Cars

Middleweight champs: Buick Enclave, Lexus RX350, BMW X3

Back in 1998, the luxury SUV field was dominated by rebadged upscale versions of full-size behemoths whose price tags were rivaled only by their annual fuel bill. Today, there are almost 25 competitors in the mid-size SUV category, some from companies that barely existed 15 years ago. These three contenders—the Buick Enclave, the Lexus RX350, and the BMW X3— represent entry-level luxury SUVs, all with a different take on what might interest a luxury SUV buyer.

First up, the Buick Enclave. The Enclave made its debut in 2007 as a replacement for the Buick Rendezvous, the better-received cousin of the Pontiac Aztec. The Rendezvous was nice, but luxurious it wasn’t. It’s amazing to look back at that vehicle, which rode off into the sunset in 2006, and compare it to the 2013 Enclave, which has come into it own this year. The Enclave’s exterior has grown better looking every year, but the interior is absolutely amazing. The fine materials and quality leather stitching inside are indications of why Buick has become such a contender in Asia.

Next, the Lexus RX350, a crossover SUV in its third generation of production. It’s been the standardbearer in this category, selling more units than any luxury SUV in America. It also outsells every other Lexus model, by a factor of more than two. Engineers and product planners at Lexus have fully bought into the reality that nobody is taking a vehicle like this off-road, so any pretense of a rugged fourwheeler has disappeared from the RX350. To maximize fuel economy, Lexus deleted the off-road-ready, locking center differential. Instead, they opted for an Active Torque Control all-wheel-drive system that diverts between 50 and 100 percent of engine power to the front wheels, mostly for increased fuel efficiency.

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The BMW X3 is in its second generation, after an initial debut in 2003.The X3 sells well in the United States, but its sales here are dwarfed by the 3-Series and 5-Series sedans, and even the X5 sells in significantly greater volume. First generation X3s were produced in Austria, but with the release of the second generation, production has moved to BMW USA’s factory in Spartanburg, S.C. If there is one idea to take away from the X3, it’s the car’s emphasis on sporty driving characteristics, with its 306 horsepower, turbocharged, inline six-cylinder, eight-speed automatic transmission, wide track, and sophisticated suspension.

All three of these SUVs have a lot to offer, but every one is a standout in its own way. Let’s take a look at where they shine:

Luxury: Buick

In this three-way comparison, Buick takes the crown in the admittedly subjective category of all-out luxury. It’s not just the quality of materials, it’s the details that make the Enclave such a remarkable vehicle. Driving the Enclave at night, you notice a dimly lit band of blue light that surrounds the cockpit, giving you a sense of elevation above the controls. It’s a detail you think is fussy when you see it on a standard features list, but it’s the most pleasant, mood-enhancing accent lighting you’ll find in this category. The Buick also wins with an impressive warranty and a segment-beating six years of roadside assistance.

Price: Lexus

All of the vehicles in this comparison are competitively equipped and priced between $40,000 and $50,000.That’s a lot of scratch for an automobile, but remember that the average price for a new car in 2012 was more than $30,000, so this is hardly a “price is no object” category. As appealing as the Buick is, its $48,000-plus price tag is rather breathtaking in the Premium trim. Thankfully, there are other all-wheel-drive trim levels in the Enclave lineup to reduce the cost. The BMW comes in at a respectable $44,845 with the optional 3.0-liter, twin-scroll turbocharged engine. The title goes to the Lexus, though, with a competitively equipped price of $41,995.

Fuel Economy: BMW

Given all the sportiness the BMW has to offer, it’s surprising to learn that the more performance-oriented 35i trim of the X3 can still deliver the best fuel economy of this group, both in city and highway EPA estimates.The Buick provides 16/22 mpg city/ highway, the Lexus 18/24 mpg, and the BMW 19/26 mpg. You can boost that toasurprising 21/28 mpg by choosing the 28i trim. Of course, you can blow the doors off completely with the hybrid Lexus 450h with 30 mpg city and 28 mpg highway, but that makes it the most expensive vehicle in this comparison by about $85 over the fully equipped Buick.

These three cars are similar sizes, and all compete in the same price class, but each couldn’t be more different from the other. For our money, the BMW makes a compelling argument with performance, handling, and fuel economy, but there’s a lot to be said for any of these competitors.

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