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BMW X3 2.0d SE: UK drive

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Conventional, heartland BMWs are the best BMWs. The more easily assimilated dependables - Threes, Fives, the Touring variants of either - express easy brilliance because they feel like a BMW should, and don't try anything too fancy. The most straightforward cars have a coherence to them.

You wouldn't count the old X3 in that group. The middle-sized SUV is just one part of a whole raft of BMWs that don't seem to have core BMW DNA rubber-stamped on every surface; X1, X3, X5 M, X6, X6 M, 5 GT - the list is long, and they all have more than a whiff of trying just a bit too superniching hard.

This X3 is trying to change that. Back in 2003, Jeremy tore the old one apart for the appalling ride, dreadful interior and laughable off-road ability. This new one can't come too soon for BMW. Sales have tailed off as up-to-date rivals have come to market. Up until November 2010, BMW had sold just 655 X3s; Audi managed 4,785 Q5s.

This entirely new one has had a bit of a growth spurt, because the problem with all the niche-busting is that BMW has ended up with a bloated model line-up. The last X3 was the same size as the current X1, and the new X3 is now the same size as the first X5, which also grew.

So, this generation X3 is now 83mm longer and 22mm wider. What that means in real terms is that there's now much more interior room, so it feels spacious from the off, which is good.

And BMW has addressed the quality criticisms. The hard dash plastics are now soft-touch, and everything feels far more robust. The iDrive is now standard, as is leather trim, so the X3 is actually a pleasant place to sit and doesn't feel anywhere near as dated as the old one. It feels very much part of the BMW family inside.

For the time being, the X3 is being offered only with a 2.0-litre diesel - a 3.0-litre turbodiesel (30d) and twin-turbo version of the same 3.0-litre block (35d) will arrive later in 2011 - and anyone wanting a petrol can forget it: there simply aren't enough sales to justify importing them into the UK.

It's worth noting that anyone in a hurry should wait until the bigger engines arrive, because even with 181bhp and 280lb ft, this basic X3 2.0d struggles to overtake anything other than committed dawdlers. From 50mph upwards is tricky - there's not quite enough torque on offer - even though 0-62mph in 8.5secs looks acceptable.

What will please 2.0d customers are fuel economy and CO2 figures of 50.4mpg and 149g/km respectively - comfortably the lowest in the class and only slightly more than the hybrid-powered Lexus RX450h. Just to clarify how good this is, the X3 has permanent four-wheel drive (which increases fuel economy) and weighs 1,715kg. It's extraordinary stuff.

What's even more impressive, and unusual, about the X3 is that the eight-speed automatic gearbox actually lowers CO2 to 147g/km. Put that down to ever-vigilant software more capable of choosing the appropriately efficient ratio than a dog-food brain.

But if it were our money, we wouldn't go for the self-shifter. It's a wonderful gearbox, and is so smooth you never notice any gearchanges, but it makes the engine slightly rough. It's not enough to ruin the entire X3 experience, but a rumble was definitely there.

And it also means you'll save yourself £1,495, which can use to pay for the Variable Damper Control (£910). These electronic dampers improve the ride so much that you'd think a different company made the last-gen X3. Now it's become a relaxing car to drive. The wider track, longer wheelbase and more complex multi-link rear suspension all make the car more stable, which in turn means that BMW can ease off the springs and dampers. It results in a much more comforting cruise.

The VDC system also gives Sport and Sport Plus options - which control everything from steering weight to ride stiffness, to throttle response. But on the winter tyres our X3 sported, there was hardly any discernible difference between the settings. As per usual, leave the car in ‘normal', and you'll be fine for most situations.

On the pure handling side, the new X3 turns in precisely enough, doesn't roll too much, and is all very decently competent. But it is also, if we're to be brutally honest, basically quite dull. Ok, so there would be precisely no point in creating an X3 M, because customers, 40 per cent of whom are women, just aren't after that sort of car in this sector of the market. But a bit more feel through the steering would be welcome for those who enjoy driving. Blame the electric power steering - it's needed to help keep emissions in check (far more efficient than a hydraulic system), but it knocks too much of the feel out.

Mind you, just a smidgen more of BMW's Ultimate Driving Machinery would have been a good way of giving the X3 some sort of USP, because at the moment, it feels just like every other premium soft-roader. And when the Freelander has the whole off-road thing tied down, and the XC60 does safety ploddingly well, the X3 is lacking anything blatantly distinguishing. If the X3 steered more like a traditional BMW, that criticism might be answered. We're not talking anything overly sporty, just a little tweak to make it feel like it shares more than just a badge with an M3.

So, there's nothing particularly wrong with the X3, and it's certainly much happier in its own skin. We spent a long time thinking about what to put in the ‘we don't like' box, and little sprung to mind - it does pretty much everything you could ask of it. But nothing brilliantly. And that's what you want from a BMW: something that sparkles.?It's no longer a niche-filler, but it's also still missing that BMW DNA.

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