Let's get one thing straight first off; I'm not a big fan of SUVs. They certainly have their purpose, but for pure driving, I'll take a low, agile car any day, no matter the loss of respect on Sheikh Zayed Road. And for those who say they need the extra room, I'll bet a larger saloon with four doors and a big boot will do just fine. Oh, the off-road thing? How many people who own a 4x4 actually take them into the dunes or in the wadis? The only off-roading many of them do is jumping a kerb in the car park.
Having said that, I'm sitting in the new BMW X3, which is a soft-roader, meaning it's like an SUV but with far less off-road capabilities. So what's the appeal? What makes this different from the excellent 3 Series, and why would I want one?
It does have a bit more room - head room, specifically. I could wear a cowboy hat in here, so that's nice. You've got a bit more upright seating position, too, and a better view of the road ahead, without feeling like you're driving an 18-wheeler. Rear passengers will also like the added leg room, and the easy entry and exit. Sure, I can see the appeal of all of this. And, the X3 certainly doesn't give up anything in the luxury you'd expect from a BMW, either; the interior is lined with leather and soft-touch plastics and it has all the mod-cons you'd want in a premium car, including a revised and simplified iDrive infotainment system. It just feels like quality sitting inside, and road noise is kept outside where it belongs.
The rear cargo area is also ample, and you have the option of putting down the second row of seats for more room, too, so you've got 1,600L of space. It's that versatility and utility that's part of the appeal of having an SUV.
But the real appeal for the X3, for me at least, lies in its driving. This is one SUV that can be fun. Its 3.0L, turbocharged inline six cylinder will rocket you like a sports car; with 306hp and, more importantly, 400Nm of torque that comes at just 1,200rpm, this will get up to 100kph in under six seconds. It pulls with a lovely tune from its exhaust pipe and a kick in the seat. The all-wheel drive puts the power down to the ground from an eight-speed transmission that works well, especially in Sport+, which holds gears longer while tightening the suspension and quickening throttle response. You can also flick the paddles yourself but there's not much need.
Just be mindful of that BMW gear shifter on the centre console - it works electronically and you have to push a button to shift into park, which is confusing when we've been trained to just push the lever all the way up.
But at least the handling is a match for all that power - almost. It's tight and keeps the car level in turns, hugging the road like a sports car. And the speed-sensitive steering is a boon for driving, too - in the car park, it's easy to turn, but at higher speeds it tightens up, and you can feel the difference. But you'll also feel the difference in the way it rides compared with a lower saloon - you'll know it's a taller vehicle by the way it bobs slightly in low-speed traffic.
It is really good when it comes to handling, more so than just about any SUV on the road today, but it is still an SUV. And I still wouldn't want a crossover - even though the X3 is just about as close as you can get to combining that saloon driving experience with the utility and added space of an SUV. Now, how close you get to stepping in to one depends on your pay structure: Dh275,000 is an awful lot of cash for a family hauler, and there are plenty of similar cars out there that can be had for much less. If you really want one, though, you might find yourself rewarded on those occasions where you just feel like a good hoon - after you dropped the kids off at school, of course.
Price, base / as tested Dh246,000 / Dh275,000
Engine 3.0L inline six cylinder
Gearbox Eight-speed auto
Power 306hp @ 5,800rpm
Torque 400Nm @ 1,200-1,500
Fuel economy, combined 8.8L/100km