Compact Design

Just as BMW's compact 3 Series ranks below the midsize 5 Series, the five-seat X3 sits in the shadow of the larger X5. The styling clearly says BMW, but it's the multi-paneled look of earlier models and it's beginning to show its age.

At 179.9 inches long, the X3 is slightly shorter than its closest competitor, the Acura RDX. Similarly priced midsize SUVs, like the Lexus RX 350 and Lincoln MKX, are substantially bigger both inside and out. Click here to see how the X3 measures up.

Inside, the X3 masks its compact dimensions well. The driver's seat, which comes with standard eight-way power adjustment, has lots of travel in all directions. Combine that with the telescoping steering wheel and there should be adequate room for drivers of all sizes. Leatherette (vinyl) upholstery is standard. Judging by the sumptuous leather seats in my test car, it's worth the extra cash to get real cowhide. The headrests and side bolsters are well-padded for comfort over extended trips.

Legroom and headroom in the backseat are adequate, though a prominent center hump means passengers can't spread their feet out. The upholstery for the three-seat bench feels much less padded than the stuff up front.

Thanks to the large expanse of side and rear glass, outward visibility is excellent. After a few hours behind the wheel, I had a good feel for where the X3's four corners were. The optional front and rear parking sensors seem like overkill, but they do provide an extra layer of bumper preservation.

The X3's dashboard uses a great many materials. It's a risky gamble, given the chance of ill-fitted seams, but BMW pulls it off; I couldn't find an unsightly gap anywhere. Materials quality is commendable, with soft-touch surfaces extending into the footwells and leather wrapping the armrests.

A few features proved frustrating. The optional navigation system is a bear to use even without BMW's much-maligned iDrive system. The center console box ratchets open and shut in noisy motions sure to awaken sleeping passengers. The auxiliary jack for MP3 players is mounted on the back of the center console, facing the backseat. That makes for a long reach for drivers.

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