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2011 BMW X3 (Michael Bettencourt for The Globe and Mail)
2011 BMW X3 (Michael Bettencourt for The Globe and Mail)

BMW's refreshed X3 is smooth and sleek Add to ...

Despite a harsh ride and cheap-looking interior that suggested a rushed engineering job, the original X3 became a major hit for BMW, paving the way for a slew of competitors in the last few years. Yet the problem with being one of the first, BMW admitted recently, is that the X3 quickly became outdated next to fresher and more modern rivals.

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That will no longer be a problem come January, when the 2011 X3 is to arrive at dealers. The latest model is just about as large as the original X5, now that the X5 has grown to accommodate a third row of seats, and all of a sudden the X3 becomes one of the sleekest-looking, most comfortable and best-performing sport-utes on the market, especially for upwardly mobile folks with growing families, but who still want to occasionally have responsible fun behind the wheel.

The lower and wider looks speak for themselves, while rear seat leg- and cargo room benefit as the X3 becomes one of the largest in the class, growing by about four inches. Production has also moved from Austria to North America, at BMW's Spartanburg, S.C., plant, which also builds X5s and X6s.

The move means that owners will no longer have to pay the 6.1 per cent import duty on vehicles produced in non-NAFTA countries. BMW Canada still hasn't released a price for the 2011 X3, but in the United States, the X3's base price has been cut by more than $2,000 to $37,625 (U.S.), although the more powerful and much better equipped X3 xDrive35i rises by 6 per cent to $41,925. Applying these parameters to Canadian pricing, the X3 28i would be about 38 large to start, or near identical to the American version, and closer to $48,600 for the 35i. BMW Canada will surely look at the Canadian dollar's value before deciding, and perhaps more importantly, what rivals are charging here.

The new X3's insides sure don't suggest any cost-cutting, although BMW only had loaded X3 35i models for us to sample in a day of driving in and around Atlanta, after a visit to the new plant to watch the official opening of the modern new line of the X3. BMW is particularly proud of new greener manufacturing processes put in place for this plant, including the use of more efficient hydrogen-powered forklifts and tuggers instead of electric ones.

Settling into the driver's seat, the X3's interior presents a classic overall BMW design feel, with lots of Teutonic black in its high-quality materials facing the driver, including the nicely shaped steering wheel that just feels right. The contrasting black stitching on the seats' beige leather also added a high quality touch, as did the generous helpings of real wood, more so than the dominating black plastic on the centre dash under the large navigation screen.

Once one looks closer though, the new high-tech features start to appear, literally in some cases. On my first stint behind the wheel in the morning, I had no idea the X3 came with a head-up display until my driving partner mentioned it, since the transparent speed, GPS and stereo info that are ghosted on to the windshield disappear when using polarized sunglasses.

We were unable to make a Bluetooth connection with either his iPhone or my Blackberry Torch, despite repeated tries on our European-spec X3, so we couldn't test the X3's ability to read out texts or e-mail messages to the driver, which will be a major plus to busy execs who spend a lot of time on the road. An accessory cable connected to the iPhone managed to extract music, allowing play lists and albums to be sifted through and chosen using the steering wheel controls, but again, no Bluetooth connection meant no wireless music or hands-free talking from your smartphone, save for good old speakerphone.

Once under way, the X3's stop/start system starts cutting the engine at red lights a few minutes after getting under way, helping to save gas in heavy traffic, although there's a switch for those times when you'd rather not have the constant starting and restarting. Such as when an officer pulls you over, as BMW warned us, where the sound of a restarting engine if you happen to lift your foot off the brake may cause unneeded angst on both sides.

The three-litre inline-six engines are the same ones found in BMW's 3-Series and 5-Series models, in turbo and non-turbo forms for the X3 35i and 28i respectively. The eight-speed automatic really helps move forward its fuel economy as well as subjective performance - the 35i's paddle shifters allowing the driver a bit more welcome control on an empty, twisty road.

Yet perhaps the most impressive aspect of the X3 is its suspension, especially with the optional Driving Dynamics Control system that allows the driver to choose between Normal, Sport and Sport+ modes. All are appreciably different to the tush, while also raising the responsiveness of the steering and revs on the engine, creating three distinct personalities to match different drivers or moods.

All in all, the latest X3 is a large, comfortable and sporting machine that now challenges the best in class. But it would be even more tempting of BMW didn't have such a practical and fine handling all-wheel drive 3-Series wagon in the lineup, though it doesn't benefit from all the latest technology.

2011 BMW X3 xDrive35i

Type: Mid-size luxury five-seat crossover/SUV

Base price: (estimated) $48,600

Engine: 3.0-litre, turbo, inline-six

Horsepower/torque: 300 hp/300 lb-ft

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with shift paddles

Drive: All-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.2 city/7.4 highway; premium gas

Alternatives: Acura RDX, Audi Q5, Cadillac SRX, Infiniti EX35, Lexus RX 350, Mercedes-Benz GLK

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