Updated midsize now looks as good as it drives
by: NORTHWEST AUTOMOTIVE PRESS ASSOCIATION The 2011 BMW xDrive 28i is at home in rainy Pacific Northwest weather.

When gas prices spiked a few years ago, interest in compact and midsize crossovers picked up. Many owners of large, truck-based sport utility vehicles realized they had almost as much interior room, and got better mileage, even those with all-wheel-drive. Sales of premium compact and midsize crossovers picked up buyers with a little extra cash indulged in leather interiors, good stereos and navigation systems. By the time gas prices dropped, manufacturers had already begun work on new and improved models.

Now that gas prices are rising again, potential buyers have a large selection of fresh and revised compact and midsize crossovers to choose from. They range from small but inexpensive and well-appointed models from Kia and Hyundai to slightly larger, more expensive and plusher versions from such upscale brands as Acura, Lexus, Audi and Mercedes.

Somewhere in the middle of the premium midsize crossover market is the second-generation BMW X3 that was released this year. Beginning at around $36,000, it is more expensive but much more refined than the South Korean competitors, and about the same as similar European and top-of-the-line Japanese models.

But of course it has the cache of being a BMW, which means it is more of a well-made road machine than a comfortable people hauler.

Our test 2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i showed the company still had high gas prices in mind when they designed it. It was powered by a 3.0-liter inline six cylinder that produces 255 horsepower and is EPA rated at 19 miles per gallon in town and 25 miles per gallon on the freeway. That's about as good or better than just about any other midsize crossover, including those with four cylinder engines.

The downside is that our X3 xDrive28i was a little slow off the line. Acceleration was good once it got rolling and excellent for freeway passing. Stepping hard on the gas or using the manual shift mode on the automatic transmission helped, but at the expense of maximum fuel economy. A more powerful turbocharged 3.0-liter version is available in the 35i version, but for a higher price.

Fortunately, everything else about the X3 xDrive28i is so good that it was soon easy to overlook the lack of initial acceleration.

After decades of building excellent but boring looking automobiles, BMW has embraced the angular styling themes that are working so well for Cadillac, Hyundai and Kia. The new X3 is virtually the Batmobile compared to its staid predecessor, with sharp creases running up the sides and an intricately designed taillight assembly. As a result, the X3 now looks fast when it's standing still, although the lines clash a bit with the traditional dual oval grille.

The interior is also more contemporary that before, with the dash curving into a wide center console creating a large cockpit feel for the driver and front seat passenger. Materials include high quality plastic, rich leather, real wood and thin chrome accents. Our dash was remarkably simple for an upscale vehicle, in large part because BMW has moved many functions to an easy-to-use dial on the console. The shift knob is like a large toggle switch that shifts gears electronically instead of by moving a lever. Although it worked just fine, the advantage was hard to spot.

Back seat room was admirable for a midsize crossover. Three full-size adults can ride in comfort, an improvement over the previous generation X3. Unlike some midsize crossover, a third row of seats is not offered. Storage capacity behind the back seat is among the largest in the class.

On the road, the X3 was a pleasure to drive. Visibility was great because of the high driving position and large windows. The suspension was a perfect blend of firmness and forgiveness, allowing for both aggressive driving and comfort over broken pavement. The xDrive AWD system works its magic without calling attention to itself, giving us confidence during the unending Spring rainstorms. And the eight-speed automatic transmission shifted up through the gears smoother then most Continuously Variable Transmissions we've tested, while downshifting like a manual transmission for more control while decelerating.

The redesigned X3 has been a hit for BMW. Although it only went on sale in January, 5,710 were sold in the first quarter, up from the 1,355 for the same time last year. At that rate, sales will easily top the 6, 075 units sold in all 2010. After spending a few days with the 2011 X3 xDrive28i, we can see why.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 X3 xDrive28i.

• Manufacturer: BMW.

• Class: Compact crossover.

• Layout: Front engine, all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five passenger, five-door SUV.

• Engines: 3.0-liter inline 6 (240 hp); turbocharged 3.0-liter inline 6 (306 hp.

• Transmission: 8-speed automatic with manual shift mode.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 19/25 (as tested); 17/24 (turbo).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $36,000 ($43,875 as tested).

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