Saturday, 8 October 2011

First Ride: 2012 Tesla Model S Beta

Tesla had a big weekend. Some 1,500 Model S hand-raisers and their +1s descended on the company's recently acquired NUMMI plant in Fremont, CA to see where their $5,000 deposits have gone. The event, which served as both a product extravaganza and a subtle reassurance, sought to prove that the Model S is well on its way to production. And part of the program included rides in three Model S betas.

As Tesla was keen to point out, showing off a prototype – even one that's 80-percent complete – is relatively unheard of in the industry. Regardless, the EV upstart invited a handful of journalists to go for a brief spin in the passenger seat of the betas. How brief? Less than five minutes.

So... don't expect to find any mind-blowing revelations, 10/10ths impressions or thorough interior dissections. Here's all you need to know: It drives, it steers, it stops, it's practically – and predictably – silent and the interior tech is enough to make gadget nerds forget about the lack of an iPhone 5.

Of the three betas on hand, two were developed for fine tuning the interior and one was set up for rides. There are currently five betas undergoing testing, all of which were built at a contract plant in Detroit and not at the newly refurbished, ex-Toyota plant in Northern California. That said, an extensive tour of the facility revealed that Tesla is almost completely set up to begin Model S production this January before deliveries begin in the middle of next year. The plant currently employs around 180 people, with that number set to hit 250 by the end of the year and then swell to 500 when at full capacity. All in, 300 to 400 people will handle drivetrain production and by 2013, roughly 1,000 people will work between the powertrain and chassis facilities.

So yes, Tesla can build them. And after spending a few hours around the Fremont plant, much of our skepticism about Tesla's abilities to bring the sedan market were laid to rest. They've pulled in equipment and talent from around the world (Germany in particular) to make a modern, world-class facility. And now we get to sample what they'll be building.

Considering this is a prototype, we're suitably impressed with the fit and finish both inside and out. We're sure that Tesla was sweating the details in the run-up to this past weekend's festivities, and the tight gaps in the body panels and general exterior polish of the betas was proof the Tesla can at least get a handful of sedans ready for the spotlight.

Inside was just as refined, save for a few crudely fashioned, but barely noticeable, bits of trim and a transmission stalk and window switchgear pulled from Mercedes-Benz. The backseat proved to be both comfortable and spacious enough to enjoy a 15-minute presentation on the infotainment system, and while our request to sit in the rear-facing jump seats was denied, we were just pleased to see them included on one of the testers.

On the infotainment front, Tesla is using a 17-inch multitouch display, with a persistent climate control interface at the bottom (good for muscle memory). It's just as massive in person as it is in photos – it's essentially two iPads worth of screen real estate – and provides drivers with Google Maps navigation, streaming Internet radio, local music playback, web browsing (HTML5/Webkit-based) and sunroof controls through an infrared touch system. Just like everything else with the Model S, it's still in prototype form, with a capacitive screen set to replace the IR version and the Linux-based OS and its proprietary user interface skin to receive more tweaks between now and the on sale date next year.

That said, it's largely glitch-free, and you can check out the video below for a full walk around of the system, including the configurable instrument panel behind the steering wheel and iPhone app that keeps track of charging and location, along with the ability to control the EV's climate remotely.
When we initially walked up to the passenger-side door, we tried to push in the flush, chrome door handle as we would open an Aston Martin. Nothing. A second later, the motorized handle slowly protruded from the door. A neat – if superfluous – party piece.

We quietly pulled away from the staging tent as our engineer-turned-chauffeur attempted to shove a fistful of wires behind the panel in the center compartment. "Obviously customers won't see this." Fair enough. Let's get underway.

The first run was through a coned-off section of the receiving bay (not fair to call it an autocross course) where the Model S resisted body roll thanks to a combination of its air suspension and low center of gravity provided by the flat battery pack spanning the passenger compartment. Our driver, who races Lotuses on the weekends, didn't push too hard, but wasn't afraid to mash the pedal as we eerily and rapidly accelerated towards a small, banked high-speed stability course, putting out all 306 pound-feet of torque to the wheels.

