When it comes to embodying brand values, BMW's X3 is the proverbial 97-pound weakling. Among its brawny Bavarian relatives this SUV stands out for lack of both dynamic prowess and fashion sense. Rough-riding, slow-steering and with an outdated interior, it's possibly the least convincing BMW of the last decade. Now, keen to prove the current X3 was but a temporary aberration, BMW has previewed the next-gen model well ahead of its early 2011 arrival in US showrooms.

In the countryside southeast of Munich this week, BMW assembled a small group of pre-production X3s for a quick-fire evaluation by select international media. During a morning of driving the protos on asphalt and gravel roads, the improvements showed through the heavy camouflage, inside and out. With new-found suppleness to its suspension set-up, greater agility, stronger performance, reduced thirst and expanded roominess, the new X3 feels much more like something conceived in Munich should.

Conception is one thing, birthplace is another. The new X3 is to be built only at BMW's Spartanburg, South Carolina, plant. That may sound strange but then the current model isn't truly German; it rolls out of a Magna Steyr facility in Graz, Austria.

At launch in the US, the X3 will offer a choice between 28i and 35i engines. The first is virtually a carry-over version of the 260-hp naturally aspirated 3.0-liter in-line six of the current model, the second signifies BMW's superb 300-hp turbocharged 3.0-liter in-line six. Both are to be teamed with a ZF-made eight-speed auto transmission and equipped with BMW's xDrive system. All X3s, for all markets in the world, will be equipped with this all-wheel-drive tech, which channels torque variably to the front wheels via an electronically controlled multiplate clutch. A rear-wheel-drive version of the X3 obviously is feasible, but BMW engineers swear that such a variant won't be produced.