Crowd Pleaser

Mountain Life
Mountain Life 0304

The call comes at midnight from an old college buddy. At the last minute his boss has offered him the keys to an empty chalet at Okemo, Vt. "There are 10 single women next door," I'm informed. "And new snow yesterday." I pause, weighing my choices. Okemo is a mere four-hour drive away. And as the devil would tempt, I have BMW's new X3 compact SUV to get me there. Of course, I also have prior commitments this weekend. But fresh powder?

By 4:30 a.m., I'm racing into the early-morning darkness, chasing the first streaks of dawn. My path is north, out of the city of New York and toward the crystal airs of Okemo. Added bonus to the early hour: State troopers tend to be roosting at the local coffee spot. Soon my xenon lights are picking up the steam rising off the asphalt on I-787 north. The directional headlights (optional) swivel left and right as the car corners. The windshield wipers kick in when they sense moisture. Nifty stuff.

I stop for coffee and confront my "packing job"-a mountain of skis, poles, boots, CD cases, mismatched gloves and hiking boots. With the seats down, the X3 has 71 cubic feet of cargo space. But finding a CD in there is too much work. I forgo road music.

This is the first chance I've had to stretch the X3's six-cylinder legs. The masters of Munich took their popular X5 Sports "Activity" Vehicle (as they insist on calling it) and honey-I-shrunked-it, lopping off three inches in length and 10 to 20 grand in price. The X3 is built on the same platform as the über-popular 3 Series sedans and comes in two engine versions, a 2.5-liter and a 3.0-liter. Think of it as the farm-boy cousin to the 330xi sedan-a jack-of-all-roads that's easy to park, hauls oodles of stuff and retains BMW's sports chops without being afraid of getting muddy.

My loaner vehicle is the 225-hp, 3.0-liter automatic, instead of the six-speed manual, and I find it just a tad laggardly. I've recently driven the 330xi, which has the same engine but weighs 500 pounds less. The excess flab shows, and I suspect the 2.5-liter, 184-hp version is even slower. Still, I'm judging it by BMW standards. The X3 gets down the road. And it does handle like a 3 Series, sliding along the streets as if on rails. The all-wheel-drive system is overseen by xDrive, the technological superego that senses yaw and reacts by redistributing torque among the wheels. I become aware of this silent guardian when I spill coffee all over myself and veer onto the icy shoulder: The outside tires keep me on a straight line.

Though less aggressively styled than the X5, the X3 shares its general lines while offering nice interpretations of BMW's traditional front grille and rear-quarter windows. In general, it didn't get Chris Bangled (a term inspired by BMW's controversial chief designer). The inside is clean and simple with metal accents. I'm in love with the optional two-section panoramic sunroof, which gives rear passengers as much light as the front and adds a quasi-convertible feel. And there's room to fit five passengers.

Why choose the X3 over the X5? For one, price. The 2.5i is $30,300 and the 3.0i is $36,300; the respective X5 versions are $40,300 and $51,500. The X3 also gets a decent 25 miles per gallon on the highway.

At 10 a.m., I arrive in the village of Ludlow, Vt., all too soon. I follow the directions to an unplowed road, drive over packed snow, and pull up to two side-by-side chalets. Just as I turn off the ignition, the door to the left chalet opens and disgorges a group of women holding cups of coffee and ski gear. I step out, smile, and wave hello, thinking to myself: good call.