When the driver comes off the throttle, the brake regen is far more subtle than in the Roadster, failing to shove us into the seatbelt and doing little to upset the balance of the Model S when slowing in a straight line.

Out on the track inherited from Toyota, we kept a quick pace through the first section of the oval, and then accelerated fully down the back straight, hitting an indicated 103 mph before braking lightly into the next 180-degree bend. After three similar runs, we came away impressed with both the planted sensation afforded by the low CG and elongated wheelbase, the suitably smooth ride and the now-expected, yet still disconcerting, lack of racket inside the cabin. But naturally, until we can get some time off the test track and feel that wheel between our hands, we'll remain skeptically impressed from afar.

Who isn't skeptical? Hundreds of people from the Bay Area, along with hundreds more from across the country and around the world, all of which have put cash down to be one of the few with a Signature Series Model S. Potential buyers flew in from as far away as Tokyo, Denmark and Switzerland to be part of this weekend's event, including one gentleman from Iceland who inked a deal to purchase 100 examples for his car sharing service. Fittingly, he signed the papers on the hood of a Model S beta Saturday night – the same sedan we ran around the track less than 48 hours later.

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

The auto show transition seemed to happen in a flash. One year, automakers were jockeying for dealer traffic with high horsepower, rear-wheel-drive retro rides, and the next year, each one of them ushered in a hybrid or electric vehicle. The paradigm shift was a welcome sight for car buyers wanting to shrink their carbon footprint and save money on fuel, but the majority of those products were years from production. Fast-forward to 2011, and the variety of fuel efficient transportation on offer in the industry has improved quite a bit, including this sleekly styled mid-size offering from Hyundai.

The Sonata Hybrid may have taken longer than expected to hit the market, but its lithium-polymer battery pack and host of fuel-saving features have given Hyundai 35 miles per gallon city and 40 mpg highway fuel economy numbers to flash before consumers. And the Sonata Hybrid isn't battling the competition on fuel economy alone. It also features attractive styling that sharply differentiates it from non-hybrid Sonata models, while also carrying an MSRP thousands of dollars less than the Toyota Camry Hybrid and Ford Fusion Hybrid.

We spent a week with a modestly equipped Sonata Hybrid, but rather than going light on the pedal to gather up as many Eco points as possible, we drove it like we would any mid-sized sedan to see if it could hang with the daily drudgery of suburban life.

Our Hyper Silver Metallic tester carried a very reasonable price tag of $25,930 (plus $720 shipping), and Hyundai kept that MSRP low by adding only floor mats ($100) and an iPod cable ($35) to the options list. Fortunately, the Sonata Hybrid already comes equipped with a boatload of standard features, including a six-speaker sound system with USB and auxiliary inputs, Bluetooth hands-free connectivity, automatic climate control, headlights with LED accents and a 4.2-inch LCD trip computer/hybrid technology display.

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid side view2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid front view2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid rear view

"Hybrid" and "low MSRP" generally don't go hand-in-hand, but the $25,795 base price of the Sonata only strengthens its case. This Hyundai also proves that hybrids don't have to be stodgy pods to achieve mpg bliss. The same Fluidic Design that's been a hit with the Sonata Hybrid's gas-only sibling looks just as good with a 30-kilowatt electric motor under the hood. And Hyundai hasn't simply slap on some Blue Motion badging to differentiate its hybrid offering from the hot-selling standard Sonata.

The biggest adjustment comes in the form of a gaping grille that looks like a whale shark on a plankton feeding frenzy. Further aero improvements come in the form of tweaked bodyside moldings and a more sharply truncated rear end with unique 'atom' element taillamps. In total, exterior engineering adjustments result in a drag coefficient that drops from .28 to an outstanding .25, the same number achieved by the benchmark Toyota Prius.

