When BMW introduced its X5 SUV in 1999, I was mesmerized by the experience of driving an SUV that not only looked like a BMW but also performed like one.

That X5 was a vehicle that was out of both my needs and price range, but it had earned one of the “first love” spots in my heart. BMW got this one “right” from the beginning.

When this week’s test car, a BMW X3 compact SUV, hit my driveway, it sparked a déjà vu experience. While earlier versions of the X3 left something to be desired, this new model has grown up and been transformed from a not-so-perfect compact SUV into a swan-like, mid-sized SUV.

That original X5 from 1999 was 183.7 inches long with a 111-inch wheelbase. It was 73.7 inches wide and a bit over 67 inches high. Our “compact” X3 is 183 inches long, has a 110.5-inch wheelbase and is wider (74.1 inches) and shorter (65.4 inches) than that X5.

Gone were the outgoing X3 model’s choppy ride and chintzy (by BMW standards) interior accoutrements. Rear passengers enjoy plenty of legroom. Three can fit in back, but two can ride in style back there with a lowered armrest. The rear seatback is a 40-20-40 configuration and can be lowered as needed for added cargo space. We put one side down to slide in an eight-foot box holding a new Christmas tree.

The ride is thanks to a refined suspension and electronic power steering. However, to be sure, we took a series of rides over my latest local torture track, a quarter-mile section of Hay Street in Newbury, Ma. The X3 proved to be ready for the worst New England will throw at it—at least in on-road situations.

Our X3 was the base xDrive28i model, powered by the tried-and-true BMW 3.0-liter in-line six-cylinder engine mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission and the company’s xDrive all-wheel-drive system. It was a perfect vehicle to have on hand for our Halloween weekend Nor’easter.

The X3 is available with a turbocharged version of the 3.0-liter six, which should be a rocket, if that’s your preference. But we were quite happy with the performance of the lesser version.

It took a while to get used to the throttle response—a bit slow starting off unless you gave it a little extra push. Then the powertrain was in its element with quick shifts and effortless acceleration in all other conditions.

In true BMW engineering style, the automatic transmission downshifts the correct number of gears for smooth power delivery according to the throttle request.

Standard features include stability control with brake drying, braking stand-by, and brake-fade compensation. Also standard were a start-off assist, hill-descent control, and electronic speed-sensitive steering.

The base price is $37,625 (including destination). I’d be happy living with that base vehicle. However, a long list of options run the bottom line to $44,165. They include:


    The sport activity package ($1,550) that adds alloy wheels, sport steering wheel, aluminum satin roof rails, exterior trim package, and sport seats.

    The premium package ($3,450) with Siena wood trim, panoramic moonroof, auto-dimming rearview and side mirrors, lumbar support, a storage package, and enhanced interior lighting.

    A heated steering wheel ($190), keyless entry ($500), heated front seats ($500) and satellite radio with a year’s subscription ($350).

However talented BMW’s engineering staff may be, they still need an IE—Intuitive Engineer—on their staff. Controls remain peculiar to the brand, something that has become second nature to long-time BMW owners, but can be off-putting to newcomers to the marque.

For two days, I refused to believe our X3 had the heated steering wheel the sticker listed as part of its equipment. Reading the owner’s manual was some help, but even the arrow on the controls diagram didn’t really locate the switch, hidden low on the left side of the steering column behind the large lever that adjusts the tilt-and-telescope steering wheel feature.

The push-button start-stop switch is also confusing, leaving the radio and other accessories activated when the engine is stopped. Because the engine was so quiet I once managed to get out of the car and lock the door with the engine still quietly running; only realizing it because the running lights still were on. Likewise, a rain-sensitive feature on the windshield wipers needs to be activated by pushing a button on the end of the stalk.

But these are the things BMW owners know … and smirk when the likes of me works up the learning curve—which is a road worth taking.

2011 BMW X3 xDrive 28i

THE BASICS
Price, base/as tested (with destination): $37,625 / $44,165. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 19 mpg city / 26 mpg highway. Fuel economy, Globe observed: 24.8. Drivetrain: 3.0-liter in-line six-cylinder engine, eight-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel-drive. Body: 5-passenger SUV.

THE SPECIFICS
Horsepower: 240. Torque: 221 lb.-ft. Overall length: 183.0 in. Wheelbase: 110.5 in. Height: 65.4 in. Width: 74.1 in. Curb weight: 4,112 pounds.

THE GOOD: Refined ride and powertrain.

THE BAD: High-priced options, tricky initial throttle response.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The X3 has grown up and can play with the bigger kids on the block.

ALSO CONSIDER: Acura RDX, Audi Q5, Infiniti EX35, Mercedes-Benz GLK 350, Volvo XC60.