Nothing marks the passage of time around ec world headquarters in such a permanent manner than the departure of a long-term vehicle. Visitation rights are usually contained within a ten-month to one-year period, and a favorable comparison is watching your child grow in preparation for graduation day.

I first got acquainted with the X3 on a drive home from the House of Blues in Los Angeles, a long, slow, king-snake-crawl of a ride through the heart of Hollywood before hitting the 101 south, which on the best of days and Hollywood nights isn't much of a test of man and machine. It is, however, a useful tool for gauging the visual impact of your new ride.

Eleven months later I was running the Bimmer X-box up in the San Bernardino mountains heading for the annual ec editorial summit, driving through outdoor elements that aptly matched the alpine area in the middle of December.

All of the long termers get passed around to various staffers and each gets to experience the daily commute, the family vacation, the hot date, etc. This also includes extended road trips and time spent at dealerships for normal service and the occasional warranty issue. The one experience we staffers don't get is what our readers-the actual consumers-go through with the same rides. They pay actual money for the privilege of driving these cars, whether it's on lease or with those 48-month coupon books, for what staff members get virtually gratis for a whole year. We all know that living with a car in year number three is a far different trip than the first. In light of this, here's what a couple paying X3 owners had to say.

Andrew is in his mid 20s, goes to school, has a job. The X3 he purchased new from a Southern California BMW dealer was his first new-car purchase. He's had something of a love/hate relationship with it. In his own words:

I shopped around and drove a lot of different cars and SUVs before I made the decision. I really wanted something that would show a little bit more maturity, and honestly I wanted to show that I worked hard for my money and earned it all. Nothing is handed to me, and I was proud to be able to make such a jump. People were impressed and I did get quite a few comments on the car. But the driving is what really set it apart. The X3 is fun, I enjoyed the looks, and the Steptronic transmission adds an element of sportiness to the automatic drive style. I really like the control it has for an SUV and the feel of the full-time all-wheel drive. It has a pretty strong engine that's quiet and I don't mind having to compete for a spot on the congested Interstate 5 freeway. In fact, I would say that the X3 could put a lot of other cars, not just SUVs, to shame.

A problem came up a few months after I purchased the car. After a little bit of rain I noticed the front suspension was making some weird noises, especially when going over bumps. It was loud enough to be heard inside and outside of the car. So I took it in and the dealer told me that they were aware of some possible problems but there was no resolution.

It got worse so I came back. Not being a mechanic, I didn't know what it was, but I was sick of it. The dealership kept the car for a few days and then told me that they were having a hard time finding or hearing anything. So they kept it a few more days. I didn't mind because I had a 330i loaner. I have to give credit to BMW for letting me use a great loaner car. This helped to convince me I was glad I own a BMW.

Eventually they told me that couldn't find the source, that they tried everything: tires, brakes, wheel rotation, whatever else they could think of. If the problem continued I was to bring it right back. That's great, but I don't have two hours each time I bring the car in while they get me a loaner and sign me out. I've learned to bring work or my laptop with me so it's not an entire waste my time. Not to mention that if I do bring it in and I don't have an appointment, I won't have a loaner car reserved so I'd be out of luck.

My other problem is with the iPod interfacing. BMW hypes this amazing feature letting you hardwire your iPod to the car and control it from your steering wheel. What they fail to tell you is that it plugs in somewhere completely unreachable while driving. And control it from the steering wheel? Yeah, volume up and down and track up and down. You want to play a specific album or song? If you have over 2000 songs on your iPod like me, all I can say is good luck. You can't pick a specific song or album, it doesn't show up on the display if you are listening to a song, and if you wanted to try to pick an album up directly off the iPod you can't. Once it's plugged into the connector, the iPod screen freezes and it can only be accessed from the dash or steering wheel. What a complete waste of $350. So all I can do is pick from five playlists and hope I hear a song I wanted to listen to. Or hit the "skip track" buttons over and over again until I find it. I would have been much better off getting a third-party aftermarket device that can do five times as much.

All I think about now is what I should do next. Should I trade the X3 in? Should I buy something else? Is this car I have all that great, have I been ignoring the harsh ride all this time and the not-so-great gas mileage? I guess a few more service dates and a few more loaner cars will reveal what lies ahead.

Karin is in her 30s. Married with a single child and self-employed as a successful realtor, she looks like a fashion ad for X3 hipness. AG jeans, cropped top, boots that would leave an impression if she decided to kick you and the obligatory tattoo. She has owned everything from Porsches to Benzes to a 7-Series banker Bimmer. She rides a Harley when the weather is nice. Her father has an Aston Martin DB9. Any questions? Karin's X3 is used quite a bit for runs to Incline Village at Lake Tahoe.

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