We dig the fact that the Sonata Hybrid looks quite a bit different than its sibling, and the Bill Nye taillights are something to behold. Heck, even the Blue Motion badging looks cool. For our money, there is one hybrid-only touch that just has to go: the standard 16-inch alloys. We're not sure what Hyundai's designers were going for here (at least beyond aero supremacy), but they ended up with a set of wheels that draws Blade-Runner-meets-Salad-Shooter comparisons. Luckily, Hyundai offers optional 17-inch wheels that look remarkably classier than the ones seen here. Unfortunately, the upsized wheels can only be had as part of the Premium Package, which will set buyers back another $5,000.

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid headlight2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid grille2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid wheel2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid taillight

Nasty wheels aside, the Sonata Hybrid is a looker, and the interior isn't hard on the eyes, either. Hyundai has decided to carry over the same interior from the standard Sonata, save for some Blue Motion badging and the aforementioned 4.2-inch display. That means hybrid buyers get the same spacious cabin flush with attractive curves and soft-touch materials on the dash, doors and center console. Seats are comfortable and appropriately bolstered as well, and the driver's seat is power-adjustable. Another big plus comes in the form of a standard USB port and Bluetooth connectivity that quickly and easily syncs to a Bluetooth-enabled phone. And the 4.2-inch LED screen? It's bright, with easy-to-read graphics and various ways to dissect your driving habits. The Eco bars aren't nearly as interesting as the fanciful tree leaves adorning the display of the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, but a driver's eyes should be focused on the road anyway.

The Sonata Hybrid's interior scores big with overall refinement and standard tech, but we observed a few chinks in its armor. The biggest issues are the rubbery steering wheel and shift knob, which makes an otherwise impressive cabin feel like a trip to the Walmart clearance rack. Adding leather to these items the driver touches most again requires the $5,000 Premium Package. Sure, the Ford Fusion Hybrid starts at $28,600 ($2,670 more than the Sonata), but it at least comes standard with a leather steering wheel and shift knob, plus a bunch of standard features that can only be had with Hyundai's Premium package.

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid interior2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid front seats2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid eco gauge2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid start button

The Sonata Hybrid is powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with 166 horsepower at 6,000 RPM and 154 pound-feet of torque at 4,250 revs. Like other hybrids on the market, the Sonata Hybrid's 2.4-liter engine runs on the more efficient Atkinson cycle, which closes the intake valve late to provide a shorter compression stroke than traditional Otto cycle engines. But unlike many other hybrids that use an electric continuously variable transmission, Hyundai has opted to mate its powertrain to a more conventional six-speed automatic transmission. You'll hear no arguments here, as the transmission did its job well with a smooth operation and reassuring gear selections during our test.

Additionally, Hyundai didn't go with the cheaper, yet tried-and-tested nickel-metal hydride battery pack. Its engineers decided to start with a clean slate, diving feet-first into newer lithium polymer cells for power storage. The end game is a 1.4 kilowatt-hour battery pack that weighs only 96 pounds. The Blue Motion's electric motor isn't as powerful as those found under the hood of the 2012 Camry Hybrid (141 hp) and Fusion Hybrid (106 hp), but the 30 kilowatt motor still manages to generate 40 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque. Combined horsepower figures are 206 hp for the Sonata Hybrid, 200 hp for the Camry Hybrid and 191 for the Fusion Hybrid.

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid engine

Numbers and specs can be fun, but real-world driving is where the Hankook Optimo rubber meets the road. And while the Sonata Hybrid's driving dynamics aren't particularly aggressive, this Sonata's hybrid system is. If you take your foot off the gas at most any speed, the engine turns off in a pinch and the regenerative braking system begins to charge the lithium battery. When the go pedal is handled with care and the speed kept under 70 mph, the electric motor and battery can move the car by themselves, thanks in part to an engine clutch that manages the gas engine and electric motor separately. Even better, the throttle doesn't have to be babied like many other hybrids do, giving the driver more time to enjoy gas-free motoring.

