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2012 BMW X3 - First Drive (Off Road)

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author photo by Autotrader June 2011

For the past sixty-or-so years, Elkhart Lake's Road America road course has served as a vehicular escape for Chicago-area residents with a penchant for speed – whether behind the wheel of a racecar or just sitting on the grass, watching a race, ingesting a 'brat' and quaffing a brewski. The Wisconsin course – and the adjacent town – are exactly what a motorsports fan might conjure if given a blank slate and a map of Middle America.

That is also BMW's goal for the newest X3 – a vehicular escape for many in Middle America (plus those on the coasts). With its upright architecture, reasonably generous greenhouse and standard all-wheel drive, the X3 not only provides you with a reliable and responsive get-around-town card, but an equally enjoyable get-out-of-town card. And while we wouldn't suggest track days as an optimal use of the X3's talent, for a weekend at the track – perhaps with a racecar in tow – there are few packages better suited to a freeway ramble or in-the-country romp.

At a regional media event, BMW's team brought the new X3 xDrive28i for both on-road and off-road evaluation. And while much has been written regarding the X3's prowess on the asphalt, with improvements to virtually every on-road dynamic, little attention has been paid to its off-road prowess. Land Rover provided a course on the backside of Road America's property for a proper evaluation of off-road attributes, and BMW – along with Land Rover, Jeep and Suzuki – provided vehicles for this down-and-dirty evaluation.

The test X3 was a moderately equipped xDrive28i, with a 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine boasting 240 horsepower. For a fistful of dollars more you can opt for its turbocharged derivative, the xDrive35i, which will lower your 0-60 times from 6.7 seconds in the 28i to 5.5 seconds. With a base price of $36,750 the xDrive28i boasts a wide array of standard features, but as is often the case with luxury vehicles, adding a few options can quickly distort the window sticker. With the addition of Deep Sea Blue metallic ($550), Cold Weather Package ($1,150), Premium Package ($3,450) and a few miscellaneous accoutrements the bottom line was $43,875. And just as 40 miles per gallon seems to be the new 30, so does $40K seem to be the new $30K. Hopefully, trickle-down economics remains a factor in BMW showrooms, as old X5 owners will need something new – and under $60K – to drive.

For off-road evaluation, we took to the dirt, an admittedly less aggressive take on off-roading devised by the Land Rover crew. With a nod to what X3 owners might actually do with their BMW crossover, the Land Rover team devised a route not too dissimilar from what you might encounter on a logging or fire trail. Most of the course was gravel, while some of the course was greasy from the previous day's rain. And given the mandate, approaches and departures were moderate when compared to what the Jeeps were doing, while aggressive when compared to what most owners would do with the family BMW.

Behind the wheel, at a pace of (maybe) five miles per hour, the seating position and visibility constituted a real plus, while the actuation of the automatic transmission was less than intuitive. This writer – for one – can't fathom why something as simple as an automatic transmission can't be understood without referencing an owner's manual. Regardless, we engaged a gear and were off road!

Helped in no small way by its innate balance (both variants of the X3 boast 50:50 weight distribution), when the going got greasy the X3 was eminently predictable in both steering and traction. And its XDrive all-wheel drive system reacts quickly to changes in vehicle dynamics, whether climbing a hill or clinging to rain-softened dirt. We wouldn't want to take it to Moab, but the X3 seems perfectly suited to the sort of adventure people with 47 payments remaining would most often embark on.

With improved on-road composure combined with capable off-road cred, the X3 might not be all things to all people, but it can certainly be many things to most BMW loyalists. In point of fact, a few Spartanburg, S.C. workers – where the X3 is assembled – are counting on it.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
2012 BMW X3 - First Drive (Off Road) - Autotrader