Among SUVs and crossovers, the 2007 BMW X3 3.0si looks small. Get up next to it and you can see right over the roof. Lower it and it would pass for a wagon. The hood uses a distinctly sedan design. The X3 always favored refinement over a tough look, even while retaining similar off-road capabilities as most bulky SUVs (which is to say, none).
The X3 doesn't have blazing power, but it's fast enough and handles very well. It does have decent clearance and, with its all-wheel drive system and descent control, should handle wintry conditions. BMW keeps the quality level high inside the cabin, with good fit and finish. Its cabin electronics are quirky and badly in need of an update, as they are vintage 2003, but it has everything from navigation to Bluetooth hands-free cell phone integration. Like all BMWs, it is pricey, and it had better watch out for all the crossover competitors just now coming on to the market.
Test the tech: Urban drive
Because of the size and look of the BMW X3, we felt like it would work well as a city car. We spent a day running errands around the congested streets of San Francisco to test our hypothesis. The difficulties we would face went from finding parking, navigating narrow streets, and avoiding double-parked delivery trucks to dealing with the ever-present traffic.
For our first challenge, we picked up a friend from City College, in the south of San Francisco, and brought her to the city's Civic Center neighborhood, near City Hall. We searched the navigation system's points-of-interest database and found a category for education--so far, so good. The system showed us all the educational institutions within 25 miles. We found two campuses, but neither was the main campus. As a workaround, we told the car to take us to Ocean Avenue, the street on which the campus is located.
The nav system told us to take a quick freeway run to zip through the city. As we approached the on-ramp we gunned it to get ahead of the cars also entering the freeway on the next lane over. The X3 responded well, bounding up the on-ramp to the point where we had to merge with a solid line of cars on the freeway. Relying on the blinkers and some shouldering, we created a gap we could fit the X3 into. The X3's model age is apparent with its simple blinker switch, unlike the newer soft-touch switches on other BMWs. Although the X3 isn't a big car, its maneuverability helped in merging, as we could quickly take advantage of a gap in traffic.
After that task, we took the X3 to a small shopping complex, where we had to negotiate the paint-scraping pillars of a parking garage. Again, the size of the car helped us get into a space with only a couple of adjustments, helped further by the park distance control, which sounds off when it detects obstructions to the front and rear.
Whether sitting in traffic or careening down winding, hilly streets, the X3 proved a comfortable and capable car for our urban run. During the slow parts, we rocked out to the stereo, which produces a powerful sound with solid bass. The hands-free cell phone system let us easily make calls to coordinate meet-ups, and the navigation system made sure we didn't get lost, although we should have used it for the run from City College to Civic Center.
In the cabin
The cabin tech in the BMW X3, similar to what we saw in the BMW Z4 M Coupe, is a generation old. The navigation system uses the same type of pop-up screen and controls as the M Coupe. The screen offers decent resolution, but the positioning, on top of the dash, isn't great, as it's subject to glare. But even with a massive panoramic sunroof, the glare wasn't as bad in the X3 as in the M Coupe, probably due to a less-raked windshield.
The navigation system works well enough, but is fairly basic by today's standards. You can select destinations by address, points of interest, or from the map, which the minimal controls make tedious. Route guidance is adequate, although you don't get an upcoming-turns list. When the system is in full-screen mode, it won't show graphics for upcoming turns, either. You have to keep it in split-screen mode for useful route guidance. But we do like the look of the maps, and find it interesting that the system shows your GPS coordinates and altitude.
Our test car came with the premium sound option, producing BMW's characteristically strong audio. In the BMW X3, the speakers produce very rich bass and an overall heavy sound. The equalizer allows for a lot of tweaking and we liked the clarity and separation of the system. It might not be as good as some of the really crazy audio systems, but it's far better than average.