In the past, we'd practice a great deal of restraint when driving a hybrid, because trying to achieve the best possible fuel economy can actually be fun. But for us, the novelty of driving a hybrid in this way goes away after a week – just when the fuel economy game starts to become a bore. For that reason, we took pains to experience the Sonata Hybrid as we would any other mid-size sedan.

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid badge2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid battery pack

As a regular four-door, the Sonata Hybrid is plenty easy to live with. Power is strong off the line when needed, and the integrated starter generator goes about the job of switching the engine on and off without any major drama. The system isn't as smooth as the one under the hood of the Fusion Hybrid, but the tradeoff is that the Blue Drive system appears to be more aggressive when cutting off the power whenever it isn't needed.

The EPA tells us that Sonata Hybrid owners can expect fuel economy numbers of 40 mpg highway and 35 mpg in the city. Our experience with the hybrid Hyundai wasn't quite in the range of those numbers, as we managed 33.5 mpg in mixed driving, which falls below the EPA combined rating of 37 mpg. We weren't all that impressed with those results, and we're thinking that most diesel-powered mid-size entries would eclipse a combined score of 33.5 mpg. In fact, our Jetta TDI long-term fleet vehicle routinely averages more than 40 mpg. And although the Fusion Hybrid costs a bit more and relies on older nickel-metal tech, it still delivers better fuel economy numbers of 41 mpg city and 36 mpg highway. The new 2012 Camry Hybrid promises even better fuel economy, with an estimated 39 mpg highway and 43 mpg city. Just as troubling, in our experience, the standard 2.4-liter gas-only Sonata actually tends to return fuel economy figures above its 24/35 EPA numbers, particularly on the highway, so we have to wonder if the standard Sonata isn't the better overall bet when it comes to return-on-investment.

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid rear 3/4 view

While we were less than impressed with the Sonata Hybrid's fuel thrift, we were pleased with its overall driving dynamics. At 3,578 pounds, the Sonata Hybrid is still light on its feet, with a structurally rigid chassis that doesn't flex at the slightest change of direction. Power delivery is smooth and predictable, with an estimated 0-60 mph time of about nine seconds. The steering is predictably free of hydraulics, yet Hyundai has chosen to dial in a bit more artificial heft than we expected or really want.

The Sonata Hybrid Blue Motion is a solid first foray into the world of mixed propulsion motoring for Hyundai. Would we have liked to see better fuel economy numbers? Absolutely. But there is still something to be said about a hybrid that can deliver good looks, solid fuel economy and a driving experience that isn't fun-free. Not every vehicle in this segment can make such a claim, and none can come within $1,000 of this Hyundai's $25,750 price of entry... at least until the 2012 Camry Hybrid goes on sale starting at $25,900.

2011 VPG Autos MV-1

A round of applause broke out as Marc Buoniconti, former linebacker for The Citadel, ascended the ramp of the very first VPG Autos MV-1 to roll off the assembly line inside AM General's plant near South Bend, Indiana. Buoniconti was rendered a quadriplegic after a gruesome tackle while playing football for his South Carolina alma mater. That was back in 1985 and Buoniconti has been wheelchair-bound for the past 26 years. Since then, he has gone on to start The Buoniconti Fund, the fundraising arm of The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, and been heavily involved in the development of what you see here – the very first purpose-built, OEM-backed vehicle designed specifically to accommodate the needs of the disabled.

The MV-1 is a strange hodgepodge of engineering, but its mission is clear: To offer a mobility solution for the disabled that costs substantially less than aftermarket minivan conversions available today. Right now, VPG says there are some 1.5 million vehicles on the road that have been converted for wheelchair access, all from third-party companies who augment a factory vehicle's chassis and interior at substantial cost. "Aftermarket means afterthought," says Buoniconti, and the team at VPG Autos aims to offer a factory-crafted solution for an otherwise overlooked segment of the automotive landscape.
January of 2009 marked the end of Hummer H2 production at AM General's facility in South Bend, and although the company continues to build and engineer Humvees for military use, the plant was largely unused until VPG Autos stepped in. Now, the facility has the capacity to build approximately 12 MV-1s each day, and soon, production will increase to a 20-unit clip as demand increases.

