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Click to view road test review picture galleryBMW has its own
  X Factor: it’s called
  xDrive and provides
  four-wheel drive
  traction for BMW’s
  Sport Activity Vehicles
  such as the X3.
  Partner the X3 with
  a 286bhp twin-turboed
  3.0-litre diesel and
  there’s more than
  enough show ’n’ go for
  a Number One hit...”

PROBABLY THE BIGGEST COMPLIMENT WE CAN PAY TO BMW'S X3 is this: During our week-long road test, not once did we think that we were driving around in an SUV — no doubt why BMW calls it a Sport Activity Vehicle as opposed to everybody else's Sport 'Utility' Vehicle. In fact, not only does it feel and drive just like your everyday car, it quickly endears itself to you. When it was time for our test X3 to go back we felt a genuine pang. The good news was that it was replaced by a BMW 120d SE — but that's another road test story.

Externally, the X3, like it's big brother — actually, not that much bigger — the X5, looks suavely off-roaderish. But swing open the door and climb in and it presents another facet of its character: a decidedly luxury car interior. Fire up the engine and drive off and there's still another pleasant surprise, perhaps the best of all. Dynamically the X3's behaviour is categorically more sports saloon than SUV.

To return, for a moment, to the 'not that bigger' comment: inside the X3's cabin there's very nearly as much room as you'll find inside an X5. Four real-world size adults will be supremely comfy with major amounts of space for the tops of their heads, their knees, legs, feet and their elbows.

We tested the six-cylinder, twin-turboed = and deceptively-badged — 3.osd. It is quick — 0-62mph is despatched in just 6.4 seconds and
the top speed an 'autobahn only' 149mph. Hardly surprising, given that its twin-turboed 2,993cc engine produces 286bhp and a quite massive 427lb ft of torque at 1,750rpm. Little wonder that acceleration at any speed is silkily linear. Thankfully the X3 is equipped with BMW's own xDrive full-time 4WD system to keep it on the straight and narrow — and you can feel the benefits round the bends, too!

Not just behind the wheel but everywhere in the premium cabin there's a lot to like. Trim materials exhibit BMW's usual high assembly stan-dards, controls are exactly where you expect to find them and you can take in all the information you need from the clear dials and readouts in a quick glance. The chunky multifunction steering wheel feels very graspable and another major plus is the SatNav's colour screen: it's perfectly positioned and it rotates up out of the centre of the fascia, and it is clearly visible to both the driver and front passenger. Better still, its vertical angle can be adjusted by a nearby switch for optimum clarity. Also handy is the large steering wheel horn boss. It's easy to sound the horn with the heel of your palm, without taking your fingers off the rim. Another nice touch; the front central armrest doesn't cramp the traditional handbrake.

The inviting leather Sports front seats don't just look good. They are excellent to sit in and, in addition to the full range of normal adjust-ments, offer extending under-knee support on both front seats — essential for real long-distance comfort. They are effectively (but not too firmly) bolstered as well as satisfyingly supportive — particularly
for long journeys, when they are more than up to the job of keeping occupants in place as the road begins to twist and turn and the driver fancies exploiting the X3's handling abilities. Wherever you sit, there's
a real feeling of spaciousness. Two can experience real comfort travelling in the rear seats; three is definitely a crowd because the outer two have to give up their wide centre armrest. Nice, too, that the rear windows retract fully into the doors.

Behind the rear seat there's a spacious, regular-shaped and beautifully tailored boot of 480 litres; fold down the 60:40 split rear seats and you can more than triple this to 1,560 litres, albeit with a not quite totally flat load floor. Also fitted to our test car was an amazingly simple
and efficient system of adjustable lashing eyes complete with a tough, elasticated luggage net. There's extra room for oddments beneath the lift-up boot floor while inside the cabin there are numerous storage areas and cubbyholes.

Standard kit is pretty comprehensive and includes four one-shot auto up/down electric windows, heated electric door mirrors, power steer-ing, cruise control, rear parking sensors, climate control, metallic paint, a decent set of alloys, CD player and auto-dipping rear-view mirror, etc.

Back out on the road — open or urban — the X3 always feels in its element. It cruises reassuringly on motorways, eating up the miles with authentic long-distance refinement. Contrary to our expectations and despite running 18-inch alloys wearing 255/45 rubber, the 3.0sd's ride was perfectly acceptable. Grip from the Dunlop SP Sports was also reassuring and, combined with a road-biased chassis and suspension set-up, provides plenty of encouragement to keen drivers wanting to attack the twisty stuff.

When you're driving — the driving position, incidentally, is A1 — it's hard to appreciate you're in a tall vehicle; at least dynamically. Okay, you're always aware of the commanding driving position and the first rate visibility it bestows. But the unassumingly fluid way the X3 handles tricks you into believing you're driving a sports saloon or even a high-riding sports estate. Smooth, wet, dry, muddy — the X3 takes it all in its four-by-four stride. Of course, much of this is down to BMW's xDrive — the all-wheel drive system continuously allocates power between the four wheels for optimum traction.

A DTC (Dynamic Traction Control) button lets the more skilled driver choose a higher threshold of wheel-slip before Dynamic Stability Control comes to the rescue. Intended primarily to help starting off
on loose snow, it also lets the experienced driver play for longer.

BMW's DSC is one of the nicest automotive 'fairy godmothers' you could wish for. Even when you're aware that you've overcooked it or misread the conditions, there are no nasty surprises. Instead, xDrive calmly does everything necessary to get you back on line quickly
and cleanly — often it's finished tidying up before you're even aware there's a problem. The worst penalty is usually an admonishing flicker from the traction control warning light. Ouch!

Dynamic Stability Control also comes with a lot of other safety-orien-ted goodies such as Brake Drying, which helps the discs stay dry in the wet, Brake Standby (which keeps them primed for quicker reactions
in emergency situations) and Brake Fade Compensation. Talking about safety, there's all the usual safety kit, including Hill Descent Control, Trailer Stability Control, ABS, etc, along with a full complement of air-bags.

The standard-fit six-speed Steptronic automatic transmission is great — simply slot it in Drive… and Go. The Steptronic's 'manual' mode means just that — stay in a particular gear as long as you like, manually shifting up (or down) when it suits you. Automatic and manually chosen shifts are smooth and well-judged. If you want to maximise performance and make best use of the very substantial torque, there's always Sport mode.

Adding to the X3's driveability is keen, well-weighted steering that let's the driver make good use of the admirable body control. In fact, given its 1,950kg kerbweight, it has unlooked-for agility and corners cleanly, making it fun behind the wheel. It helps, of course, to have a powerful engine — which the X3 3.0sd most assuredly does have. As you would expect in such a quick car, the brakes are well up to the job and more than capable of scrubbing off speed as quickly as the driver can put
it on. There's reliably solid feel through the pedal and stops are easily regulated, whether it's from high speed or in stop-start rush-hour traffic.

The BMW X3 3.0sd is smart, spacious, desirable, wears the right blue-and-white propeller badge and — de rigeur for a car costing in excess of £37,000 — has 'presence'. Equally important, it's no poseur: with twin-turbo power and four-wheel drive it's undeniably the real thing.
A case, we think, of 'X' hits the spot!

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BMW X3 3.0sd SE | £37,150
Maximum speed: 149mph | 0-62mph: 6.4 seconds
Overall test MPG: 31.3mpg | Power: 286bhp | Torque: 427lb ft

CO2 208g/km | VED Band F £205 | Insurance group 18
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