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BMW melds sports car with SUV

You see them every day: SUVs operated by people who think sitting high behind the wheel of a large vehicle makes them nearly invulnerable, or believe a powerful engine and leather bucket seats mean they are driving a sports car.

The BMW X3 may suit both kinds of drivers.

It is not big (seating four adults comfortably, five in a pinch). It will tow a small boat or a utility trailer -- not a cabin cruiser or big horse trailer. And it is not an off-road monster.

But those are not necessarily negatives. Far too many SUV owners buy vehicles with more capabilities -- and expensive ones -- than they will ever use.

The X3 sits low, so it has stability in corners -- even in hard, sporty corners or fast lane-changes when passing on the highway. And its steering provided instant, accurate feedback, as though you could feel the tires carving at every moment.

Its stablemate, the X5, was the first SUV out of the BMW garage in 2000. It is built with underpinnings from the 5 Series sedans and, as larger SUVs go, it also is quite stable.

Now, with a tweak to the X3 lineup, which was introduced in 2004, BMW has made choosing the X3 ever more simple.

First, the 2.5-liter, I-6 engine is gone. It really was a bit weak, even for a small but fully loaded SUV. Now, the only option is the 3.0i that we tested on Massachusetts highways and New Hampshire hills. At 225 horsepower, this I-6, 3.0-liter engine (a lesser option in the X5) is surprisingly powerful and quick.

Transmissions include either a six-speed manual or, as tested, a five-speed automatic with manual-shift option.

Outside, there is no mistaking this for anything other than a BMW. Unless they are parked side by side, it can be hard to distinguish the X3 from the X5. They both have distinct twin kidney grilles, sharp lower lines, sharper hip lines, and chopped rear ends.

Inside, the X3 is Spartan yet elegant. Seats are broad and supportive. The rear seat folds 60/40 and, with both sides down, a couple cruising the Maine coast on a Sunday afternoon would have plenty of room for antiques or overpriced lobster-trap coffee tables. You can secure your load safely with cargo tie-down points.

Gauges behind the wheel are big and easy to read, though I did find center stack controls for audio and climate to be a bit small and fussy.

The X3 has a standard antilock braking system, and stability control, which monitors wheels and sends power to those with the most traction. Also standard are front, front-side, and front-and-rear curtain air bags. Rear side-impact bags are optional.

The X3 is available in one trim level, with such standard fare as automatic climate control, vinyl upholstery, 17-inch alloy wheels, heated mirrors, and power locks and windows.

Premium, Sport, and Cold Weather packages add such goodies as a leather interior, 18-inch wheels, sport-tuned suspension, heated front seats, navigation system, and rear parking sensors.

The test car had the first two, at $1,800 each, which helped to drive the price up to more than $44,000.

Royal Ford can be reached at ford@globe.com.

2006 BMW X3

THE BASICS
Base price/as tested: $36,800/$44,120
Fuel economy: 20.1 m.p.g. in Globe testing
Annual fuel cost: $2,051 (at $3.171 per gallon, premium, 13,000 miles per year)

THE SPECIFICS
Drivetrain: All-wheel drive
Seating: Five occupants
Horsepower: 225
Torque: 214 lb.-ft.
Overall length: 179.7inches
Wheelbase: 110.1 inches
Height: 66.0 inches
Width: 73.0 inches
Curb weight: 4,023 pounds

THE SKINNY
Nice touch: lots of rear cargo space in a vehicle that does not drive like a truck -- or an SUV.
Annoyance: A luxury car in the $37,000-and-up range that tacks on an extra $475 for special paint? What's that make the regular paint, cheap and dull?
Watch for: more smaller SUVs and crossovers with these carlike features.

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