2011 VPG Autos MV-1 side view2011 VPG Autos MV-1 front view2011 VPG Autos MV-1 rear 3/4 view

The key feature of the MV-1 is its easy wheelchair access, and thus, the entire vehicle has been designed around its side door ramp system. That ramp, supplied by ASC, has a 1,200-pound weight capacity (600 pounds more than the Americans with Disabilities Act requires), and is available with a power rollout function on Deluxe (DE) models. The ramp is housed under the floor of the rear passenger compartment and is easily accessible for all types of wheelchairs. The rear doors offer an opening that's 36 inches wide and 56 inches tall, and inside, one wheelchair can be anchored in the front passenger position, while seating for either three or four passengers can be had in the rear. All in, the MV-1 is capable of carrying up to 6,600 pounds.

To support this sort of weight, the MV-1 uses body-on-frame architecture, with a chassis specifically designed for the application. While it's not exactly pretty, the MV-1 radiates purpose, looking like the strange lovechild of a London taxi and GMC Terrain.

As for interior amenities, the MV-1 is essentially a utility van, so you won't find soft-touch dash materials, nicely grained plastics or any optional high-tech gadgetry. Instead, you have a commanding driving position with a comfortable, air-suspended seat situated behind a steering wheel that appears to have been ripped out of a Lincoln MKS. The instrument panel, gauge cluster, audio and HVAC controls are pure Ford E-Series and the simple driver's compartment is elementary yet well-organized.

2011 VPG Autos MV-1 interior2011 VPG Autos MV-1 interior2011 VPG Autos MV-1 ramp2011 VPG Autos MV-1 rear cargo area

We had the opportunity to briefly drive the MV-1 on the roads near AM General's facility, and as you can imagine, it behaves like almost any other body-on-frame van we've ever spent time in. Power comes from a Ford-sourced 4.6-liter V8 producing 248 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque that's mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. It seems like ancient technology, yes, but it's cheap to source, cheaper to service and gets the job done. A compressed natural gas version is also available, utilizing two tanks situated under the rear seat and offering a 300-mile cruising range. VPG says that the CNG version will return approximately 13.5 miles per gallon (combined), with the gasoline-powered version netting around 15 mpg.

The MV-1 isn't all that unpleasant to steer, though we imagine the experience is vastly different when it's loaded up full of people. Acceleration is perfectly adequate for a vehicle its size and function, and we found key driving components like the steering and brakes to be tuned for ease of use uber alles. Other key drivability factors like general visibility and suspension tuning are also more than acceptable, and although its body-on-frame architecture does give it a truck-like feeling from behind the wheel, it's smooth enough to offer a comfortable ride for passengers in wheelchairs and seats alike.

2011 VPG Autos MV-1 headlight2011 VPG Autos MV-1 grille2011 VPG Autos MV-1 wheel2011 VPG Autos MV-1 taillight

Let's be clear, though – the MV-1 does not allow its wheelchair-bound occupants to drive on their own. Some aftermarket companies have created steering column-mounted hand controls to operate the throttle and brakes, but this is not the case with VPG's creation. Instead, its sole purpose is to allow easy access and maneuverability for folks in wheelchairs that will only ride as passengers.

VPG Autos plans to sell the MV-1 through a wide range of existing new car dealerships across the country, and as of this writing, 41 dealers have currently signed on, with another 15 slated to be added in the coming months. The key to spreading the word about the MV-1 will be what the company executives call "discover marketing" – the vehicle will be taken to places like hospitals and rehabilitation centers for people to check out and the company is largely relying on word of mouth within the disabled community to communicate the advantages of the MV-1.

