Any BMW, whether it's a sports car, sedan or utility vehicle, has a personality similar to the others. It is aimed at folks who appreciate handling and performance. The midsize X3 sport activity vehicle blends those traits with all-wheel drive and a good-size cargo space.

The X3 is fairly pricey. It starts at $40,225, and the prices of well-equipped models soar well above that, but BMW buyers are generally more interested in the total driving experience than the bottom line.

Although the X3 appears to be considerably smaller than its sibling, the X5, its 110.1-inch wheelbase is only 1 inch shorter. The roof is 1.5 inches lower, and the body is 1 inch narrower and 4 inches shorter than the X5. The interior is 1.5 cubic feet smaller, and total cargo volume is just 2 cubic feet smaller.

Even though BMW calls the X3 a utility vehicle, it drives more like a tall station wagon with extra ground clearance. The heart of the all-wheel-drive system, called xDrive, is a transfer case located behind the transmission. The transfer case always sends more power to the rear wheels than the front. If the rear wheels slip, power is then shifted to the front wheels, using input such as steering wheel angle, wheel speed, brakes and the vehicle's lateral acceleration. The system, which operates in conjunction with the vehicle stability control, works seamlessly and adds needed confidence in bad weather.

The 260-horsepower, 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine is silky smooth, and that smoothness goes a long way toward defining the vehicle. BMW chooses to stick with inline six-cylinder engines because they are inherently smooth. This aluminum/magnesium engine has dual overhead cams and the unique Valvetronic system.

According to BMW, Valvetronic varies valve lift to a far greater degree than other variable-lift systems, so much so that the system replaces the traditional throttle. Engine breathing is controlled entirely by the valves themselves. The engine pulls well at low to medium speeds and positively shouts with joy when you mash the throttle.

Transmission choices include a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic. The test car had the automatic, which is the one that most people will probably choose. The X3 with automatic transmission hits 60 miles per hour in 7.1 seconds.

Driving dynamics are always a BMW priority, and the X3 is designed to be surefooted and stable. BMW realizes that most owners rarely take their vehicles to places that are rougher than country roads. The fully independent suspension is tuned to be tight. Considering the vehicle's height, the X3 takes turns with very little body roll and feels stable on the highway.

The X3's interior is typically BMW. The front seats have excellent support, and large gauges highlight the dash. The optional navigation screen folds into the top of the dash when not in use. A backup camera is not part of the navigation system. BMW's iDrive is not used.

Accessing the cargo area is easy

because the rear seatbacks fold forward, but the bar containing the luggage compartment cover has to be removed. When the bar is in place, a net can be fastened to the roof to keep luggage, or big dogs, separate from the back seat. The cargo net is an excellent safety feature because it keeps luggage from spilling onto passengers in case of an accident.

The cargo floor was long enough to hold my snowblower. It has two tracks for fastening cargo and mounting a bike rack that will hold two bikes inside the vehicle.

It's hard to step out of the vehicle without dragging your pants or long coat across the running boards that are part of the sport activity package. That's a problem when they are dirty.

Front, side and head-protection airbags are standard.


The base price of the test vehicle was $40,225. Options included the premium package, sport activity package, premium sound system, cargo net, Xenon headlights, navigation system and automatic transmission. The sticker price was $49,550.


Four years or 50,000 miles. All routine maintenance is free for four years or 50,000 miles.

2009 BMW X3

Engine: 3.0-liter, 260-hp 6-cyl.

Transmission: automatic

All-wheel drive

Wheelbase: 110.1 inches

Curb weight: 4,068 lbs.

Base price: $40,225

As driven: $49,550

Mpg rating: 17 city, 24 hwy.

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