THERE is a touch of Goldilocks about the new BMW X3. The X1 is too small for families with children, the X5 is too big and costly for most people, which means the X3 is ... well, just right.
It still takes at least $62,200 to get into an X3, but it is a vast improvement over the previous model and a realistic alternative to a range of mid-sized prestige SUVs led by the Volvo XC60 and Audi Q5. BMW even believes it will lure some customers who might be shopping for a Mercedes ML.
The revamp of the X3 comes from a back-to-basics assessment of the class and contenders, as well as people's needs. The result is a car that is almost the same size as the original X5 and far more sophisticated than the first X3, including a mechanical package that BMW Australia says is unique and not just a re-work of something from the 3-Series parts bin.
There is no price increase on the X3 starter car and BMW Australia has even cut the price of the petrol-powered model while adding more equipment in both cars. It's a welcome move but one that is being done by a lot of companies in 2011, thanks to the strength of the Australian dollar and the level of competition in showroooms.
Even so, the X3 comes with a premium pricetag - $62,200 for the turbodiesel-powered xDrive20d and $71,900 for the xDrive28i, with the flagship xDrive30d coming later at $74,900.
The good thing is the value is reflected in a car which now has the class and comfort to match the bottom line. BMW has also loaded the X3 with everything from its eight-speed automatic gearbox to a two-way split rear seat, and there is a head-up instrument display available. But the basic X3 misses leather seats, something BMW justifies because it's the same in the Q5.
Every BMW comes loaded with cool stuff and the X3 headlines an impressive iDrive system that now give full Bluetooth functionality and iPod connection. But there is also on-demand ancilliary systems for the engine to cut fuel use, as well as a stop-start system, regenerative braking and low rolling-resistance tyres.
BMW says its X-drive all-wheel drive leads the class thanks to superior electronic controls and that the 2-litre turbodiesel leads the class for fuel efficiency.
The new X3 looks more mature and more imposing. That's partly down to its size, and partly to a move to model it on the original X5. The shape is more X5-ish but also fits well into the current BMW family, with a body that uses a lot of aluminium to come in with a 25- kilo advantage over the previous model.
The cabin is far roomier and classier than before, the back seat has proper adult space, and there is reasonable luggage capacity in the tail end. That's help, though, by the absence of a spare tyre as the X3 uses runflat tyres.
The X3 is a guaranteed five-star performer with everything from impressive ESP stability control and brilliant ABS brakes to a cabin filled with airbags. It's good to see a rear-view camera as standard on a vehicle with such a family focus, although BMW's head-up display is a non-event if you were polarized sunglasses to combat Aussie glare.
Taking the worst first, the ride comfort in the basic X3 is not good. The runflat tyres on the 20d driven by Carsguide turn potholes into thump-bang annoyances and cannot cope with typical Australian secondary road conditions. But that's about all there is on the complaints' list.
The new X3 is plush, comfortable, pretty brisk and definitely a car that's up at the top of its class. The 20d gets along very smartly, provided you switch the transmission to sport, and can also run very quietly and frugally in any conditions. It has all the gear you expect for the price and class, although BMW Australia has typically loaded the press preview cars with a lot of (extra cost) optional equipment.
The 28i is even better, without the runflat unpleasantness and with a truly sweet engine that's both smooth and very responsive on twisty roads. Both X3s sit flat in corners as you expect on a BMW, have lost the nasty pitchy ride of the previous model, and generally feel more like an X5 than the original X3.
So now we are left wondering why the original was so underdone when BMW always had the ability to build a vehicle that could go head-to-head with the XC60 and Q5 and likely come out on top.
What the X3 should always have been.
Price: from $62,200 (xDdrive20d)
Engine: 2-litre turbodiesel, 3-litre inline petrol six
Output: 135kW/380Nm; 190kW/310Nm
Economy: 5.6L/100km, 9.0L/100km
Emissions: 147g/km, 212g/km
Audi Q5 from $63,400 (3/5)
Jeep Grand Cherokee from $45,000 (3/5)
Lexus RX350 from $82,814 (3/5)
Volvo XC60 from $57,150 (3.5/5)