2011 VPG Autos MV-1 rear 3/4 view

The greatest advantage, however, is the MV-1's price: $39,950 for the base SE and $41,950 for the up-market DE. For comparison's sake, a typical aftermarket conversion costs around $25,000, and when you add that to the cost of a well-equipped minivan like a Dodge Grand Caravan, the price can easily reach $55K or $60K. Even then, going the aftermarket route means you get a vehicle that's been chopped up to accommodate a purpose it was never intended to serve, and VPG Autos includes its own five-year/75,000-mile powertrain warranty. Currently, the MV-1 is already sold out for its first year of production, with initial deliveries taking place as you read this.

"Everything in our lives revolves around transportation," Buoniconti said upon exiting the black MV-1 with VIN #000001 – the vehicle that would soon be delivered to his Florida home. And by offering a mobile solution for tens of thousands of dollars less than an aftermarket upfit job, the folks at VPG, in collaboration with AM General, offer a purpose-built answer to an important question that no other OEM has even been asking.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

2011 Hyundai Equus Ultimate

Our 2011 Hyundai Equus long-termer continues to pile on the miles in the effortless fashion that one expects of a premium sedan. August's main outing was a weeklong stint in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, about 800 miles from Detroit. All-in, the trip accounted for over 2,000 miles, during which the Equus stretched its legs as a capable freeway cruiser and even was pressed into undignified service as a surfboard transport (see above). In case you're wondering, no, an eight-foot rental longboard won't fit in a luxury sedan (not in this or any other we can think of), so you'll be forced to do the shish-ka-windows-and-empty-side-road-creep with the hazard lights on if you don't have any alternatives.

With the exception of a modest bit of track time at Hyundai's Seoul proving grounds in a few prototypes, this was your author's first experience with the Equus. As one might expect, it acquits itself better over-the-road than on the track, delivering a comfortable ride and plush confines in which to while away the miles.

What was surprising for this driver was how much attention our Equus garnered – it's rather innocuously styled, after all. But we hadn't been driving further than our first rest stop when a couple of attractive twenty-something ladies stopped to ask about our car as we got out in the parking lot. "What is it?!" they gushed. "Believe it or not, it's a Hyundai," we answered. Puzzled looks. "Wait... really? Well... it's still really nice, though!" We laughed a little inside and moved on, but their reaction was telling – "It's still really nice, though!" is both a credit to what a pleasant surprise the Equus is for Hyundai, as well as a subtly backhanded ding at the company's "off the radar" standing among many consumers. The same rest area yielded a discussion with a very enthusiastic Genesis sedan owner, and subsequent conversations were held at stoplights with frantic arm-waving Toyota Avalon drivers and more random people in parking lots, including a BMW E60 5 Series owner fed up with his ownership experience. We have to admit, we viewed the Equus as something of a generic knockoff design-wise, but our conversations suggest that the general buying public doesn't feel the same way (or doesn't care).

We do have some nits to pick with our big white whale, however. Others have mentioned this, but it's worth pointing out again – the adjustable lumbar support seems to be in perpetual state of overinflation. No matter how much we tinker with the air bladder controls, it just feels too prominent on our lower backs. It's so uncomfortable that it's led to both your author and Editor-In-Chief Neff to ponder drastic, pin-shaped countermeasures. We wouldn't, of course, but it's still bothersome. The best solution for long-distance comfort seems to be extending the bottom cushion a bit longer than we normally might, as this somehow alleviates the stress.

