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So I was surprised when I got in the 2017 BMW X3 to find, instead of seven-year-old cabin technology, an up-to-date interface for navigation, stereo and connected car features.
BMW managed to solve the problem bedeviling automakers since consumer electronics entered the dashboard, updating software features outside of traditional vehicle product cycles. Rather than a dated, clunky interface in this X3, circa 2010, I could use quick online destination search and third-party apps, and a full color head-up display.
BMW's smallish SUV, the 2017 X3 slots in between the X1 and X5, naturally, offering reasonably comfortable seating for five and 27.6 cubic feet of cargo space. Drop the rear seats and that space expands to 63.3 cubic feet. The passenger compartment feels roomy, especially with the optional panoramic sunroof, which comes with BMW's $3,200 Premium package.
It's a good-looking little SUV, with BMW's signature kidney grille up front and liquid-smooth sheet metal down the sides. The Mineral Silver Metallic paint on my example really enhanced its curves.
BMW sells the 2017 X3 with four drivelines, denoted sDrive28i, xDrive28i, xDrive35i and the diesel xDrive28d. The "s" model means rear-wheel-drive, while the "x" models come with all-wheel-drive. "28" indicates a 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, and "35" is a 3-liter turbocharged inline six cylinder.
I drove the X3 xDrive28i loaded up with the Premium package, and the $2,750 Technology package, adding navigation, head-up display and an integrated data connection, among other things.
In BMWs from a few years back, the dashboard LCD showed a line-item menu screen for the company's iDrive infotainment system. Here, the 2017 X3 treated me to a row of six icons covering navigation, media, vehicle settings and communications, all accessible using a dial and button pod on the console.
The X3's navigation system used nicely detailed maps with 3D rendered buildings. Making destination entry easy, the system offers a Quick Search option, which let me enter business names or addresses in one box, rather than a tortured search through categories in a points-of-interest database.
For route guidance, I could look to the center LCD or the X3's head-up display, showing which lanes I needed to be in for complex road junctions.
More impressively, the X3's system includes BMW's latest innovation, wireless Apple CarPlay. As with normal CarPlay, the car mirrored some of my iPhone's functions, such as podcasts and navigation, on its LCD. But unlike other CarPlay implementations, it worked over the phone's Bluetooth connection, so I didn't need to plug into the single USB port every time I wanted to use it. Sorry, Android phone users, BMW still doesn't support Android Auto.
BMW's implementation of Yelp and apps for weather, news and local sights in the X3 are just icing on the cake.
The only issue with the X3's dashboard electronics I found was that the processor power doesn't quite keep up with the new software. Most operations worked just fine, but I saw delays when zooming the navigation system's map. I expect the new-generation X3 will fix that issue with a faster processor.
The X3's navigation system and CarPlay integration served me well on a jaunt from San Francisco to the Los Angeles Auto Show and back, helping me find a convenient In-n-Out Burger for lunch, get out on the sand at Pismo Beach, and negotiate Los Angeles' notorious traffic.
For my evaluation of the X3, I set it to Sport mode with the rocker switch on the console and felt this small SUV's throttle become too sensitive for daily use. Setting it to Eco Pro, the instrument cluster rewarded me with a readout of how many extra miles its efficient driving managed, but the weak throttle response felt disappointing.
To end this Goldilocks story, the car's Comfort mode hit the right balance for 99 percent of my time behind the wheel. Beyond that, the X3 defaults to Comfort at ignition, meaning that 99 percent of drivers will just leave it in that mode for all their trips.
In my more than 800 miles with the X3, I was content to drive like a normal person, in Comfort mode.
The X3's 2-liter turbocharged engine, turning all four wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission, manages 240 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. Its idle-stop feature shut down the engine at stop lights, saving some gas in the city, and restarted quickly enough for all but the most impatient drivers.
That engine gave the X3 enough boost for me to get a jump on traffic when the lights turned green. Over hundreds of miles on the freeway, it comfortably maintained ample speed, while offering enough power overhead for me to zip around slower drivers and try to keep ahead of the tractor-trailer rigs before one attempted to pass another.
I was disappointed to only clock an average fuel economy of 23.5 mpg, especially after all the freeway driving. However, the X3 rates 21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway in EPA testing, so I came in about average for its range.
On the freeway, the X3 rode comfortably, its well-tuned steering feeling responsive without being twitchy. However, at low speeds I could feel the electric motor boost on the steering, giving it a slightly rough edge, which could have been better masked.
Taking a cloverleaf at speed, I could feel the X3's excellent balance, a hallmark of BMW cars for many years.
And while the suspension proved pliant over the long haul, letting me spend hours in the seat without a lot of muscle ache, the Goodyear Eagle rubber on the 19-inch rims delivered a jarring crunch going over a pothole. A wider sidewall would help here, but BMW leans towards a more sport-oriented tire.
I can't say I felt the all-wheel-drive system at work when I rolled out onto the beach for a surf-side photo session, but the X3 handled the soft stuff well enough, its wide tires making for good traction. BMW doesn't include any manual differential locking or other control over its all-wheel-drive system, so I just had to trust it was doing its thing.
At this point, you won't find the 2017 X3 mentioned on BMW's website as the company begins promoting the 2018 model. At dealer lots and in the used marketplace, however, the model changeover might mean good deals on the 2017 X3. Given the updated cabin electronics, this X3 conceals its age well.
As a small SUV, it serves quite well. I would like to see better fuel economy, but I don't expect that to change much for the new generation.
The base price of $41,250 for the 2017 X3 is on par with other small, premium SUVs, like the Audi Q5 and Mercedes-Benz GLC, with the Lexus NX undercutting the Germans by a couple grand. The BMW X3 and Audi Q5 in particular run neck-and-neck when it comes to content, technologies and driving character, making it a tough choice between the two.