By ANN M. JOB
For The Associated Press
(AP) - The 2012 BMW X3 is a handsome, compact crossover sport utility vehicle that stands out from the pack because of its honest-to-goodness, sports car-like handling, strong turbo power and premium interior.
The X3 also is a recommended buy of Consumer Reports, where the five-passenger, five-door vehicle rates above average in reliability.
Buyers, though, pay a price for this smallest of BMW SUVs.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for an X3 xDrive28i with all-wheel drive and 240-horsepower, naturally aspirated, inline six cylinder and eight-speed automatic transmission is $37,995.
The upper level 2012 X3 xDrive35i with all-wheel drive and 300-horsepower, turbocharged, inline six cylinder and eight-speed automatic has a starting retail price of $43,595.
But the competing, 2012 Mercedes-Benz GLK, which has a non-turbo 268-horsepower V-6 under the hood mated to a seven-speed automatic, starts at $36,755 with two-wheel drive and $38,755 with all-wheel drive.
Meantime, the 2012 Audi Q5 SUV, with 211-horsepower, turbocharged four cylinder mated to an eight-speed transmission, starts at $36,475 with all-wheel drive. The 2012 Q5 with all-wheel drive and 270-horsepower, naturally aspirated V-6 starts at $43,875.
Coming off a major new-generation change for the 2011 model year, the X3 doesn't have major changes for 2012.
Nonetheless, its U.S. sales rose 12 percent to 11,592 in the first five months of this calendar year. In fact, X3 sales surpassed the Mercedes GLK and Audi Q5 in the United States so far this year.
No one would mistake the 2012 X3 with any brand but BMW. The styling includes BMW's trademark kidney-shaped grille and large-size tires, all dimensionally solid in a compact package offering two rows of seats, and an overall length of 15.25 feet.
The turbo power in the test X3 xDrive35i was palpable even exiting the home garage, thanks to quick throttle response. The SUV zoomed forward, eager to get moving.
And with xDrive _ BMW's name for its all-wheel drive system _ there was no torque steer, which is the unnerving pulling of the steering wheel to one side.
Torque came on quickly with nary any turbo lag. Merging onto a freeway, the X3 tester smoothly got up to highway speed and slotted into an opening between up-to-speed cars.
Better yet, the throttle easily responded to changes in right foot pressure on the accelerator pedal, so the driver didn't need to tap the brakes to slow down. The X3 already slowed a bit when the foot pressure decreased.
It felt like a seamless connection between a driver's desires and the X3's response, and made for comfortable driving.
The X3 torque band is wide and accommodating, with the full 300 foot-pounds coming on at a low 1,300 rpm and available up to 5,000 rpm.
Depending on how aggressively a driver demands power, shifts can be noticeable. And the paddle shifters on the test car _ part of a $1,750 sport activity optional package _ add to the shift sensations as a driver manually selects gears sans clutch pedal.
The eight-speed automatic, with seventh and eighth as basically overdrive gears, is quick to respond, even going from seventh gear down to second without hesitation.
And, it was easy to push driver and passenger heads into the seatbacks as the X3 accelerated from zero to 60 miles an hour in an estimated 5.6 seconds. This is on par with some sporty coupes, such as a current-day Chevrolet Camaro.
Alas, pricey premium gasoline is needed for peak performance in the X3, and it can cost upwards of $65 to fill the 17.7-gallon tank.
Worse, the test car driven with gusto averaged only 17.8 miles per gallon in driving that was 80 percent around town and in the suburbs. This is nowhere near the federal government's fuel economy rating for this model of 19 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway.
It's actually more in line with the 16/21-mpg rating for a Mercedes GLK with larger-displacement V-6 and all-wheel drive.
The poor gas mileage also meant one tankful barely lasted for 315 miles in a vehicle that carried, most of the time, only one or two people and little cargo.
Still, the X3 handled like a sports car _ something that's rare in a taller-riding SUV.
In long sweeping curves, the X3 stayed in its lane and didn't act flustered. On curvy mountain roads, the X3 felt like it had a counterweight that kept weight perfectly balanced. There was no sensation of tippiness and little feeling of weight transfer from one side to the other.