Otherwise, the interior offers plenty of amenities and creature comforts, though the controls, finishes and design aesthetic lack the same sort of aura of refinement as rivals. Overall, our Equus Ultimate succeeds at feeling like a great value, but stops short of feeling like a great full-size luxury sedan. That's partially due to the interior and partially due to the 4.6-liter Tau V8. Its 385 horsepower and 333 pound-feet of torque certainly aren't anything to sneeze at, but this is 4,600-pound mass of Korean real estate, and it simply feels adequate. Other media outlets have tested the Equus and found 0-60 times in the mid-to-high six-second range, so it's certainly not slow, but the ECU and transmission tuning makes both off-the-line acceleration and highway passing feel more leisurely than we'd expect. More chutzpah isn't far off, thankfully – the 2012 model is widely expected to adopt the 5.0-liter V8 and eight-speed automatic gearbox recently introduced in the updated Genesis sedan.

Despite sustained higher speeds, traversing Pennsylvania's Alleghany mountains, negotiating a dead-stop traffic jam and a lot of pottering along in beach traffic, we averaged a solid 21 miles per gallon, smack in the middle of the 18/22 city/highway mix the EPA predicts. During that stint, we saw sustained freeway running with indicated mpgs in the mid-to-upper 20s without even trying, suggesting that it's likely quite easy to beat the Equus' official fuel economy estimates if you take it easier than we did.

2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i

Despite enchanting few critics along the way, the all-new 2011 BMW X3 has been helping its German parent clean up on the sales charts.

Like the rest of the premium crossover segment, the X3 has been viewed by some brand diehards as a blatant cash-grab. The starting price might be easy enough to swallow, but start ticking the option boxes and the sticker swells to a size more startling than the first time you heard your mother drop an F-bomb. Despite this, we wanted to see if the 2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i could break through the enthusiast's wall of prejudice. As you'd expect, it's a mixed bag.

The 2011 BMW X3 is roughly the same size as the original X5. The 110.6-inch wheelbase is essentially unchanged, but there's now three more inches of overall length for an even 183 inches from tip-to-tail. The styling uses that new room to stretch, and the dynamically straked profile makes the increase look like at least double that.

Clamping the stubby, original X3 in a taffy pull and giving it a yank leaves the 2011 X3 looking both familiar and like a part of the modern BMW family. The carefully detailed bodywork plays up its conservative image to good effect. The Bangelized original lines have been matured without radical changes.

2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i side view2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i front view2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i rear view

BMW has also brought the interior of the 2011 BMW X3 up to par with the rest of the range. Like the exterior changes, BMW hasn't gone and reinvented the steering wheel, so the design of the dashboard and door panels does little more than look and feel like a current BMW interior. Materials and fit-and-finish are improvements, though the shifter and spring-loaded blinker stalk are still annoying to use for some. The clean design isn't avant-garde, but it means clear ergonomics, and the eight-way power front seats are fantastically comfortable. Rear seat passengers get a newly liveable area, benefiting the most from the size increase. The latest implementation of iDrive is finely tuned and the standard LCD has crisp graphics, but pales in comparison to the optional 8.8-inch display that's the automotive equivalent of an ostentatious plasma screen.

A benefit of the continued refinement of iDrive is an uncluttered center stack. Our tester was bereft of navigation and the larger screen, so its limited iDrive feature set was particularly easy to navigate. Analog gauges are clear, there are real cupholders and the Sand Beige leather and warm-toned Fineline Sienna wood trim created an inviting atmosphere, especially when paired with the big, airy panoramic moonroof – worth every bit of its $1,350 price tag. Visibility in all directions is not hindered by gigantic pillars and the elevated crossover seating position makes for confidence-bolstering sightlines, too.

2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i interior2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i front seats2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i rear seats2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i rear cargo area

The naturally aspirated inline six-cylinder engine in the X3 xDrive28i is one of the most celebrated engines in the BMW family, even if it is facing internal competition from BMW's new twin-turbocharged 2.0-liter four. Engineering skill is shown off with a composite block of magnesium alloy for light weight, a valvetrain twiddled by Valvetronic and Double VANOS systems that do away with a throttle plate, and other slick, efficiency-boosting technology like Brake-Energy Regeneration. All the whiz-bang results in 240 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque from 3.0 liters, but the issue at hand is how this engine and its attendant eight-speed automatic transmission behave out on the road.

