Lexus RX400 is still the big kahuna but the wise buyer will also be cross-shopping Mercedes Benz GLK, Volvo XC60, Audi Q5 and Cadillac SRX. Things have changed dramatically in the business over the last five years and if you re not out test driving different brands, you re doing yourself a big disfavor.

X3 is built in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The base price is $38,275 but who drives a stripped BMW? Mine is optioned up to $44,165. Want navigation or a back up camera? That ll be an additional $3,200 thank you. Heated seats for your friends in the back seat? That s part of the $1,150 Cold Weather package. You get my point.

To soften that, BMW pays for all of the maintenance for four years or 50,000 miles. Also, there s the intangible bonus of great handling that the others don t quite match. It s hard to imagine the automotive world without crossovers now. They re practical, and great in bad weather. The X3 does all of the things other crossovers do, it just has a little more fun doing it.

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