Peak torque plateaus between 2,750 and 4,000 RPM, and the eight-speed transmission does its best to keep the engine in the lip-smackingest meat of the powerband, but not even BMW can overcome the fact that the X3 weighs 4,100 pounds. That's about the same as the original X3, so kudos for keeping weight in check, but it's a heavy load for the available torque to cope with, wide powerband and cornucopia of gear ratios aside.

2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i engine

Ride and handling aims for the storied BMW smooth-and-responsive target but winds up shy of the bullseye. Occasional traces of harshness shake and stir occupants – a trait not likely improved by the Sport Activity Package (X-Line exterior trim, front fascia insert, aluminum satin roof rails, Sports steering wheel, sport seats) and its 18-inch V-Spoke wheels with all-season run-flat tires. At least the package looks spiffy and puts a nice steering wheel in your hands.

Most annoyingly, throttle tip-in is noticeably sluggish. More than once after nosing the X3 out to snag a gap in quick traffic, we found ourselves with an indecisive vehicle and angry oncomings. The throttle doesn't just choke during clutch plays, either – the initial deadness was constantly infuriating. The situation is compounded by the whims of the eight-speed gearbox, which tries to cycle through its cogs too often. We've experienced this same ZF transmission in many other cars – indeed, in many other BMWs – and we don't recall it being so indecisive.

2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i headlight2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i wheel2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i roof rack2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i rear detail

The X3 has gained access to the BMW bag of technowizard tricks through its redesign, and there may be some alchemy in there to improve responsiveness. Dynamic Damping Control adds buttons to the center console that give you the choice of Normal, Sport or Sport + modes. Selecting one of the sport options makes the throttle response more immediate, stiffens the suspension and adjusts the transmission shift points. Variable-ratio steering is another enhancement our X3 didn't have. The standard electromechanical power steering system strives for both efficiency and feel and just achieves the former. By doing its best to avoid using any boost to reduce engine drag, the system unfortunately erases most of the feedback for the driver, too.

But out-and-out driving enthusiasts aren't who the X3 has been created for, even though the XDrive all-wheel-drive system defaults to a rear-drive bias and the available Dynamic Handling Package includes Performance Control, which keeps the torque split rear-drive oriented. This is a vehicle made to appeal to buyers looking for technology, cachet and premium detailing. With that in mind, the details have been sweated, going so far as to include little treats like lighting in the door handles. The interior has an array of storage cubbies and there's a cargo-rail system in back, too. Think of the 2011 BMW X3 as a 3-Series wagon for the non-wagon buyer and you'll have it right. The X3 cedes territory dynamically to be a Sport Activity Vehicle – BMW-ese for "crossover" – but that doesn't seem to bother buyers.

2011 BMW X3 xDrive28i rear 3/4 view

That's good, because the price can scorch. Our test X3 hit the checkout line with a $45,725 price tag with plenty of room to go if you want to drop bigger cash on a smallish vehicle. The model's $36,750 base price is lower than the outgoing 2010 X3 xDrive30i, last year's only model, but it swelled by adding the $3,450 Premium Package, Cold Weather Package for $1,150, and Sport Activity Package for another $1,550. We were enamored with the head-up display that added another $1,300 to the bottom line, but start throwing in the other available goodies like the M Sport, Dynamic Handling and Technology Packages, and you're well into X5 xDrive30i territory. As it is, our little X3 wasn't far from the $47,000-and-change base price of an X5.

Despite its driveline foibles, the 2011 BMW X3 feels like it belongs in the current family of BMW products, and it has the styling and available equipment to attract buyers' attention. The Audi Q5 puts up a particularly good fight to the newfound charms in the X3, and, to a lesser degree, so does a Mercedes-Benz GLK. There are lots of options for your thousands of dollars, but at least now there's a proper modern BMW available in this class.